Dr. Diego Garro provides a translated explanation of the first EEG study of ASMR

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityAlejandro Navarro Expósito recently finished his undergraduate thesis at the University of Almeria in Spain and made his dissertation publicly available.

His dissertation is titled, “Neuropsychological and neurophysiological characterization of a phenomenon called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)” and was completed under the mentorship of the faculty member, Dr. Inmaculada Cubero Talavera.

Alejandro focused his research on measuring the electrical brain activity of a woman experiencing ASMR.  He measured her brain activity using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

The abstract of his dissertation is in English, but the remainder is in Spanish.

Fortunately for non-Spanish speakers, Dr. Diego Garro wrote a summary of Alejandro’s dissertation in English.

Dr. Garro is a Senior Lecturer at Keele University in the United Kingdom and has a BSc in Electronic Engineering, an MSc in Digital Music Technology, and a PhD in Composition.

I reached out to Dr. Garro to learn more about him and to learn more about Alejandro’s research findings.

In my interview with Dr. Garro he shares his deep interest in ASMR, the relationship between ASMR and digital arts, his explanation of Alejandro’s methods and findings, the importance of Alejandro’s findings, what he sees in the future for the ASMR community, and more.

Below is the abstract from Alejandro’s dissertation in English, followed by my questions to Dr. Garro in bold, Dr. Garro’s replies in italics, links to Dr. Garro’s academic profile, links to some of Dr. Garro’s audiovisual compositions, and a link to Alejandro’s dissertation.

***Abstract from Alejandro Navarro Expósito’s dissertation titled, “Neuropsychological and neurophysiological characterization of a phenomenon called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)”***

Dissertation Abstract, “This present study raises a neuropsychological and neurophysiological characterization of a phenomenon called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).  The ASMR consist in a tingling sensation on the scalp followed by a feeling of relaxation similar to an orgasm, but that use to happen under a specific audiovisual stimulation.  Because of its recent discovery in networks has decided to evaluate a subject both neuropsychological level (With a battery of tests that scans the most important cognitive processes) as a neurophysiological level (Using an Electroencephalography).  The results indicate a possible impoverishment of working memory, flexibility and alternating attention and access to the semantic store.  On the other hand, the EEG showed that Mu waves (Oscillations that are synchronized in the absence of movement and desynchronized in the absence of movement with the beginning of a movement or viewing someone performing an action) were desynchronized during the entire visualization except when the subject confessed to be feeling the ASMR.  This confirms the existence of the phenomenon because at some point during the video display when they should be desynchronized they are synchronized at the same time the patient felt the event.  Translates into an attention diversion to the sensation, leaving pay attention to this video and thereby process the movements of the others that had to keep the waves desynchronized.  Being a pioneering study these data have shed several questions to get answers in further studies about the phenomenon of ASMR.”

***Interview with Dr. Diego Garro, who provided an explanation in English of Alejandro’s dissertation***

Tell me about the recent translation you did of the dissertation by Alejandro Navarro Expósito.

Dr. Garro, “Members of the ASMR Preliminary Research Facebook group asked for an English translation of that study by Alejandro Navarro Expósito, so I spent a little time reading into the details, with some difficulty because I am not a neuropsychologist so I provided a summary from the viewpoint of a non-specialist.

The dissertation is titled ‘Neuropsychological and Neurophysiological Characterisation of a phenomenon called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)’.  It seems to me a very good piece of work, within the predictable limitations one would expect in a piece of work carried out by an undergraduate student.  It certainly provided excellent reporting of the results, which made my translation work manageable.”

What are the results from Alejandro’s dissertation, and how were they arrived at?

Dr. Garro, “The experiment was carried out on one single subject, a young woman age 19, who reportedly experiences ASMR and uses it for relaxation purposes.

She underwent an experiment whereby her brain activity was measured by means of EEG before, during and after an episode of ASMR triggered by watching two videos by her favourite ASMRtist (Ally, from ASMRrequests).

