Undergraduate student investigates psychoacoustics of ASMR trigger sounds

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityAnders Köhler recently graduated from the University of Skövde in Sweden with a Degree of Bachelor of Arts and majored in Media Arts, Aesthetics, and Narration (Game Development – Sound).

His examination project investigated the psychoacoustic properties of ASMR sounds and was titled, “A study of scratching sounds within ASMR in a neutral sound environment.”

Anders’ goal was to try to find  patterns and properties in ASMR trigger sounds.  This is a terrific quest.  What is special about crinkling, tapping, whispering, and scratching sounds that make them so blissful and delightful to ASMR enthusiasts?

He focused his project on scratching sounds and utilized state-of-the-art tools and methods to dissect the sound profiles.

In my interview with Anders he explains his goals, research design, and shares a table of his data with a full explanation of what he discovered in his project.

Below are my questions in bold, his replies in italics, and links to his study, a video summary, and his Facebook page.

How would your summarize your entire project and findings?

The purpose of the study was to conduct a qualitative investigation of the general psychoacoustic effects of scratching sounds when played under ”associatively neutral” conditions. This meant that the sounds had to lose their auditory uniqueness to a large degree in order to make them less intelligible and thus less open to ”obvious” subjective associations, this while still retaining the main qualities that defined their scratching characteristics. This neutralization was carried out by mixing the scratching dynamics into pure pink noise (similar to white noise) to varying degrees.

Simply put, the aim of the project was to investigate to what degree ASMR happens ”automatically”. Is there a need for the brain to consciously ”make sense” of the sounds that it hears, at least to some degree, if the stimuli is to occur? Is it possible for (some) listeners, even those not yet confirmed sensitive to ASMR, to take pleasure in listening to seemingly nonsensical sound patterns simply because their brains are programmed to perceive them as appealing?

The study results, while at this point in time are very inconclusive due to lack of quantitative confirmation, indicated that it’s indeed highly possible to induce tranquility in quite a few listeners, perhaps many, using this very technique.

What was your specific goal for this project?

My aim was to establish something of a scientific starting point for future quantitative inquiries into the psychoacoustics of ASMR, specifically from an “objective” angle. I’m using the term objective quite loosely here; the fundamental hypothesis is simply that there may be a vast array of auditory components within sound patterns of all kinds that will trigger ASMR stimuli within a significant portion of the population regardless of whether there’s a subjective psychological reason for it.

Think of it like a pleasant inversion of the average individual’s reaction to, say , a high-pitched screech. Your own personal association to the sound is quite irrelevant – you’re going to cringe pretty vehemently whether you want to or not as you (and more or less everyone else) are essentially hardwired to do that.

I wanted to know whether the same biological foundation is playing a role within sound-centered ASMR, perhaps to a large degree, and as I haven’t seen anyone else approach the field from this direction I thought my project could serve as a first wavering step.

What was the design of your project?

The program that I was enrolled in was one of a mainly artistic direction (I now hold a Bachelor of Arts), so the general idea of this last course is for the students to showcase the artistic expertise that they’ve acquired over the three years at the university in the form of an artefact and to then employ it in a scientific study.

I personally have very little interest in that kind of science as you’ll be tying all of the response data to a very specific yet immensely broad set of factors that define the dynamics of your creative work, and if you can’t account for this level of complexity in your analysis I simply don’t think the science is very… well, useful.

For this reason, my highest priority was to design my sound artefact in the most scientifically tenable fashion possible, incorporating objectively measurable data rather that my personal creative sense. I deemed popularity to be the factor most indicative of “objectively high quality” that was available to me, so I sought out ASMR productions on YouTube that had a high number of views, a very solid like-to-dislike ratio and well subscribed-to creators.

It took me a long time of thinking and testing different design options, but eventually I decided to center the project specifically on scratching sounds so as to not make the mistake of simply lumping all sorts of sound-based ASMR together into one group. After all, it’s this very distinction that is the most relevant to this line of research.

I studied spectrograms of scratching-focused ASMR works to identify a general pervading sound pattern within them whereupon I picked one that effectively pronounced those dynamics, namely Deep Ocean of Sounds’ “ASMR Intense head scratching”. Same rules as described above; a well-liked production and ASMRtist.

The resulting design is one in which I’ve looped a 30-second portion of the work and mixed it with pink noise using two different technical methods: a noise gate and a vocoder (one at a time). These two essentially copy the sound dynamics of the original work into a new sound environment that is meant to come across as “associatively neutral” to a listener, whereupon a more objective inspection of the artefact’s effects on the study participants can be conducted.

What testing was done with the participants?

Pretty much every instance of the experiment was conducted in someone’s home environment. The participants, eleven in total, were asked about their sex and gender (a distinction was made, though in the end only cis-people participated) as well as age whereupon pre-experiment data about each individual’s relationship to ASMR was established – see questions in the section below. They were then presented with a blindfold, a pair of headphones, an external sounds card and a wireless computer mouse.

