What is ASMR?
Why, it stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, of course! Blog done.
What’s that? You wanted an explanation? Well, then.
ASMR is a static-like tingling feeling that usually starts on the scalp and spreads to the neck and perhaps shoulders, in response to specific sounds or sights like whispering and fingernail tapping.
Not everyone hearing or seeing sounds or sights that trigger ASMR will have this tingly response, and not everyone who has ASMR in response to one sound or sight will have it in response to another. I haven’t been able able to find out what percentage of people have it, possibly because it’s a very new research area: the first psychological research on it [i] was only published in 2015. Nonetheless, it’s quite possible that you, reader, have ASMR. If you’d like to find out, here’s a video with 100 different ASMR-causing stimuli that can help you find out.
ASMR is one of a number of human perceptual oddities including synaesthesia, phantom limbs, and misophonia (all of which I plan to write blogs on in the fullness of time). I have a real soft spot for these perceptual oddities - I have synaesthesia and ASMR myself, so of course I’m curious about them, and in fact my PhD was about synaesthesia.
But how do we know that people who have ASMR aren’t lying about their experiences, though? If you don’t have ASMR, or if you do have ASMR but are sceptical about other people claiming to have ASMR, then the very fact that it’s not part of your own experience of the world can make it difficult to accept that it’s real. Luckily, there are some researchers who’ve been working on this.
One group of researchers [ii] recruited participants who either belonged to an ASMR group on Reddit or had no idea what ASMR was, then played them one audio clips that typically causes ASMR (e.g. whispering, turning pages) and two that didn’t cause ASMR (e.g. finger drumming, piano scales). Some people were told beforehand that the clips caused AMSR, and some were told that the clips prevented ASMR. For people from the Reddit forum, only the ASMR clips caused ASMR, while for the people who didn’t know what ASMR was beforehand, just being told that a clip caused ASMR could cause ASMR, regardless of whether the clip should have caused it or not. The researchers who did this experiment suggested that all ASMR might be a matter of expectation: you experience ASMR because you expect to experience ASMR, first of all because you are told you might experience ASMR, and then, as you become more familiar with ASMR, because you expect to experience ASMR from certain sounds or visuals. However, not everyone agrees with this interpretation of the results [iii].
Academic disagreements are often veeeeery slooooooow, because it can take a long time to get things published in scientific journals. I once read a back-and-forth between two academics that, no joke, lasted ten years. They might still be at it, to be honest.
Maybe we’ll get some more clues if we look at what’s happening in the bodies of people who experience ASMR?
In some ways, ASMR resembles the pleasurable chills that some people can get when they’re listening to music. During musical chills, your autonomic nervous system becomes more active, making you more alert. Your heart rate tends to increase and your skin conductance (how sweaty your skin is, basically) also rises [iv]. In your brain, there’s increased activity in several areas that are associated with pleasure, the same sort of pleasure that you’d get from physically enjoyable things like food, water and sex [v].
ASMR isn’t exactly the same as musical chills. The same brain areas related to pleasure are active, but so are other areas to do with emotion, self-awareness and emotional behaviour [vi]. And while your skin conductance increases as it does in musical chills, your heart rate decreases [vii]. ASMR is clearly a pretty complex experience – it makes us both alert and relaxed, and it’s pleasurable and social. One group of researchers have suggested that it might be similar to the response primates have to grooming [vi].
All of these changes to what’s happening in the body are also pretty strong indicators that ASMR is not just something that people are making up. So now that we’ve got some evidence that ASMR is a real thing - but why should we care that it exists?
I have two reasons: it can help us answer one of the big questions in psychology, and it might be helpful in managing mental health.
The big question
You might remember from my blog on ghosts that one of the fundamental questions of psychology is whether my perception of the world is anything like your perception of the world. The fact that some people have ASMR and some people don’t is a strong argument that not everyone’s experience is alike, even given the same information coming through the senses.