The neurophysiological analysis (i.e. the functioning of the woman’s nervous system measured with the EEG) was very interesting.  First of all, the ASMR episode measured in the EEG seems different from an epileptic episode.  This is important because there were some pre-existing assumptions that ASMR might be a form of mild epileptic episode.  There is no evidence of that in the results of Alejandro’s experiment.

The exciting results are concerned with the pattern of the Mu waves.  The Mu waves are “synchronized patterns of electrical activity involving large numbers of neurons, probably of the pyramidal type, in the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement” [Wikepidia].

The woman’s Mu waves became synchronised during the ASMR episode, when she experienced the tingly sensation on her scalp.  This is interesting because normally the Mu waves are scrambled when we move, but also when we see other people moving.  So it appears that during the tingles the part of the brain cortex that is associated with motion somehow ‘shuts down’ temporarily.

The Mu waves are also associated, according to some research, to emotional response.  Normally, when we experience emotion the Mu waves are, again, scrambled so it seems that during a tingles episode the woman’s emotional response also ‘shuts down’ temporarily.  This is baffling because Ally (the ASMRtist used to trigger the experiment) is a rather expressive individual and her face does convey emotions to the viewer.”

Why do you think Alejandro’s experiment is important?

Dr. Garro, “First of all, this study proves that ASMR does indeed exist; it is not a myth, it is not a collective fantasy of a bunch of crinkle-lovers (!).  It is a phenomenon that has been measured in an anomalous pattern of a subject’s Mu waves during an ASMR episode.

You may think this is a ‘duh!’ point because we all knew already that ASMR exists, but actually the scientific proof of its manifestation in the EEG is very important because it brings ASMR into the realm of possible scientific enquiry that can be pursued by research institutions, and funded with money! (yes, it’s all about money).

So although Alejandro’s work is ‘only’ a University dissertation, hence not published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, it is still a good step towards more advanced and rigorous research.”

What do you think this study tells us about the tingles experienced during ASMR?

Dr. Garro, “Whatever the trigger, ASMR seems to produce a subtle sensorial mini-shutdown that is not supposed to be there because we are still experiencing audio-visual stimuli.  Perhaps the tingling sensation is the way in which the body manifests such misplacement or reacts to it.

The fascinating question (for me, as an artist) is: what is it that triggers such response and how?  Why Heather-Feather?  Why Ally?  Or Dmitri?  Or Maria?  What do they do to us to instigate that reaction?  Is it emotional connection?  Intimacy?  Is it some kind of personality-induced response, like the charisma of a healer?

Jesus was a healer and some say that what we call ‘miracles’ are actually reports, filtered by time, of people who were strongly influenced by Jesus’s irresistible magnetism and experienced something extraordinary in his presence… I’d like to think that artists like Maria (unintentionally) scramble up our experience of time, sounds and images until something in our brain gets short-circuited.

A member of the Facebook ASMR community reports “I work from home for a call center, and I LOVE when my customers give me tingles. But it makes me not want to take any more calls!”.  So the sense of deep engrossment and relaxation associated with ASMR seems to impair our normal ability to move and ‘think straight’ (this is confirmed by Alejandro’s work).

We are almost paralysed in a state of contemplation when the brain is tricked into thinking that nothing is happening around us, even though it is… I suppose this must be why ASMR trigger videos are preferred by people who want to relax and sleep; ASMR seems to be, in a way, about induced stillness.”

But then, what is the difference between ASMR and meditative relaxation?

Dr. Garro, “It is an intriguing question. It seems to me that while meditation is self-induced and requires a considerable ability to ‘self-shut-down’, ASMR is externally induced: we get someone else (our favourite ASMRtist, or a random event in real life) to do the shutting down for us.”

Do you experience ASMR? If so, how would you describe your triggers and sensations?

Dr. Garro, “Yes I do, albeit less often than other members of the community seem to do.  My favourite triggers are audio and visual delicate events of any kind.  I seem to be more sensitive to the actions, personality and charisma of certain ASMRtists.

