Beverley “Bev” Fredborg recently received her B.Sc. degree in Biopsychology from the University of Winnipeg and will soon be starting a Master’s degree program in Clinical Psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
She is currently a research assistant with Dr. Stephen Smith, an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Winnipeg.
I initially interviewed this duo in July of 2015 when they began to work together on an ASMR survey project.
And now I am fortunate to do another interview with them about their very recent and exciting ASMR research publication involving fMRI.
In my interview with Bev and Dr. Smith they share the excitement of publishing the first biological study about ASMR, an explanation of fMRI, how the idea for the fMRI experiment developed, their methodology and results, challenges with the study, and future ASMR research publications.
Below are my questions in bold, their replies in italics, and links to my prior articles about them, their fMRI publication, Bev’s LinkedIn page, and Dr. Smith’s website.
Congratulations on the first biological publication about ASMR! How does that feel and what type of reception has the paper received so far?
Bev, “Thank you so much! Everyone has been really supportive about the publication, which is exactly what we had hoped for! We submitted the paper for publication in late 2015, so when we finally found out that it was accepted and to be published, we were thrilled. We are so happy to hear that people seem to be interested in what we found!”
Dr. Smith, “Thanks! As Bev said, it’s wonderful that people are interested in the study. Apparently, in terms of internet presence, it’s in the top 5% of research papers being tracked by AltMetric and has been Tweeted about in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Russia, Turkey, and India. Hopefully that will lead to more research related to ASMR.”
You used a fMRI scanner in your study, how would you explain fMRI to a non-scientist?
Dr. Smith, “fMRI stands for functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (also referred to as MRI) and it is a way of measuring the activity of cells in the brain. When a brain area is active, it uses up oxygen at a different rate than when it is not active. The brain responds to this by sending more oxygen-rich blood to that area of the brain.
The catch is that oxygenated and deoxygenated blood (blood with normal levels of oxygen and blood with reduced oxygen levels) have different magnetic properties. The scanner can detect these differences, thus showing us how the activity levels of various brain areas differ.”
How did the idea for this experiment evolve?
Dr. Smith, “I first learned about ASMR from a student in my Introductory Psychology class in late 2013. As soon as she described her experiences to me, I decided that we needed to see what brain areas were involved with ASMR.
As someone who doesn’t experience ASMR, I was fascinated by the idea that whispering or repetitive sounds could produce tingling responses that were associated with positive, calming emotions.
The problem was that we weren’t sure that people could relax enough in a MRI scanner to really experience ASMR. It’s tough to relax when you’re in a large tube (the MRI device) that is making loud noises. Knowing that several people are watching you and hoping you “tingle” would only add to the anxiety participants would feel.
So, although we’re actively collecting data related to tingles, we also wanted to collect additional measures of brain activity that weren’t dependent upon people experiencing tingles in a scanner. This led us to resting-state scans. In these scans, we collect the same functional MRI measurements of people as in other types of brain-imaging studies, but instead of seeing what areas “light up” when a particular stimulus is presented, we measure brain activity when a person isn’t performing any cognitive or perceptual task.
Although that description seems silly at first, there is actually a ton of information we can glean from these “resting-state” scans. The reason is that when you’re not performing some sort of cognitive task, your brain cells are still firing (otherwise you’d be dead). And, the firing rates of these cells fluctuate.
As it turns out, the cells in particular brain areas tend to fluctuate at roughly the same frequency, suggesting that their activity is related. We therefore assume that these different brain regions are working together as a network (basically, as a team).
Our recent paper was an examination of the best known of these networks, the default mode network. Looking at this network allowed us to see that the brains of people with ASMR differed from the rest of the population even when they weren’t actively experiencing tingles.”
How did you recruit and select the participants?
Bev, “We essentially recruited all of our participants through word-of-mouth. It’s pretty difficult to put up posters and ask for people to participate, because it’s pretty hard to explain what ASMR is through a short infographic/poster. A lot of people don’t realize they have ASMR experiences, or, conversely, believe they have them but do not (ASMR differs from frisson!)
