Graduate student completes research study about the body map of ASMR sensations

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityJack Stevenson-Smith completed his Masters degree 2 years ago in the School of Psychology at the The University of Liverpool, UK.

He focused his Master’s research dissertation on ASMR and it was titled, “Bodily maps of novel somatosensation: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)”

In my interview with Jack he shares the inspiration for his research, his aims, hypotheses, and methods, the challenges he encountered, some great tips for other ASMR researchers, and his special moment with Dmitri, the ASMR artist known as massageASMR.

Below are my questions in bold and his replies in italics.

What inspired you to do your dissertation on ASMR?

My early experiences with ASMR were my main inspiration, and match that of many others; before the age of ten during one of my first haircuts, I experienced a pleasurable, relaxing tingling sensation across my scalp, over my shoulders, and down my spine. I continued experiencing these sensations throughout adolescence and into my early twenties, but could never explain what they were or what was causing them.

Fast forward to the final year of my bachelors degree, where I was suffering from insomnia and was desperate for a way of treating it without resorting to sleeping pills. A simple Google search later had me stumbling upon the ASMR community, who were all describing the same sensations I had felt throughout my life and its benefits for insomnia, among other things. I started watching YouTube ASMR videos before bed, helping me to fall asleep within 20 minutes, which at the time was a complete revelation.

Around that same time I was writing up my bachelors dissertation, which I was finding quite unfulfilling; the study was replication of a previous study and the supervisor had complete control over the design of the experiment. It was only down to me to collect participant data and write up the paper itself. I therefore knew that when starting my masters I wanted to investigate something fresh and new, and to have more responsibility for each stage of the research process. ASMR presented itself as the perfect opportunity for me to do just that.

What were the aims of your study?

Very few if any laboratory-based experiments had been conducted on the sensory experience of ASMR, and there were few links between ASMR and other sensory phenomena already established in the literature.

I therefore aimed to:

1. Run the first laboratory-based experiment on the intensity and location of ASMR sensations.

2. Run the first laboratory-based experiment on whether interoception is linked to the sensory experience of ASMR.

What were your hypotheses?

Both aims had two hypotheses attached to them; for the sensory experience of ASMR alone, I hypothesised that:

1. Participants will experience significantly more intense tingling during an ASMR video period than during a rest period.

2. Participants will experience significantly more intense tingling across the back of the scalp, down the spine, and over the shoulders.

In the literature it had already been shown that heartbeat perception accuracy was a reliable measure of interoceptive awareness, and that interoceptive awareness contributes to the perception of spontaneous sensations (SPSs). To link interoception to the sensory experience of ASMR, I therefore hypothesised that:

1. Good heartbeat perceives will experience significantly more intense tingling than poor heartbeat perceives.

2. Heartbeat perception accuracy will be significantly associated with the intensity of tingling.

What methods and procedures did you use?

To meet the first aim, we modified an already-existing intuitive piece of bodily emotion recording software, making it possible for participants to record the bodily locations and intensities of various sensations that they may have felt during an ASMR video period compared to a controlled rest period. To meet the second aim, a heartbeat perception task was utilised.

Participants were shown to a light attenuated room, and sat central to a desk with a computer screen and mouse. A finger pulse pressure sensor (i.e. recording heartbeat) was attached to their third finger on their left hand.

The experimental procedure then took place in three parts:

 1. A heartbeat perception task including three heartbeat counting trials, lasting 30, 60, and 90 seconds in randomised order, where participants were required to count their own heartbeat without physically doing so.

2. A controlled rest period where participants were instructed by computer screen to relax and remain as still as possible. Participants sat for three minutes but were not told for how long the period would last. Afterwards, they were presented with the software enabling them to record the location and intensity of various sensations they may have felt during that period. 

3. An ASMR video period where participants were instructed to watch a video and to remain as still as possible. The video lasted 10 minutes (shortened version of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIoGGMi-lk8). Afterwards, they were presented with the software again enabling them to record the location and intensity of various sensations they may have felt during that period.

What did you discover and do you plan to publish the results?

I am unfortunately unable to share the exact results because they are visually presented in bodily maps, and doing so could jeopardize the study publication process. However, I can say that it is indeed possible to reliably induce and record ASMR sensations within a laboratory setting.

