This is Part 3 of my blog post series on the first peer-reviewed paper about ASMR.
As a refresher, the paper is titled, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state”. It was authored by Emma Barratt and Nick Davis and was published on March 26th, 2015 in the journal PeerJ.
This post is going to focus on the meaning of some of the data, as well as highlight how future studies could build on the helpful foundation provided by the authors of this paper.
This post is mostly for students and researchers looking for ASMR research ideas. Just look for the sections in this post marked “Next steps” for potential ASMR research projects you could do.
Let’s begin by reviewing and understanding the methods and the participants, this will help to keep the overall meaning of the data in an appropriate scope.
The survey questions were specific to ASMR videos.
Meaning: The core method in this paper was an online survey which asked questions about experiences with ASMR videos. This means that the data in this paper is specific to ASMR videos only. This was good because it kept the findings very specific to one of the most popular methods of ASMR stimulation.
Next steps: Future studies that wanted to build on this data could compare video-stimulated ASMR, audio-stimulated ASMR, and real world ASMR. It is likely that the ASMR experiences may be similar for all three stimulation methods, but doing the research study would confirm this and help to identify potential differences.
The survey questions often used the word “tingling” or “tingles.”
Meaning: Within many ASMR communities and within many articles about ASMR, the experience of ASMR is often referred to as the “tingles” or a “tingling sensation.” Many of the survey questions in this study also utilized this common reference term for ASMR. This was probably helpful to the survey participants because a single, global definition of ASMR has not been established yet.
Next steps: Future surveys may want to try quantify what percent of those experiencing ASMR would include “tingling” as a descriptor. This could be done by having a survey question with a large selection of descriptor choices common to ASMR (e.g., tingling, deep relaxation, comfort, euphoria, electrical waves, sleepiness, etc). This can help to create a single, global definition of ASMR that is inclusive of the most common descriptive terms.
The participants were ASMR community members.
Meaning: The survey participants were recruited from ASMR interest groups on Facebook and Reddit. This means that this is a select population that probably experiences ASMR strongly. This was a good decision by the authors because it is an ideal population to quickly and easily learn about the basic characteristics of ASMR.
Next steps: Future studies that wanted to build on this data could recruit people randomly from non-ASMR communities. To prevent recruitment bias, the term “ASMR” may even need to be left out of the study description. Participants would watch ASMR videos and have their reactions surveyed or recorded. This would begin to reveal what percent of the population experience ASMR in response to watching a video intended to stimulate ASMR.
With that general understanding about the methods and the participants, let’s look into the meaning of some of the primary data sets from the paper.
Why did the participants watch ASMR videos?
• 98% “to relax”
• 82% “to help me sleep”
• 70% “to deal with stress”
• 5% “for sexual stimulation”
Meaning: This data was a clear validation of the understanding about ASMR videos circulating within ASMR communities: videos are helpful for relaxation and rarely used for sexual stimulation.
The numerical data matched up with the large scale anecdotes. This means that the data was not surprising to most ASMR community members – which makes sense because data like this is not collected to validate a phenomenon to those within a niche community, but rather to validate it to those outside of the niche community.
Next steps: Future surveys could offer a “select one strongest reason” rather than a “select all reasons that apply” which would probably confirm relaxation as the top reason.
Future surveys could also provide a scaled response to each option, like a Likert scale, so participants could indicate the strength of each reason.
Other future studies could measure the influence of ASMR videos on biological indicators of relaxation and stress like changes to heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, pupil changes, muscle tension, cerebral blood flow, and cerebral electrical activity.
Additionally, future studies could measure the influence of ASMR videos on sleep parameters like time to fall asleep, length of time asleep, REM activity, cerebral activity, perceived quality of sleep, and next day alertness.
Which items triggered tingling sensations for the participants when viewing ASMR videos?
• 75% “whispering”
• 69% “personal attention”
• 64% “crisp sounds”
• 53% “slow movements”
• 36% “repetitive movements”
• 13% “smiling”
• 3% “aeroplane noise”
• 2% “vacuum cleaner noise”
• 2% “laughing”
Meaning: Similar to the prior question, this also validates which specific aspects within many ASMR videos (together or separately) are probably responsible for stimulating ASMR.
