Interview with Dr Agnieszka Janik McErlean – lead author of the research study on ASMR triggers, personality, and empathy

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityDr Agnieszka Janik McErlean is the lead author of the publication, “Assessing individual variation in personality and empathy traits in self-Reported Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.”

At the time of the publication she was a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at James Cook University in Singapore.  In January 2018, she will be a Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Psychology at Bath Spa University in the UK.

Dr Janik McErlean co-authored the paper with Dr Michael Banissy and the research was published March 30, 2017 in the journal Multisensory Research.

In my interview with Dr Janik McErlean she shares how she became interested in researching ASMR, the goals and methods of her study, the insights she uncovered about ASMR triggers, and her findings about the personality and empathy traits of ASMR responders.

Below are my questions in bold, her replies in italics, and links to learn more about her and her research publication.

How did you become interested in researching ASMR?

My PhD was on synaesthesia, which is a condition where people experience unusual sensory experiences triggered by certain stimuli e.g. in grapheme-colour synaesthesia achromatic letters or numbers trigger secondary colour experiences while in mirror-touch synaesthesia people experience tactile sensations on their bodies when seeing another person being touched.

When I was conducting one of my experiments several participants asked me whether this tingling sensation which they sometimes experience on their head is synaesthesia. I knew that it hasn’t been identified as one of the types of synaesthesia (there are about 60 types) but the question was a valid and interesting one, as the two phenomena share a lot of similarities. This is how I first became interested in the phenomenon.

On top of that I have also personally experienced what I then learned was called ASMR for as long as I can remember. I did a little bit of research on ASMR which at that point was not covered in the scientific literature.

To my astonishment I discovered that although the scientific community was oblivious to its existence, internet and especially youtube was full of ASMR content.

What were you major objectives with your ASMR research paper?

Based on the preliminary findings (Barratt and Davis, 2015) which suggested there may be greater prevalence of synaesthesia among people reporting to experience ASMR (although this still needs to be confirmed with objective tests).

I wanted to establish whether ASMR-Responders have a similar personality profile to synaesthetes, who have been found to differ in terms of a number of different personality traits compared to the general population.

I also wanted to find out more about the different triggers and motivation behind watching ASMR-inducing videos.

What methods did you use to address those objectives?

I administered the Big Five Inventory which measures fived dimensions of the Big Five personality characteristics and the Inter-Personal Reactivity Index, which measures trait empathy to ASMR-responders recruited from a Facebook site dedicated to ASMR and to age and gender matched controls. Both of these instruments have been previously used to examine personality traits in synaesthesia.

I also asked participants to describe their favourite triggers and reasons for watching ASMR videos, and to rate their responsiveness to different triggers commonly used in ASMR videos.

What did your research uncover about particular responses to ASMR triggers?

The most popular trigger was whispering, which was reported to induce a strong ASMR response by over half of ASMR-responders. This was followed by finger tapping, hair brushing, role-playing involving personal attention such as ‘visit to a doctor’ or ‘spa visit’.

Interestingly close to 10% of ASMR-responders reported ‘people eating’ to be a strong trigger. At the same time, over 25% reported it to be unpleasant or uncomfortable.

What kind of ASMR triggers were most and least associated with tingles?

When asked to describe their triggers 41% of ASMR-responders indicated whisper or soft speaking as their favourite, followed by crisp sounds, personal attention, concentrating on things and giving instructions/explaining something in detail.

Lip smacking or other eating sounds were the least popular ASMR triggers.

What was most interesting to you about these particular responses?

These results are very similar to Barratt and Davis’ findings (2015) who also found that most popular triggers were whisper, crisp sounds and personal attention. They are also consistent with Fredborg et al., (2017) findings who reported that “chewing” was rated as one of the least popular ASMR triggers.

This is very interesting as it not only shows great variability in terms of ASMR triggers but may also suggest increased levels of misophonia, which is characterized by negative physiological, emotional and behavioural responses to sounds, especially human generated ones, among ASMR-responders.

In fact, this is the focus of my second paper on ASMR, which is currently under review and hopefully will be published in the near future.

What were your findings related to personality and ASMR-responders?

The findings showed that individuals reporting to experience ASMR scored higher on Empathic Concern and Fantasizing subscale of IRI, which suggests enhanced sympathy for those who might be experiencing distress and increased tendency to get imaginatively immersed in fictional or virtual reality in this population.

ASMR-responders also scored higher on the Openness to Experience, suggesting curiosity and willingness to try novel experiences and lower on Conscientiousness subscale of BFI, which suggests greater spontaneity but also potential lack of direction among ASMR-responders.

What do you think was the most curious finding about personality and ASMR-responders?

These results show that ASMR-responders have a similar personality profile to synaesthetes, who are also characterized by lower Conscientiousness, increased Openness to Experience and increased Fantasizing (Banissy et al., 2013; Chun and Hupe, 2016; Rouw and Scholte, 2016), further suggesting shared wider characteristics between the two phenomena.

I think the next important step is to use objective tests to firmly establish the prevalence of synaesthesia among individuals who experience ASMR.

Click the links below to learn more about this research:

Click the links below to learn more about ASMR research:

  • Tips: How to be an ASMR researcher.
  • Insight: Interviews with ASMR researchers.
  • Browse: ASMR research and publications.

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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.

One thought on “Interview with Dr Agnieszka Janik McErlean – lead author of the research study on ASMR triggers, personality, and empathy

  1. Pingback: Peer-reviewed research publication about ASMR, personality, empathy, and triggers | ASMR University

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