On Viral Videos and Neuroscience: ASMR

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Image from Youtube Channel Fairy Char ASMR

Before going any further with this reading, I recommend to put on headphones, and listen to this video about ASMR.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a ‘low-grade’ euphoria characterized by a pleasant tingling sensation that starts in the head and travels down to the spine, that is triggered by certain acoustic stimuli, for the most part triggered by a whispering voice combined with stimuli such as hair brushing, ear cleaning, or tapping.

Instead of being discovered by the scientific community, contemporary ASMR was first described in a health forum back in October 2007, by the user ‘okaywhatever.’ In a forum post, the user described having experienced a specific sensation since childhood, often triggered by random sounds such as those heard while watching a puppet show or being read a story. Several users replied to the original post with similar experiences to the original poster’s sensations, but the discussion was purely anecdotal and there was no consensus-agreed name nor scientific data to support the claims. Online groups such as ‘The Society of Sensationalists’ founded in December 2008, and ‘The Unnamed Feeling” founded in February 2010, surged in response to this inexplicable feeling. On February 25, 2010, Jennifer Allen creates a Facebook group with the name ASMR–Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, being the first person coining the term ASMR. Soon enough, online communities such as Reddit joined the trend and people from around the world were describing their experiences related to ASMR.

Scientific data on this subject is ambiguous, and it does not affirm nor refute the physical nature of ASMR. Some scientists have compared the effects of ASMR to meditation. However, up to date there is only one paper published about ASMR. In march 2015, Emma Barratt and Dr. Nick Davis from Swansea University published the results of a survey of 500 members of the ‘whispering’ community. According to Davis, the sensations people describe are hard to put in words, which he considers odd because people are usually good at describing bodily sensations. Davis and Barratt looked at whether the ASMR experience is the same, and whether people tend to be triggered by the same things.
The study asked where, when and why people watch videos, whether the content triggering ASMR was consistent, and whether participants felt it had any effect on their mood. Participants reported watching ASMR videos to relax and cope with stress or insomnia. 5% of the individuals reported using ASMR for sexual purposes, which contradicts the common perception of the videos that fetishize ASMR. The researchers observed remarkable consistency across individuals when it comes to triggering content. Whispering worked for the majority of people (69%) accompanied by videos involving personal attention, slow movements and crisp sounds. Davis explains that: “The fact that a huge number of people are triggered by whispering voices suggests that the sensation is related to being intimate with someone in a non-sexual way. Very few people reported a sexual motivation for ASMR, it really is about feeling relaxed or vulnerable with another person.”

Barratt and Davis’ study is merely the beginning of explanation of ASMR, and although they explored ASMR, there is much left to say about the neurophysiology of the phenomenon described by so many people. In May 2013, Bryson Lochte, an undergraduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, wrote a thesis on putative neural correlates of ASMR based on studies at the college’s brain imaging laboratory, supervised by Professor William M. Kelley. The study used fMRI to investigate the effects of ASMR videos on the brain, using 18 participants. Results showed an activation in areas ‘associated with self-referential and empathetic thought,’ mirror neuron system, and somatosensory regions. Although sample size and other logistics of Lochte’s thesis constrain the results of his experiment, it is considered progress and part of a bigger story.

Steven Novella, Director of General Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine wrote a post about ASMR on Nerologica, a blog in which he writes on neuroscience. Novella asks whether the phenomenon is real, and says that ‘in this case, I don’t think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is’. ‘There are a number of people who seem to have independently experienced and described’ it with ‘fairly specific details. In this way ‘…ASMR is similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.’ However, Novella is aware of the lack of scientific evidence of ASMR, and suggests the development of studies involving fMRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation on participants who experience ASMR and those who don’t.

Conducting research on ASMR is inherently difficult, and Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield compares the current state of ASMR research to the development of attitudes toward synesthesia before the 90s, since it was believed to be a myth until there was a way to measure synesthesia in the 1990s. ASMR should be looked with skepticism, but we should also look at it with an open mind, since there is a big community sharing consistent experiences from very specific auditory sounds.

Some ASMR for you…

References

ASMR Triggers – Common ASMR triggers that cause tingles – The ASMR Lab. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from http://www.asmrlab.com/common-asmr-triggers/

Abbruzzese, J. (2015). How YouTubers discovered a human condition no one had talked about before. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from http://mashable.com/2015/01/26/asmr-youtube/#jzObOyw7ukqi

Autonomous sensory meridian response. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_sensory_meridian_response

Barratt, E. L., & Davis, N. J. (2016, March 26). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): A flow-like mental state.

Etchells, P. (2016). ASMR and ‘head orgasms’: What’s the science behind it? | Pete Etchells. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2016/jan/08/asmr-and-head-orgasms-whats-the-science-behind-it

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