A surprising result may be that “smiling” was only selected by 13%. I’ve noticed that smiling is common to many ASMR videos but laughing is not – and both were not popular tingle triggers in this study. This may lend credence to ASMR being more about “caring” and “comfort” than “friendliness” or “companionship”.
All these terms are forms of social bonding, but ASMR may be best stimulated by a sub-category within social bonding that requires a closeness between two individuals that is deeper than having a good time or sharing a laugh.
We smile with strangers at parties, we laugh with strangers in movie theaters, but we rarely allow strangers to comfort or care for us unless they are specialists like clinicians and hairdressers.
Next steps: Future studies could have all participants watch the same video(s), and then ask them which aspects of video(s) were most responsible for triggering tingles.
Even better would be to use the same video with specific triggers removed or added to isolate the influence of specific triggers. This could be done by altering aspects of the same video (e.g., remove audio, remove visual, hide part of screen), or by producing a set of videos with slight differences (e.g., whispering vs not whispering, crisp sounds vs no crisp sounds, slow vs fast movements, gentle sounds vs harsh sounds).
What time of the day did the participants watch ASMR videos?
• 81% “before sleeping”
• 30% “whenever I have spare time”
• 4% “upon waking”
• 2% “mid-morning”
• 2% “mid-day”
Meaning: incorporated into the “Meaning” of the next data set.
Next steps: incorporated into the “Next steps” of the next data set.
Did participants require specific conditions to achieve ASMR?
• 52% “yes”
• 48% “no”
• Open comments: a requirement for quiet and relaxed conditions was the most common comment
Meaning: It seems that half of the respondents require specific conditions and half do not. But the data is hard to interpret because it is unknown if the participants actually tested different conditions or if their usual environment just happens to already be an appropriate environment for experiencing ASMR.
The majority of survey respondents reported watching these videos right before bed (see prior data set)- which is a self-selected environment that is comfortable and relaxing.
The open comments support the interpretation that it is likely that given a variety of conditions to watch ASMR videos, the majority might require or prefer a quiet and relaxed environment.
A quiet and safe environment would fit with the potential understanding that ASMR is triggered by stimuli which are quiet and non-threatening (e.g., whispers, methodical sounds, slow hand movements).
If the assumption that a quiet and safe environment is key to triggering ASMR then it may help to explain why so many initial online responses to ASMR videos are negative. I am referring mostly to the comment section of online articles about ASMR in more mainstream communities and websites. The articles usually have a sample ASMR video and the comments in the article usually say things like, “I just watched that video and it just seemed strange”, or “I clicked play and then someone walked into my office while this attractive woman whispered into the camera – how embarrassing.”
These first time experiences that don’t result in a sensation of ASMR could be explained by the fact that they are sitting upright at their desks, mid-day, under a bright fluorescent light, and reading online articles because their work may be stressing them out. This is a very different environment compared to lying in the quiet, comfortable, and safe environment of your own bed.
Next steps: Future survey questions could ask, “Have you watched ASMR videos at different times of the day and/or in different settings? If so, explain if and how this affected your ASMR experience.”
Even better would be to do this in a controlled environment. Recruit participants to watch the same ASMR video in different environments; dimly lit vs brightly lit, quiet vs loud setting, alone vs in a room with others, sitting up vs lying down, at home vs at work, and other options. Survey their perceptions of the ASMR experience and/or measure biological indicators of relaxation and stress.
The potential requirement of a quiet and stress free environment for experiencing ASMR could be an extra challenge for studies that involve loud and intimidating diagnostic tools like MRI machines. Understanding the importance of the environment and the state of comfort for the participant may be the key to successful ASMR experiments.
At what age did participants first experience “this tingling sensation”?
• 14% At 5 years
• 51% Between 5-10 years
• 9% After 18 years
• Data not given for 10-18 years but ~26% could be inferred to total up to 100%
Meaning: The majority of survey respondents reported that they had their first ASMR experience before the age of 11 years old. This fits with a potential theory that the biological pathways involved with ASMR are present in childhood and perhaps even present in infancy.
