Monkey Grooming Study Suggests Humans Aren't the Only ASMR Lovers

Monkey see, monkey... tingle?

A monkey has more in common with a college kid watching ASMR videos than you’d think. As a new study shows, monkeys called Barbary macaques become more chilled out after watching another individual getting groomed, much like ASMR fans who have just experienced Cardi B’s iconic ASMR video. More than just point out a nice similarity between us and our primate relatives, this observation suggests that intimate ASMR experiences might even make both us and macaques nicer.

Devotees of autonomous sensory meridian response videos — characterized by soft, repetitive, and mundane sounds and movements that in some people elicit a highly sought-after scalp frisson — claim that watching the videos makes them feel relaxed and sometimes even a bit tingly. In many of these videos, ASMRtists simulate grooming the viewer in order to elicit that response.

As it happens, the new Proceedings of the Royal Society B study shows that the same can be said for some monkeys. Barbary macaques that watched others involved in a moment of real-life grooming felt more relaxed, even though they weren’t receiving attention directly. The extraordinarily cute videos above and below shows what those moments might have looked like.

University of Kent scientist Juliette M. Berthier and the University of Roehampton’s Stuart Semple, Ph.D., noticed that when individuals observed other members of their species grooming one another, the watchers scratched themselves less and yawned less, which the team interpreted as signs of reduced anxiety.

Furthermore, the observer monkeys were more likely to groom themselves, groom others, or do something nice for another monkey — like embrace, feed, or affectionately touch them — in the 30 minutes after they witnessed others grooming. Berthier and Semple argue this phenomenon shows that “visual contagion” — in which individuals act nicer after observing friendly social interactions — happens in these animals, just as it does for humans.

Shenandoah University professor Craig Richard, Ph.D., who was not involved in the new study, is one of a small handful of scientists seriously studying the neuroscience of ASMR. He tells Inverse that there’s a clear parallel between the Barbary macaques and people who enjoy watching certain types of ASMR videos. In fact, this study’s results made him rethink what kinds of videos and interactions can trigger ASMR.

“The majority of ASMR videos, and the real core of ASMR, is directed at the viewer,” he says. “So ASMR videos, in general, are more of an example of a giver and receiver of a grooming process, rather than an observer.”

In his eyes, this study supports the idea that there could be more to ASMR triggers than simply receiving personal attention. While in the Cardi B ASMR video she directs her attention directly at the viewer, Richard says some people report feeling ASMR only when they watch someone else receive a massage or a haircut.

For example, videos by India’s Baba Sen, sometimes called the Cosmic Barber, show him performing elaborate scalp massage techniques on other people. Many ASMR enthusiasts report that these rituals can trigger the tingling warm feelings of ASMR.

“I didn’t really consider that a great example of ASMR in the past, because him giving his massages and his barber stuff that he does was observational. It wasn’t participatory the way most ASMR videos are,” says Richard. But the macaque study, which suggests participation isn’t necessary for inducing relaxation, is giving him pause.

“But with this study, it kind of gives credence that, yes, people are relaxed,” he says. “That video was viral not just because it was interesting, but because it was relaxing. Some people said they did get ASMR from it.” There are plenty of videos labeled “ASMR” that depict one person grooming another.

Given that the monkeys were motivated to groom each other after watching their neighbors groom, Richard says, it’s possible that humans who are into ASMR are gaining social benefits beyond their own relaxation. It could be driving them to be kind to others.

“Maybe when you turn off that video, you’re likely to turn around and do something positive for someone else,” he says. This idea is supported by the monkey study’s conclusion that the observers were more likely to go groom a friend afterward.

“This made me think, and I hadn’t thought of this before, that maybe watching those ASMR videos causes a physiological change, because oxytocin increases,” Richard says. Relatedly, one hypothesis for the mechanism of ASMR involves the release of serotonin and oxytocin in response to the stimulus, but it hasn’t been verified experimentally. Nonetheless, the abundance of subjective effects observed in the study implies to Richard that something physiological is happening in the monkeys — that maybe could be happening in human ASMR fans as well.

“So maybe you turn off that video in your dorm room and spend time with others,” he proposes. He suspects that this drive could even motivate ASMR enjoyers to become ASMRtists. “No one’s looked at that or even theorized that until I read this paper.”

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