I do indeed plan to publish the results; I am currently in the process of rewriting the dissertation to make it more suitable for publication in specific journals. Hopefully I can have the manuscript submitted before Christmas this year and will see it published in the first half of 2019.

Did you have any challenges throughout the process?

ASMR is a difficult topic to study simply because of the lack of available research, and because of the specific circumstances and environments ASMR sensations seem to manifest. It was not immediately obvious how best to measure ASMR sensations and whether measuring them would in fact prevent them from occurring.

In extension of that, I needed to familiarise myself with PHP and MATLAB coding languages; PHP was the basis for the sensation recording software, whereas MATLAB was used to deliver the experimental procedure, and to analyse and visualise the results. These were coding languages I had very little experience with at the time.
Participant reactions to the ASMR video I chose also proved problematic at times; some participants found it too intense or too novel to handle and had to leave the experiment early. This is something as a researcher you need to respect, and their data were omitted.

Overall though, challenges such as these are what made the process so exciting; it always felt like I was doing something new which in itself was its own reward as I gained skills that I perhaps would not have had I chose a more established topic of study. I can certainly say that handing the dissertation in and receiving the grade back were very fulfilling moments as I felt like I had ownership over every aspect of the piece of work.

What advice do you have for others doing ASMR research?

If you are interested in doing ASMR research, having genuine curiosity and passion behind that interest will definitely help. Researching ASMR can be quite frustrating because you cannot base your experiment on previous studies, simply because few exist.

If you have the drive to handle that, then the next step is finding the right supervisor and attached research lab to carry out the kind of study you have in mind. I had to ask at least five different staff members before I found the right supervisor, and that process definitely requires you to be quite selective. You not only need an open-minded supervisor who has the breadth and depth of knowledge to properly guide your interest in ASMR, but also a research lab that has the suitable space, tools and equipment to carry out the experiments.

Those are the first two key ingredients, the third being commitment on your end. Things do and will go wrong, and you need to be prepared to face and overcome them. Sometimes a little trial and error is required to find the best method of research, especially in terms of ASMR.

I understand that you met Dmitri, the ASMR artist known as MassageASMR, how was that experience?

Whilst I was travelling Australia earlier this year, Dmitri put up a New Years Vlog (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3aBiXtv6v8) stating that he was attending an arts festival in Hobart, Tasmania, named MONA FOMA, and that he may have spare tickets for fans to meet him and possibly feature in one of his videos. I jumped at the chance and sent him an email expressing my interest.

Not long after, I found myself booking a plane ticket to Hobart and got to meet Dmitri at the festival. Relaxation sessions were held in a domed tent, where participants lay in a circle and Dmitri used singing bowls, tuning forks, personal touch, and whispering to relax them and induce ASMR sensations. Some people responded well to the experience, they entered deeply relaxed states, and some even experienced ASMR sensations for the first time, whereas for others it was simply too intense and they had to leave. Personally, this was my first experience of an intentional, real-life ASMR experience and I really do hope it catches on.

Dmitri also provided people with professional massage; I was lucky enough to receive one of his massages and feature in one of his videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v60wb2SNZDM), although unfortunately it was difficult to experience ASMR here due to the music act performing outside the tent.

The whole experience was quite surreal, as MassageASMR was in fact the first YouTube ASMR channel I watched and is probably my most watched. Dmitri’s videos were the first to help me treat my previously mentioned insomnia and I still use his videos today. In a lot of ways it was like meeting a personal hero, and it was fantastic to get the opportunity to thank him for how his videos have helped me and countless others. You can hear more about this experience from Dmitri’s perspective here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmVDCZCtbis

I also had the chance to discuss my own ASMR research with Dmitri and others at the festival. Engaging with a wider audience in this way was incredibly rewarding as people showed genuine interest in ASMR, spurred on by their experiences with Dmitri. Hopefully the next time I have this opportunity science will have more answers about what ASMR is and what function it serves.

Do you have any future plans for more ASMR research or other ASMR projects?

I will definitely be conducting more ASMR research in the future, but at the moment that is on hold whilst I concentrate on gaining research assistant experience. I will however be pursuing PhDs that allow me the flexibility to pursue my academic interest in ASMR and provide me with the skills necessary to carry out ASMR research using more sophisticated methodologies. It will certainly be interesting to see how ASMR research progresses in that time, which will inform me on directions for my own future 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.

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