The average age in this study was 25 years and YouTube launched in 2005 (10 years ago) so obviously the majority in this survey probably did not experience their initial ASMR experience via YouTube videos. So these initial experiences are probably via real world interactions and/or via television shows (e.g., Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting TV show in the U.S. is often cited as a popular early trigger).
The important interpretation here is that the respondents are indirectly stating that the “tingling sensation” experienced during an ASMR video is not a unique feeling to ASMR videos, but it is similar to other experiences that are probably not YouTube videos. These offers indirect evidence to support that the sensation of ASMR can be triggered via different methods (computer videos, real world, and/or television).
Another interesting question about the data from this question is; why do only half the respondents report having their first ASMR experience in childhood? This could mean several things:
– some individuals do have a unique experience to ASMR videos
– some individuals develop the ability to experience ASMR later in life
– some individuals may have forgotten earlier experiences, OR
– some individuals were not exposed to appropriate triggers in childhood that stimulated ASMR.
ASMR triggers could be tied to culture. Some cultures may encourage or discourage gentle touching and grooming, and of course not all cultures have Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting TV program.
Next steps: Sampling a larger and more diverse population could help to discover if the first experience of ASMR is tied to culture. Survey responses could be correlated to specific countries.
Exposing individuals of different ages to the same ASMR triggers could be a helpful experiment to help identify if there are actually age-specific differences to the type of trigger likely to induce ASMR.
A very ambitious and long term experiment would be to expose one large group of individuals to specific triggers once a year from childhood to adulthood to see if some developed or lost the ability to experience ASMR.
Did the tingling sensation originate in one area of the participant’s bodies?
• 63% “yes” (41% head, 29% shoulders)
• 27% “no”
Meaning: The head was the most common site of origin of the tingling sensation. This makes sense because the sights and sounds of the video will be processed by cranial nerves that carry the information directly to the brain.
What about those participants who had a tingling sensation originate in other parts of their bodies but not their head?
The stimuli from the video would still be initially processed in the brain, but not all sensations that reach the brain are perceived to the point of awareness. For example, although your clothes are constantly touching your skin and sending information to your brain you are not always perceiving that touch as awareness.
The brain is usually very good at only making you aware of strong and/or important sensations. So the data could be accurate that not everyone is perceiving the tingling feeling in their heads, yet the video stimuli could still be having an effect on the individual.
More importantly, this data may hint at the potential sub-groupings of strong responders vs weak responders. Those who have a clear site of origin, especially in the head, may be strong responders. And those who only have a general feeling without a site of origin may be weak responders.
Next steps: Future surveys could incorporate ASMR videos within the survey and then immediately ask after the video concludes where the tingling sensation originated. This should result in more accurate data than relying on memories of the ASMR sensation.
Even better would be the use of clinical instruments to directly measure biological indicators while the individuals watch ASMR videos to pinpoint location and timing of physiological responses.
Additionally, future studies could ask about the overall strength of the ASMR experience or tingling sensation, to see if there are strong responders and weak responders to the same ASMR trigger – which is quite likely. Then the study could try to correlate the strong responders to the origin of sensation or any other recorded data set.
Did any medications affect the experience of tingling at all?
• 112 participants reported using a medication, of these participants:
~92% (103) were unsure of any effect on ASMR
~5% (6) reported no effect on ASMR
~3% (3) reported decreased ASMR due to: “an antidepressant”, “sleeping pills”, and “clonazepam”
Meaning: Over 90% of the 112 participants using medication were unsure if it had any effect on ASMR. This is difficult to interpret but “unsure” may hint more towards most medications not having a significant effect bc an immediate and strong effect is more likely to be memorable. This could be good news but will need to be flushed out by more studies.
Most antidepressants effect several neurotransmitters but may have their therapeutic effect by raising serotonin levels. Clonazepam and the most common sleeping pills work by directly or indirectly enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA.
The three reports of these medications decreasing ASMR may suggest that serotonin and GABA are not initiating or central players in ASMR or else they may have enhanced the tingling or had no effect. But conclusions really can not be drawn from the answers of three participants – there are many potential confounders with a group that small.
