Graduate student investigates the effects of ASMR videos on the heart rates of Highly Sensitive Persons

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityMelina Delanghe is a graduate student at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium. She is pursuing her Master’s Degree in psychology in the Department of Biological & Cognitive Psychology.

For her Master’s Thesis, she decided to do an ASMR research project with Dr. Elke Van Hoof as her faculty advisor.

She investigated the ability of ASMR videos to affect the heart rates of individuals diagnosed as Highly Sensitive Persons and also in a control group.

In my interview with Melina she shares the details of her hypotheses, methods, results, challenges encountered during her study, and tips for others considering an ASMR research project.

Below are my questions in bold, her replies in italics, and a link to her LinkedIn profile.

How did you become interested in doing your Master’s Thesis on ASMR?

Ever since I was little, I experienced tingles in certain situations. For example, when someone would play with my hair or do my makeup. Also when listening to someone speak with a certain accent.

When choosing the subject for my Master’s Thesis, I wanted to choose something within biological psychology, so I started brainstorming. Suddenly, I thought of ASMR and what it can or could do to our body and brains.

It was my partner who convinced me to write about ASMR. Since I was very passionate about ASMR and biology, it seemed like a good idea. That way, I could shed some more light onto this still unknown phenomenon.

Did your faculty advisor know about ASMR before you approached her?

No, she had never heard about ASMR before. She looked into it and was very interested, since she is specialized in the treatment of stress, anxiety and burnout

You tested two hypotheses, what was your first hypothesis?

The first hypothesis was that ASMR elicits the relaxation response as described by Dr Herbert Benson. His studies showed that relaxation promoted better health, especially when practiced regularly. One could for example use a mindfulness meditation to let go of all the stress accumulated throughout the day. When the relaxation response is elicited regularly, the body and mind benefit from it. It helps to fight stress related diseases and symptoms.

ASMR is said to be a lot like mindfulness since it allows the individual to focus only on the present moment, while being in a calm relaxed state. Many people have reported feeling less stressed, depressed and anxious when experiencing ASMR. Some individuals use it to combat chronic pains, anxiety disorders and depression. ASMR might be able to replace some of the pharmacotherapeutic therapies, allowing the body to restore itself more naturally.

What methods did you use to test your first hypothesis?

28 people took part in this study. 15 of them were diagnosed with HSP. In total, 21 females and only 7 males participated in this study. This might have affected the results.

To get an idea of how ASMR might affect one’s bodily responses, I measured the participant’s heart rate variability at baseline before allowing them to either watch an ASMR video, a ‘control’ video or a guided relaxation.

Since many researchers have only used subjective measures like a questionnaire, I decided to take it one step further. After the intervention, I measured the HRV again and used SPSS Statistics to compare the means, using a t-test at … level. Of course, I also added some questionnaires to back up the HRV measures.

What were the results for your first hypothesis?

Within HRV, there was no significant difference between baseline and post-intervention measurements in the ASMR-condition. However, a significant increase in respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) was found. The heart rate (HR) even increased just a little within the ASMR condition. This could be explained by some of the answers I got when I asked the participants about their ASMR knowledge.

Only a few of them knew about ASMR and used it in daily life. Most of them were diagnosed with HSP. Most of the participants did not like the ASMR video, saying it made them feel uncomfortable and nervous. When asked why, they said they did not like the slow hand movements and gentle touches. It felt too intimate. The sounds were described as “weird” and “annoying”.

I concluded that ASMR is still viewed as sexual or erotic, and participants were easily “shocked” by the intimacy expressed in this video. It felt like “the ASMRtist was invading their personal space”.

The most popular condition was the Benson-condition. There was a significant decrease in HR and a significant increase in HRV. The participants all appreciated the progressive relaxation technique, showing that this technique is of course a very well known and much used technique to elicit relaxation.

What thoughts do you have about these results?

To be honest, I was a little disappointed to see that many participants did not enjoy the ASMR condition. I think ASMR still needs to be explored even more and future research should focus on testing larger samples. There is still much to discover about ASMR and the effects on the body.

As suggested by the increase in RSA, it is possible to elicit some kind of relaxation. In my humble opinion, one needs to be open to it. As I am a fan of ASMR myself, I am open to all kinds of ASMR videos and I don’t mind the ASMRtist coming close to the camera or whispering in my ear. I can see how it might be uncomfortable for most people. When open to it, I think ASMR has the power to transform our mental and physical well being drastically.

What was your second hypothesis?

The second hypothesis that I tested was the claim that highly sensitive people might benefit from ASMR more than non-highly-sensitive people. Research suggests that they often show more interest in alternative methods of relaxation, like mindfulness meditation, yoga or even ASMR.

Using the data collected through HRV monitoring, I achieved some interesting results. Lastly, I asked my participants about their ASMR knowledge and use of ASMR in their daily lives.

How did you test your second hypothesis?

8 people took part in this study. 15 of them were diagnosed with HSP. In total, 21 females and only 7 males participated in this study. This might have affected the results. I compared the data collected through the measurements and questionnaires using a t-test.

What were the results for your second hypothesis?

No significant difference was found between the HSP and non-HSP group within the ASMR condition or any other condition. However, the RSA and HRV values were higher in the non-hsp group, showing more HRV flexibility.

What thoughts do you have about these results?

I did not feel surprised about these results. Since I could not find enough information to assume that there would be a difference between hsp and non-hsp, I did not have any expectations. Also, this was the second hypothesis. I wanted my main focus to be on comparing ASMR to the Relaxation Response.

What challenges did you have acquiring approval from an Ethics Committee?

The ethics committee wanted to know every single detail of the study, which was hard at that time because my faculty advisor was such a busy woman. We did not have a lot of opportunities to sit down together and go over every detail so I had to figure out a lot of things on my own. I’m pretty creative but I had a very hard time since I’m not that experienced.

Eventually, I figured out the details on my own and contacted the Committee myself. They were surprised to hear that I was able to graduate this February and approved my study, since they now were convinced I was not gonna do any harm. In fact, my faculty advisor was very pleased with my approach.

What other challenges or interesting moments did you have during the study?

I was feeling very nervous about the data collection. I was hoping everything was gonna go well and that the participants would like the experiment. So many highly sensitive participants had very high expectations, thinking that I had possibly found a way to help them deal with their sensitiveness.

I wasn’t able to disclose the details of the experiment, so they would not come in thinking they needed to feel relaxed or answer my questions a certain way. The only thing they knew, was that I was testing out some new relaxation technique.

I learned a lot about hsp and how people deal with it nowadays. I feel very thankful and humbled that so many people wanted to share their stories with me. It’s not easy being highly sensitive in a world like this.

However, the thing that surprised me the most was how the participants reacted to the ASMR video, I feel like there is still a lot of confusion about this. It is still viewed as something erotic. It can be, but I prefer not to view ASMR as something sexual, just my preference.

Do you plan on publishing your results?

Definitely! I can’t wait to publish an article, hopefully in Dutch and in English.

What tips would you give to others considering doing ASMR research?

Read as many articles as you can and don’t be afraid to think outside of the box! A good place to start might be to do more qualitative research. Find out how people feel about ASMR and what makes them tingle, other that only focusing on popular triggers. Why does ASMR work for one person but not the other?

Any plans for doing more ASMR research in the future?

I hope to do more ASMR research in the future. I’m very interested in neurofeedback and I’m planning on getting a job within this field. I feel like there is still not enough research being done about ASMR and neuro/bio feedback.

From Melina, “People can always contact me through LinkedIn or Facebook to get in touch. I’d love to chat about ASMR!”

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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