I am… ASMR-pernickety! Incidentally… wouldn’t “pernickety” be a great whispered trigger-word?!?”  [FYI, pernickety is the British equivalent of the English term, persnickety]

How did you first learn about ASMR?

Dr. Garro, “I experienced ASMR the first time when I was a child, at a classmate’s house, when her big brother started whispering to us instructions regarding a task we were performing.  It’s one of the most vivid and pleasant memories of my childhood.

Fast forward 40 years, last spring my tingle-prone 13 year old daughter introduced me to the ASMR community, and the rest is (recent) history.”

What interests you about ASMR?

Dr. Garro, “The tingles; the relaxing effect that many ASMR videos have on me, tingles or no tingles; but more than anything else I am fascinated by the community of ASMRtists.  Seeing what they do is really uplifting.”

As a researcher in the area of music and digital arts, what connections do you see between your field of study and ASMR?

Dr. Garro, “I am a Sound Art researcher and composer.  I work creatively with sounds and use sound as a mean of artistic expression.  I feel that many ASMRtists and their audiences have a similar sensitivity, inclination, or even fetish (if you wish) for sound and its effect on the listener.”

How do you see ASMR and digital arts merging or overlapping in the future?

Dr. Garro, “There are many strands of ASMR content and many strands of digital art, so… it’s difficult to tell. I see a possible synergy in using ASMR as a platform for a type of artistic expression focused on the compositional articulation of sound and images in time.

I know this sound very abstract, but I can give you an example: check out some of the audio work by ‘ASMR By Design’ who regrettably is no longer active, as far as I can tell.  His videos are something in between ASMR and electroacoustic digital audio compositions; I love it!”

Do you have any desire or plans to do some ASMR-related research in the future?

Dr. Garro, “Yes, two things: one is to create ASMR content as part of my ongoing research in experimental audio-visual composition.  The other is to provide analysis and critique of some existing ASMR content and make them known to my research community.

I am holding on to those plans because I need to seek funding from research councils and also because I feel I still have a lot to learn about ASMR and ASMRtists before I engage directly.”

What would you say to a room full of researchers and clinicians whom are trying to decide if putting the time and funding into ASMR research is worth the investment?

Dr. Garro, “I would tell them that the ASMR community is an incredibly vital forum of creative people and unusually attentive and patient audiences that deserve serious consideration of researchers, not only in neuropsychology.  The crossovers are fascinating: with art, with social studies, with technology, with alternative therapy.”

Where do you see the ASMR community going?

Dr. Garro, “In many different directions, apparently.  It seems to me that ASMR is being appropriated by many content developers that really either misunderstand it, or simply use it as a label to attract a sympathetic audience.  This is a trend that worries me, and distracts me, but it also seems to me a worthwhile price to pay for the amazing range of creativity that we are blessed with.

ASMR is being used as a creative paradigm for comedy (see Ephemeral Rift), for literature and creative writing (see Phoenician Sailor), for video art (see Latashas ASMR), even for ballet (see ASMRAlexia) and for god-knows what else.

There are ASMR videos featuring folding towels as well as ASMR videos featuring hand-gun bullet loading!  The ASMR community is destined to diverge and possibly disintegrate into a myriad of sub-genres, but that’s good too.  There will be space for the nostalgic ‘purist’, for the unashamedly ‘innovative’ and everything in between. Bring it on!”

Click the links below to learn more about Dr. Diego Garro and to experience some of his audiovisual compositions (non-ASMR):

Click the links below to learn more about Dr. Inmaculada Cubero Talavera and to access the dissertation of Alejandro Navarro Expósito (permission to share granted by Dr. Talavera):

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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.

2 thoughts on “Dr. Diego Garro provides a translated explanation of the first EEG study of ASMR

  1. Pingback: Dr. Diego Garro presents ASMR paper at London conference | ASMR University

  2. Thanks for this great article, I experience ASMR and am highly sensitive of for example, beautifully done film sound tracks (life sounds rather than music per sae). I’m also fascinated by the EEG findings, I hope a larger sample study will be possible.

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