Next steps: Future studies should inquire about the specific trade or generic names of each medication so they can be grouped by pharmacology and then analyzed for their potential effect on ASMR experiences.
Did the participants feel that watching ASMR videos had an effect on their mood?
• 80% “yes” (Graph of mood scores shows average effect on mood was positive)
• 6% “no”
• 14% did not select a response
• Data analysis:Those scoring as high risk for depression demonstrated a larger improvement to mood than those scoring as non-depressed. High risk for depression was correlated to faster decrease of effect of ASMR on mood
Meaning: This data set showed that watching ASMR videos boosted the mood of 80% of the participants, and those at high risk for depression had an even greater boost to their mood.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter mostly credited with the mood-lifting therapeutic effect of antidepressants. So this data set supports the potential role of serotonin in ASMR.
This would appear to be in contrast with the prior report of a participant having decreased ASMR while taking an antidepressant. But the data point from one person does not have significant value, especially if it might be in contrast to data from a large group of individuals.
Next steps: Future studies can recruit individuals who are unfamiliar with ASMR and have been diagnosed with depression. The participants can be randomized into several groups; one group would watch ASMR videos and the other groups would serve as controls (e.g., no videos, stressful videos, relaxing non-ASMR-type videos, etc.). Mood changes between the different groups would be compared for significant differences.
Although not well established, direct measurement of biological markers for positive mood and depression would also be helpful.
When asked about mood and tingles experienced:
• 50% reported a change in mood regardless of tingles experienced
• 30% reported a change in mood only when tingles experienced
Meaning: This was a great question to ask. The authors are highlighting these two possibilities:
– some video watchers may be experiencing a low level of ASMR and still getting a mood boost, OR
– some video watchers may not be experiencing ASMR, yet they are still getting a mood boost.
This means that the mood boost may not always be due to an ASMR experience, it could be because the watcher has selected videos they find entertaining for other reasons.
For example, there are intentional and unintentional ASMR videos about video games, hobbies and collections, hot technology, educational information, book readings, arts and crafts, and meditation. And of course, the individuals in these videos may be attractive males or females. Regardless of ASMR stimulation, watching videos about things that interest you or watching videos with people you find interesting can also give a mood boost.
Next steps: Future surveys could also ask a question like “Do you find the ASMR videos you watch to be entertaining?”
Even better would be to have participants watch the same videos and then answer questions about mood. The videos could be selected or produced so there are three types: 1) Entertaining with ASMR triggers, 2) ASMR triggers only, and 3) Entertaining only. I would expect that the ASMR triggers only video and the Entertaining only videos will each show a mood boost, but Entertaining videos with ASMR triggers may show the greatest mood boost – unknown until tested though.
Did the participants suffer from any chronic pain or illness?
• 19% (91) “yes”, of these participants:
~44% (40) feel that watching ASMR videos did not have an effect on their symptoms
~42% (38) feel that watching ASMR videos did have an effect on their symptoms
~14% (13) did not specify
• Data analysis: Chronic illness/pain was reported to be different between the time before ASMR and during ASMR, but was not different between the time during ASMR and after ASMR.
Meaning: About 42% of the participants with a chronic pain or illness felt that watching ASMR videos resulted in a decrease in their symptoms. They reported that the effect lasted for several hours after the ASMR videos ended.
A study published in 2014 showed that music reduced the chronic pain in a group of patients but listening to pink noise did not. The authors provided several potential mechanisms including, 1) the music distracted the patients’ attention away from the pain, and 2) the music stimulated the release of endorphins, a powerful inhibitor of pain signals.
Next steps: Future studies could do more direct studies on the ability of ASMR to reduce pain – but make sure to acquire the approval of a Human Subjects Review Board before starting (which applies to any ASMR research involving humans).
One type of study could have subjects watch ASMR and non-ASMR videos, and then perform the Cold Pressor Test. This test involves subjects holding their hand in ice water until it is painful – it is commonly used in research studies. If ASMR videos increase pain threshold or reduce pain then subjects will be able to hold their hand slightly longer in the ice water.
