Pete Etchells: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is the technical term for what some call head orgasms, or brain tingles. But what is the state of scientific research behind the sensation?
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a curious phenomenon. Those who experience it often characterise it as a tingling sensation in the back of the head or neck, or another part of the body, in response to some sort of sensory stimulus. That stimulus could be anything, but over the past few years, a subculture has developed around YouTube videos, and their growing popularity was the focus of a video posted on the Guardian this last week. Its well worth a watch, but I couldnt help but feel better would have been a bit more interesting if there had been some scientific background in it. The trouble is, there isnt actually much research on ASMR out there.
To date, merely one research paper has been published on the phenomenon. In March last year, Emma Barratt, a graduate student at Swansea University, and Dr Nick Davis, then a lecturer at the same organization, published the results of a survey of some 500 ASMR enthusiasts. ASMR is interesting to me as a psychologist because its a bit weird says Davis , now at Manchester Metropolitan University. The sensations people describe are quite hard to describe, and thats odd because people are usually quite good at describing bodily sensation. So we wanted to know if everybodys ASMR experience is the same, and of people tend to be triggered by the same sorts of things.
The study asked a range of questions about where, when and why people watch ASMR videos, whether there was any consistency in ASMR-triggering content, as well as whether people felt it had any impact on their mood. There was a remarkable consistency across participants in terms of triggering content whispering worked for the majority of people, followed by videos involving some sort of personal attention, crisp sounds, and slow movements. For the most part, participants reported that they watched ASMR videos for relaxation purposes, or to help them sleep or deal with stress. Merely 5 % of participants reported that they used ASMR media for sexual stimulation, which is counter to a common perception of the videos found online. There are a lot of people who latch onto some ASMR videos involving attractive women and dismiss what we found to be a very nuanced activity as exclusively sexual. Our findings will hopefully dispel that notion, explains Barratt. 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 style. Very few people reported a sexual motivation for ASMR, it really is about feeling relaxed or vulnerable with another person, adds Davis.
But devoted its popularity, why has the psychological research community neglected the sensation up to now? There could be lots of reasons. For one, its an inherently personal, private experience, and perhaps one that hasnt traditionally lent itself to cropping up in conversation all that often. That, coupled with the fact that its a difficult sensation to explain to someone who doesnt experience it, may go some route to explaining why there wasnt even a term to describe it until 2010. Before the online community existed, Ive heard many people who experience ASMR say they thought they were the only ones that experienced it, says Barratt. I think the lack of evidence that ASMR was experienced by such a huge group of people may be why it was overlooked, or written off as an oddly described version of frisson( goosebumps ), in the past, she adds.
Barratt and Davis dont assure their study as a complete tale; instead, its a foot in the door for researchers interested in analyzing the phenomenon. We hope our run will provide a platform for more sophisticated work in the future, but we find it as a starting point, explains Davis. The next step, ideally, is to start are seeking to pin down the physiological basis of the sensation.
I spoke to Dr Emma Blakey, Giulia Poerio, Tom Hostler and Theresa Veltri, who as graduate students at the University of Sheffield, are part of the new generation of ASMR researchers are seeking to do simply that. Theyre currently working on a study that will aim to see whether people who subjectively report the experience of ASMR also make consistent physiological measures for example, changes in heart rate, breathing rate, or skin conductance.
One of our main aims is to try to draw attention to ASMR as a topic worthy( and capable) of scientific research, in the hope that it might galvanise future research efforts, they explain. Of the group, three of them( Emma, Giulia and Tom) experience ASMR, whereas Theresa doesnt. The survey is still in an early stage data collected has just finished but this diversity in experience, they believe, is a critical component to their research. So we starting thinking about how we might first and foremost analyse this phenomenon at the most basic level: what might it take to convince someone who doesnt experience ASMR that it is a genuine and consistent experience for some people? they explain. Theresa doesnt experience ASMR, and has valuable scepticism of the experience. It adds to the diversity of our research group and the questioning of our approach from a non-ASMR perspective, they add.
Given that ASMR is open to misunderstanding and fallacies, a healthy dose of scepticism is important for future research in the area. Anecdotally, the Sheffield group point out that some ASMR enthusiasts use the videos therapeutically, to help with symptoms of insomnia, anxiety or depression. This is echoed in the findings from Barratt and Daviss survey; their data showed that, for people who scored as having moderate to severe depression, 69% reported utilizing ASMR videos to help ease their symptoms, and generally reported a greater improvement in mood than individuals who were not depressed. But these are self-report measures, and further work needs to be done to pinpoint to what magnitude there may be an actual therapeutic effect.
There needs to be a careful balance between skepticism and open-mindedness when investigating ASMR, the Sheffield group say. There is also of course the peril that ASMR videos get picked up by people who might try and use them to market pseudoscience or mental health benefits( without the evidence to subsistence it ), and unwittingly spread misinformation about it, which would of course damage the reputation of any genuine research going on, they add. Weve already started to see cases of this just this week, in an interview with the Daily Mail, ASMR video producer Lauren Ostrowksi Fenton claimed that the sensation are generated by oxytocin, which she refers to as the cuddle hormone, the hug hormone, or the feel-good hormone. Besides the fact that theres simply no evidence that oxytocin is responsible for the sensation, the science behind the claim that oxytocin is a hug hormone is itself extremely weak.
But for the most proportion, the people operating actual research studies on ASMR are optimistic about the future. And it bodes well that the first paper published on the sensation adhered to the principles of open science. Psychology gone through a period of change, where we are looking at how good our methods are, and how reliable and reproducible our findings are, Davis points out. I dont find research in such areas as any different from other fields of psychology. We were very keen to be very open about our run, and we uploaded our complete data set so anyone can check our results, or find new things that we hadnt considered. This sort of openness doesnt solve all the problems in psychology, but we thought it was a good start.
Read more: www.theguardian.com