The blindfold was to be worn to eliminate any potential visual variables that might’ve affected the results, the headphones (always the same model) of course produced the sound output, the sound card (also constant model) allowed for volume management and the mouse, which was connected to a laptop with a running stopwatch program, was to be held in one hand throughout the entire experiment.

The participants were instructed to click the mouse button if they at any point felt a “noticeable reaction”, positive or negative, as a result of what they heard in that moment. It didn’t have to be anything on a physical level, much less a tingle, but rather a significant mental sensation of “ooh, I like that sound!” or the opposite. This allowed the exact time of the click to be recorded by the stopwatch.

The subject then got to sit or lie down in a comfortable position of choice (that variable was deemed not important enough to account for) and the playback of the artefact commenced. Each participant had clearly been told that they were free to cancel the experiment at any point, which no one actually did.

After the playback had ended the second interview portion of the test was carried out, questions also found below. The interviews were all of semi-structured qualitative nature, so while a clear red thread was maintained throughout every interview there was plenty of room for each respondent to share relevant information that couldn’t be neatly fitted into a pre-planned box.

What data was collected?

With regards to the hard data that I have, this being the timestamps of all the recorded clicks, it’s definitely something that I can easily share. I’ve included a table below containing all of said marks; note that a green background color means that the timestamp was confirmed during the interviews to be of positive subjective value, a red color signifies a negative one, and no color means that the subjective value could not be determined.

The latter only applies to respondent #8 due to the magnitude of recorded clicks from that individual – the other participants only clicked once, twice or not at all. Also note that one of the respondents has been designated as “pilot”; this was due to the fact that I ran my first test on this individual to determine the experiment’s validity, which went as planned. For this reason, the person has been registered and treated like an ordinary study participant.

[the positioning of the timestamps across the artefact’s spectrogram can be viewed in the link to his study and in the link to the video summary at the end of this article].

 

As for the interview responses, seeing as the data essentially is of qualitative type derived from discussions of ten to fifteen minutes in length I’d say it’s not possible to share it in a conventional sense, though I can certainly specify the responses that were given on a certain topic if you have specific inquiries.

With that said, as mentioned above the interviews were carried out in a semi-structured fashion with an array of questions prepared beforehand that were adhered to as much as possible throughout the conversations. The questions were the following:

PRE EXPERIMENT

· Are you familiar with ASMR?

IF YES

· Do you find ASMR works pleasant?

· For what purpose do you mainly seek ASMR?

· Do you experience any physical reaction in your body from ASMR works (tingles)?

· In which form are these reactions manifested?

· What type of ASMR genre mainly appeals to you, if any?

· Do you find pleasure in listening to strictly sound-based ASMR works?

POST EXPERIMENT

· Describe your overall impression of the experience.

· Did you find pleasure/displeasure in listening to the sound?

· Did you experience any physical reaction in your body?

· How would you describe the general auditory character of the artefact?

· Did you perceive several distinctly different sounds throughout the course of the experience?

· Were you able to associate the sounds with any object, context or similar?

· How similar would you deem the artefact to be to an ordinary ASMR work with scratching orientation?

o (Alternatively, if not familiar with ASMR) How similar would you deem the artefact to be to scratching sounds?

· How similar would you deem the artefact to be to a scalp massage?

This means that I was able to structure summaries of the response data provided by all eleven participants in accordance with the points above in my study report, with any additional relevant data given by a certain individual being written into those summaries in an appropriate fashion. 

What did your data reveal?

As mentioned above, references to exact quantitative data apart from timestamps and the number of people saying this or that are unavailable due to the qualitative nature of the project.

That being said, I can summarize the conclusions below along with quick explanations of the reasoning behind them:

*1*. Pink noise with envelope attributes of scratching type likely possess a decent capacity to put listeners in a meditative state and instill tranquility, regardless of whether they have prior experience of or interest in ASMR or not.

A simple summary of the fact that eight out of the eleven participants reported experiencing pleasure at some points while listening to the artefact. Moreover, two of the remaining three respondents mentioned having perceived a certain change in sound pattern as positive/interesting, so if that’s taken into account it brings the number up to ten in total, with only two people having a significant previous experience of ASMR.

Its not as conclusive as what would be desirable, hence the addition of “likely”, due to the fact that it’s impossible at this stage to determine which specific audio component of the composition was responsible for a certain subjective reaction – perhaps the pink noise didn’t actually add anything of value but rather served as an overall detrimental factor? Nonetheless, it’s a moderately indicative start, which was the goal all along.

*2*. Side chain compressed noise gate technology applied onto static pink noise is likely an appropriate medium for a believable envelope-based approximation of sound dynamics of scratching type as well as kinetic water type.

Fairly straightforward way of saying “the experiment method appears to have done what it was designed to do”, though I had to remain reserved in my phrasing with regards to likelihood as I couldn’t account for many potentially relevant factors, such as when subjective associations were made. Nine participants in total gave an account of having perceived a sound of “frictional” type in the artefact such as scratching, brushing and crunching.