I wrote a little above about how people’s brain activity and bodily reactions are different depending on whether they experience ASMR or not. We can dig a little deeper, looking at something called the default mode network, or DMN. This is a group of different parts of the brain where the cells tend to be active at the same time when we’re at rest – that is, when no information is coming in that would cause the cells to be active. The DMN is quite widely spread across the brain, but is obviously connected together in some way because of this similar activity. However, the strengths of these connections differ from person to person. For example, we know from past research that people with autism, who often have different perceptual experiences from other people (like being more sensitive to noises, smells, and so on [viii]), also have a lower level of activity in the DMN compared to others [ix]. In people with ASMR, there are weaker connections between parts of the DMN associated with attention – which might mean that everyone has ASMR, but that most people are not aware of it because their brains are suppressing the experience [x].
People with ASMR are also different from others in ways that aren’t directly to do with ASMR. For example, they are more open to new experiences [xi], more compassionate and more prone to getting immersed in films, novels and other fiction [xii]. This fits quite nicely with the brain areas that are known to be involved in ASMR – those that are related to pleasure and social interaction. However, we need to be careful with the results from these two studies, because they were all done with people who belonged to ASMR-related internet groups, so the differences between the two groups might not be about ASMR so much as they are about seeking out others who have ASMR.
Mental health and ASMR
Now that we know ASMR is a pleasurable and at least partly relaxing experience, it’s easy to imagine that it might have positive effects on mental health. For people with ASMR, watching ASMR videos is known to lead to more excitement and calmness, as well as less sadness and stress [vii]. We also know that some people use ASMR as a means to manage depression [i]. What’s going on that causes this?
Barratt and Davis [i] say that ASMR might be something like flow, a mental state in which you become so intensely focused on what you are doing that you’re unaware of the passage of time. They also suggest it could function like mindfulness meditation, in which you observe your own thoughts and emotions without judgement – and mindfulness meditation is known to be helpful for some people in managing depression. This fits with research [xiii] showing that people who experience ASMR score higher on mindfulness questionnaires, and in particular the component of mindfulness that is about exploring your own thoughts and emotions in a curious and non-judgemental way. What we don’t know is whether people who experience ASMR are already mindful, whether ASMR experiences help develop mindfulness, or whether mindfulness can cause ASMR.
Back in the days when I was a lecturer, one of my least favourite endings to see in the student essays I marked was, “More research is needed.” Often those students were right, more research was needed, but in my feedback to them I would say that it was important to go beyond that statement to say what research is needed and why. ASMR is clearly something where more research is needed, given that there are perhaps half a dozen published papers about it that I was able to find. So, what else might be useful to know?
The most obvious practical implication of ASMR is the hint that it’s useful for managing mental health, but we don’t know much about it. Several things come to mind immediately here:
What is the exact relationship between ASMR and mindfulness? Does one cause the other or are they linked in a more complex way?
Is ASMR helpful for more mental illnesses than just depression? Anxiety and depression often occur together, so let’s start there, but also consider other kinds of mental illness like schizophrenia.
If ASMR really is helping people manage their mental health, is there a way to give those benefits even to people who don’t get the tingles?
There you have it: more research is needed, and this is what I think it should be about.
[iii] Hostler, T. J., Poerio, G. L., & Blakey, E. (2018). Still more than a feeling: Commentary on Cash et al.,“Expectancy effects in the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” and recommendations for measurement in future ASMR research (No. e27303v1). PeerJ Preprints.
[iv] Grewe, O., Kopiez, R., & Altenmüüller, E. (2009). The chill parameter: Goose bumps and shivers as promising measures in emotion research. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27(1), 61-74.
[v] Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(20), 11818-11823.
[vi] Lochte, B. C., Guillory, S. A., Richard, C. A., & Kelley, W. M. (2018). An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). BioImpacts: BI, 8(4), 295.
[vii] Poerio, G. L., Blakey, E., Hostler, T. J., & Veltri, T. (2018). More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology. PLoS ONE, 13(6), e0196645.
[viii] Jones, R. S., Quigney, C., & Huws, J. C. (2003). First-hand accounts of sensory perceptual experiences in autism: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 28(2), 112-121.
[x] Smith, S. D., Fredborg, B., & Kornelsen, J. (2017). An examination of the default mode network in individuals with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Social Neuroscience, 12(4), 361-365.
[xii] Janik McErlean, A. B., & Banissy, M. J. (2017). Assessing individual variation in personality and empathy traits in self-reported autonomous sensory meridian response. Multisensory Research, 30(6), 601-613.