Dr. Amanda Dettmer has her Ph.D. in neuroscience and behavior.
She has been studying the mother-infant bond in rhesus monkeys for over 10 years.
I asked Dr. Dettmer some questions about animal behavior and ASMR.
She did a terrific job of summarizing her knowledge, experiences, and research in primatology and applying it to ASMR.
Dr. Dettmer even suggests some simple experiments that could help to identify the biology of ASMR.
Below are my questions in bold, followed by her replies in italics.
What is the basic biology of attachment and grooming behaviors?
Dr. Dettmer: Not just in nonhuman primates, but in humans too we know that a secure attachment between mother and infant results in reduced cortisol responses to stress for the infant, as well less anxious behaviors during a stressful situation (and reduced likelihood of developing anxiety later in life).
The secure attachment is promoted through behaviors that include close proximity, mutual gazing, and physical touch. In humans we see mothers kissing and caressing their babies, and in monkeys we see mothers groom their infants.
Receiving grooming/touch not only reduces heart rate and cortisol levels in the body, but also increases oxytocin and likely even results in endorphin release, thereby “cementing” the social bond between the two individuals.
What similarities and/or differences do you perceive between non-human primate behavior and ASMR?
Dr. Dettmer: Well, it’s tough to draw any firm conclusions here, because ASMR is defined by the tingly feelings in the head/scalp and the overwhelming feelings of relaxation that result from a trigger.
I do know that I have seen more monkeys than I can count turn into “limp noodles” while being groomed, and most fall asleep for some period of time while being groomed. So, there are at least some similarities with relaxation.
Of course, we’ll never be able to have a monkey tell us if it feels that tingly sensation in its head, but, if other measurable traits are identified with ASMR, then we could start to systematically look for similarities and differences with nonhuman primates.
What are the biological roles of oxytocin and do you see any potential involvement with ASMR?
Dr. Dettmer: Oxytocin is known as the “social hormone” or the “love hormone” for its role in maintaining social bonds between people (and presumably, animals). However, oxytocin has so many roles: it also induces labor and milk letdown, which are crucial functions for survival.
With respect to ASMR, however, I think it’s totally plausible to focus on oxytocin’s role in social bonding: in general, scientific studies have shown that oxytocin levels are enhanced when we are in a romantic relationship, or are even near someone we trust and are close to.
Also, administration of synthetic oxytocin reduces cortisol levels (i.e., reduces “stress” levels), so it’s logical to think that the ASMR response could cause the release of oxytocin, or be caused by the release of oxytocin, particularly in a social context (hearing your loved one’s voice, having your loved one touch/caress you, etc.), and that reduces stress levels, strengthening the social bond.
What do you see as a good experiment to check if oxytocin may be involved in ASMR?
Dr. Dettmer: Well, first of all, I think we should measure oxytocin and cortisol, and endorphins. As it turns out, all of these are measurable in saliva, so the method would be very non-invasive. (Sidebar: the jury is still out as to whether salivary oxytocin reflects central/brain levels because studies have shown mixed results, so that would need to be validated first).
I think a good first experiment would be to compare the biological profiles of people with and without ASMR. You’d take a group of 10-12 people who regularly experience ASMR, and in fact who know how to trigger it, and have them give you a saliva sample at:
- Pre-ASMR/Baseline: 30min BEFORE the onset of ASMR
- Time Zero: immediately prior to the trigger (e.g., a particular sound they like to listen to)
- Post-ASMR: at 15, 30, 60mins AFTER the onset of the ASMR episode to measure the biological responses to the trigger and the length of the response.
You’d also collect the saliva samples at the same time points in people who have never experienced ASMR (or don’t even know what it is). For the control groups, you would probably want to have one non-ASMR group that gets no trigger (i.e., just sits passively for the hour-plus), and one group that gets the same trigger as the ASMR group (to see if there is any biological difference between those who claim to experience ASMR and those who don’t).
Then, you could determine how oxytocin, cortisol, and endorphins might be involved in ASMR episodes, all without invasive collection (like blood samples), which is important when trying to measure stress-related hormones. You want to exclude as many stressful variables as possible.
Do you have any additional thoughts you would like to share about ASMR?
Dr. Dettmer: It’s a fascinating topic, and I’m excited to see that it’s finally getting the scientific attention it deserves.
I would not be surprised if we eventually learn that ASMR is a type of mindfulness or meditation, or at least produces similar biological and psychological states. It would be very interesting to determine if ASMR is sort of a coping mechanism for people who are particularly prone to stress or anxiety.
The primatologist in me also thinks that ASMR, or at least some of the sensations/biological functions that may be co-occuring with it (like extreme relaxation and reduced stress, along with enhanced endorphins) evolved in part to ensure the cementing of social bonds, as strong social relationships are known predictors of survival and reproductive fitness.
Why some individuals experience ASMR and others do not, however, will be a fascinating mystery to unravel.
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