She wondered why our brains perceive a fake stimulus as a real stimulus.
In particular, she wondered why someone can watch a video of someone pretending to touch their head (e.g., hair salon role-play or facial massage role-play) and then have a relaxing response as if someone actually had touched their head.
This is a great question and I have three possible explanations.
Let’s start by listing which of the five main senses can be, and which can’t be, stimulated directly by a video.
Hearing and sight are the two main senses that can easily be stimulated by a video.
Smell, taste, and touch are the remaining main senses that can’t be directly transmitted and stimulated by a video.
So her question is very interesting because it appears that the sensation of touch is somehow being transmitted and perceived through the sensations of hearing and sight.
There are at least three possibilities to explain this phenomenon.
The first possibility is the simplest. The ASMR being experienced while watching a video that involves simulated touching may actually be due directly to the sounds of the video. So your brain is experiencing ASMR while watching a video of simulated touching, but it is the ASMR trigger sounds of the artist’s voice and touching sounds that are directly stimulating the ASMR.
The second possibility is the involvement of your memory and imagination. Watching a video of simulated touching can be activating memories and/or your imagination of being touched. So just like you can create a sunset in your mind with just your imagination, you can also create the sensation of being touched in your mind – but in this case it is greatly aided by the visuals and sounds of the video.
The third possibility is the most complex. Watching a video of simulated touching, or of someone else being touched, may be activating “mirror neurons” in the brain. This network of neurons subtly recreates an experience in your brain as you watch it. In other words, you are activating a similar set of neurons as the person whom is actually experiencing the action. Your brain is “mirroring” the action it is seeing.
Mirror neurons have been hypothesized to be a key component to learning and empathy. Think of what happens right when you see someone cut their finger – do you also wince in pain at the exact same moment? Your brain subtly registers a smaller version of the pain and stores the experience as a memory that includes to be careful with that sharp item.
A popular demonstration of mirror neurons is known as the rubber hand illusion.
In the rubber hand illusion your real arm is hidden from your view and a fake arm, that looks like it is attached to you, is placed in front of you. The person in front of you touches your real hand (that you can’t see) while touching your fake hand at the same time, giving you the illusion that you are experiencing touch through the fake hand.
Now comes the interesting part.
When the other person hits the “fake hand” with a hammer, you experience a pain in your hand…even though nothing has actually touched your real hand. Your brain has created a “mirror version” of your hand, and it can result in real pain.
Not everyone responds the same to the rubber hand illusion. Some don’t feel any pain, and others feel the pain greatly. The strength of your response may be due to the sensitivity of your network of mirror neurons.
You can see a demonstration of the rubber hand illusion in the first episode of the TV show “Brain Games” (currently available on Netflix). A great program that I highly recommend.
There are some individuals who experience moments similar to the rubber hand illusion in their daily lives. If they see someone else having their arm touched, then they also feel their arm being touched. This is often referred to as “mirror touch synesthesia” because they are translating a visual stimulus to a tactile stimulus. A strong hypothesis for these individuals is that they have a very sensitive network of mirror neurons. And sure enough, these individuals also tend to have very strong empathy.
So which of the three possibilities is the best explanation for why someone experiences ASMR when watching a video of simulated touching or of someone else being touched?
It is probably the combination of all three possibilities. It is the sights and sounds in the video that are direct ASMR triggers, it is the activation of the memory and imagination of being touched, and it is the activation of mirror neurons – which may actually work independently in some cases of direct memories (supported by mirror neuron activation observed in infants).
Are you now wondering what I am wondering?
Are individuals who experience ASMR more likely to respond to the rubber hand illusion than individuals whom don’t experience ASMR?
That would be a terrific research project for someone to do, and may highlight the potential involvement of mirror neurons in the experience of ASMR.
Click HERE to learn more about the TV show “Brain Games”.
Click HERE to learn more about Sue Dorrens, the individual who suggested this post, and her website about ASMR.
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This post brought to you by ASMR University. A site with the mission of increasing the awareness, understanding, and research of the Art and Science of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.