Also, some people experience ASMR through means other than audio-visual stimuli (or with audio-visual stimuli AND touch simultaneously, for instance), and for the purposes of our study, we only wanted participants with audio-visual ASMR. We aimed to homogenize the sample as much as possible.”
How did you determine the ASMR-sensitive participants from the control group?
Bev, “We actually conducted hour-long interviews with participants in which I would ask them questions about their ASMR (e.g., how long they have experienced it, what triggers them, etc). We would also watch a few popular ASMR videos together and I would make notes on their experiences.
Finally, I had all participants complete a self-created ASMR checklist. We wanted to be sure that they really did have ASMR, though, currently, there is no official “diagnosis” of ASMR. A few participants were ruled out through this interview, so it was important that it was done before they went through with the scan.”
What were participants doing during the scanning?
Bev, “We had them rest for 7 minutes while in the scanner. By “rest”, I mean remain motionless with their eyes closed while still staying awake. We had them do more in the scanner later on, but we are still scanning participants for that study and as such do not have any results.”
What were the direct results of the fMRI scans?
Bev, “Essentially we found that the Default Mode Network in individuals with ASMR differs than that of matched controls.”
Dr. Smith, “The default mode network is made up of a number of different areas. When we’re “at rest”, these areas tend to fire together, suggesting that they work as a network or team.
We found that in ASMR, several of the regions involved in the default mode network don’t fire together quite as consistently. But, areas that aren’t normally part of the default mode network were firing in the same pattern as this network.
We’re speculating that in ASMR, different resting-state networks are blending in a way that doesn’t typically occur in other people. This isn’t bad; it’s just different.
We do need to caution people about over-interpreting the data, however. This study was quite small and is just a first step in the study of this phenomenon. We’re definitely not making any definitive claims about ASMR!”
What interpretations do you have about the fMRI scan results?
Bev, “The decreased functional connectivity found between the frontal lobes and sensory and attentional regions seen in individuals with ASMR may reflect a reduced ability to inhibit sensory-emotional experiences.
We also hypothesize that ASMR may involve a blending of multiple resting-state networks, which has been seen in other studies of anomalous perception. Pretty cool!”
What challenges did you run into while planning the study, scanning the participants, working with the data, and/or submitting the data for publication?
Bev, “Finding participants was challenging – and for this study, there were only 11! It was also difficult scheduling participants because our scanner is only available for research four hours a week. We also have been working on this study since 2014 – it has been a long time coming, so it was great to finally publish something.”
Dr. Smith, “In think a major challenge that we’ve faced over the past two years is participant recruitment. Although the ASMR subreddit has over 100,000 subscribers, it’s not always easy to find them (particularly in a mid-sized Canadian city).
We also have the challenge that not all ASMR participants are alike. As we’ve noticed in some of our non-MRI research, there is a lot of variability in ASMR triggers and intensity.
Unfortunately, we don’t know if there are clear ASMR subtypes, so we don’t know if this potential issue is affecting our results. I don’t think it would for the default-mode-network study, because that network is quite pronounced. But, I think ASMR studies being conducted in five years will have a better handle on which ASMR-related variables need to be controlled for.”
Do you have plans for further fMRI experiments?
Bev, “They are going on right now!”
Dr. Smith, “I think we’re a few participants away from being able to finish several neuroimaging studies related to ASMR.”
You have also collected data about ASMR and personality traits, what were the objectives of that study?
Bev, “Essentially we want to know if individuals with ASMR share certain personality traits and if these traits are related to specific aspects of individuals’ ASMR experiences.
We’re hoping to submit that for publication in the next month (although it would obviously still need to go through peer review). Perhaps we can talk about it more when it is hopefully published!”
Click HERE to read their recent fMRI publication.
Click HERE to read my first article about their fMRI publication.
Click HERE to read my prior interview in 2015 with Bev and Dr. Smith.
Click HERE to visit Bev’s LinkedIn page.
Click HERE to visit Dr. Smith’s website.
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