The next type of study could involve the recruitment of patients with chronic pain and having them watch ASMR and non-ASMR videos. The patients could rate their pain with industry-standard pain scale questionnaires, as well as, have themselves timed while performing moderate activities usually limited by their pain.
Finally, pharmacological studies could try to identify the biological mediator. For example, using naloxone or naltrexone. These drugs block the effects of endorphins, so it would be expected that the administration of these drugs would block the pain-reducing affect of ASMR if it is being mediated by endorphins.
Did the participants have any family members that experience ASMR?
• 80% “unsure/I’ve never asked”
• 12% “no”
• 8% “yes”
Meaning: These results are inconclusive, but the question is very important. It is a safe assumption that the ability to experience ASMR is partially reliant on genes inherited from parents and partially reliant on environmental influences that shaped the expression of those same genes and/or other genes.
In other words, how much of the ability to experience ASMR is nature vs nurture?
If it is mostly nature, then the main determining factors of ASMR are present in our genes from birth. ASMR could be explained by the presence or absence of mutations in specific genes. This would increase the likelihood of ASMR occurring among relatives, regardless if they grew up together.
If it is mostly nurture, then the main determining factors of ASMR happen after we are born. Our diet, environmental toxins, relationships, and emotional events are examples of factors that can alter the expression of the genes we are born with. This would decrease the likelihood of ASMR occurring among relatives, unless they shared very similar environmental influences.
Next steps: Future surveys should continue to ask this question but will be hindered by people not knowing until ASMR becomes much more mainstream.
The perfect starting point is to recruit two groups of identical twins, those raised together and those raised apart. Have all the twins watch ASMR videos and record the results.
If ASMR is mostly nature, then if one twin experiences ASMR, the other twin will also – regardless of which group they are in. If ASMR is mostly nurture, then if one twin experiences ASMR, the other twin will also but only if they had similar environmental influences.
It may be unlikely that you have a twin research center near you, but you can do a somewhat similar study with sibling pairs, parent-child pairs, and/or any mix of family members.
To investigate which genes may be involved in ASMR, collect cheek cell swabs from individuals whom experience ASMR and from a group of individuals whom do not experience ASMR. Isolate the DNA from the cheek cells then analyze it for genetic mutations in genes related to the molecules you think might be involved in the ability to experience ASMR. These could include endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and many others.
If there are a group of mutations common to the group that experiences ASMR but those mutations are not found in the group that does not experience ASMR then you have found a possible biological explanation.
Did the participants have any type of synaesthesia?
• 7.4% (35) “yes”, of these participants:
~83% (29) were assessed to be genuine by follow up interviews
• Data analysis: prevalence of synaesthesia in those who experience ASMR is slightly higher but not significantly higher than prevalence of synaesthesia in the general population.
Meaning: The authors were aware that self-reporting is one of the limitations of online surveys. So they did follow up interviews as a secondary confirmation for traits of synaesthesia.
The prevalence of synaesthesia within their survey population did not end up differing significantly from the prevalence of synaesthesia within the general population.
Synaesthesia is when the sensory perception is a mismatch to the sensory input. For example, a person is giving something to eat but instead of describing the food in taste terms they describe the food as colored shapes.
Synaesthesia has been postulated as a potential explanation for ASMR because it appears that the person is also making a mismatch by translating the sounds and sights of a video into the experience of a light touch.
Next steps: The authors did see a non-significant increase of synaesthesia within their study population, this difference could become significant with a larger study population.
Additionally, individuals confirmed to have synaesthesia could be recruited and compared to individuals without synaesthesia to see if they are more likely to experience ASMR.
My goal of this post was to explore the meaning of the data from the paper and demonstrate how it serves as a helpful foundation for many more studies.
The “Next steps” sections offered some brief suggestions of further studies that could be done. Those suggestions are not very detailed, nor exhaustive – they are just some small seeds of research ideas.
If you are interested in doing ASMR research but unsure of how to begin the process, then click HERE for suggestions for finding a research mentor and for getting approval for your research study (when page opens, scroll to bottom for the information).
Coming soon: an interview with the authors.
In the meantime, click HERE to read this historical paper if you have not yet.
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