As the goal was to communicate auditory information of that kind without making it clear that the sound pattern obviously stems from a scalp massage, this feedback was considered indicative of success on that point. But as said, it’s for example unknown whether the noise gate could’ve handled this on its own, without the more detailed “assistance” of the vocoder that came after. A vocoder affects the frequency dynamics, not just the amplitude, so the pink noise is no longer static once it kicks in.

As for the “kinetic water” addition (kinetic = in motion), seven respondents mentioned having heard sounds such as a shower, sloshing, rain and objects being handled underwater, so that’s no doubt a significant and interesting observation.

*3*. Transitions in sound dynamics for scratching-centered sounds possess a very decent capacity to instill pleasure within a listener. The specific parameters that dictate the probability of this occurring are, however, as of yet most unknown.

This is the most well-grounded indication that I could derive from the study, specifically because it emerged in the form of a pattern in the timestamps (a simple one, but a pattern nonetheless).

As shown in the table up above, practically no clicks were registered, except by respondent #8, at any points other than the juncture of the noise gate and first vocoder as well as the first and second vocoder. While one of the individuals perceived the transition from noise gate to vocoder as unpleasant there was still a clear trend in taking pleasure in hearing the auditory transition play out, to the point of feeling the urge to click the mouse button (which, as said, was otherwise a very rare occurrence).

*4*. Sound patterns of scratching-centered character possess a decent capacity to instill pleasure within listeners regardless of whether or not these may associate the sounds to a particular object/context, but are simultaneously just as much in a risk zone of having the entirely opposite effect on other individuals. The sounds in the latter case will not, however, necessarily be perceived as unpleasant to the point of the individual feeling the urge to end the listening experience.

While the majority of the participants (eight) perceived certain sound patterns featured in the artefact as pleasing to the ear – even when not actively experiencing subjective associations, which was my main interest – other moments had the completely opposite effect on seven people in total.

That being said, as stated in the conclusion above, none of the latter respondents actually felt like stopping the artefact playback just because of these negatively perceived points. Note that most of these unpleasant sound patterns were not timestamped with the computer mouse as the reactions clearly were not strong enough to warrant a click.

*5*. Sound patterns of scratching-centered character possess a very decent capacity to instill pleasure within listeners who manage to associate the sounds to a particular object/context. In the case of pleasure not occurring, this state does not have to be followed by unpleasantness, even in cases when the sounds are perceived to be of a dangerous and threatening character.

Not a single respondent reported experiencing subjective associations to objects/contexts in a negative light; they were either perceived as positively charged or neutrally. This is the case even though two of the participants described parts of the artefact as “bothersome” and “dangerous”, respectively; they simply didn’t consider that to be unpleasant, much less a reason to stop listening.

This lead me to hypothesize about the mental act of association making out a sort of (minor) reward for the brain as it manages to make sense of its worldly perceptions. It’s all, of course, VERY inconclusive at this stage.

*6*. Distinct repetitions of sound samples likely do not need to constitute a problem with regards to the listener’s ability to engage in an auditory ASMR-work.

Just a minor thing that I deemed necessary to mention; three participants reported having noticed a certain degree of repetition in the material, which was important to account for as it literally consists of a 30 second section being repeated sixteen times with some changes (I was surprised that more didn’t notice that).

That being said, the fact that these people picked up on it didn’t stop them from enjoying at least certain parts of the artefact, which gives me reason to speculate that obviously recurring sound patterns might not have to make out a problem when composing ASMR-productions. The idea would need some rigorous confirmation, though.

Learn more about Anders and his ASMR research project:

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One thought on “Undergraduate student investigates psychoacoustics of ASMR trigger sounds

  1. I suggest it may be less about the brain being programmed to respond to a particular sound vibration as “appealing” and maybe more about how certain sounds resonate with the natural nervous system electrical frequencies. Not so much people find a feather sound “appealing” than the sound sets up a resonant electrical pattern, like wave entrainment, which is pronounced and enjoyable. I would target primarily sounds that mimic the electrical impulse patterns one might see along the vagus nerve which I have long believed to be a central player in this, as well as the stape, because admit it, where would we be with the stape?

    Good old stape.

    But seriously: the stape vibrates, electrical nervous impulses are vibrations, everything that vibrates has resonant properties, and Bob’s your uncle! Also, Dopamine. Yummy yummy dopamine. Or so I’ve read.

    An experienced individual, the Type A tingler, is able to induce at will, the proper type of electrical impulse, in the right part of the body, so as to set off The Rush. I say “experienced” because I believe this can be a learned trait once one has experienced it more than a couple times. Even alcohol does not negatively impact this ability. Most likely the “magicians” of old might have among their number the Type A tingler, who has no science at all to begin to even describe the sensation, so must rely on alchemical or magical explanations. I did see some mention on reddit of how some people see developing their own Type A abilities is just the beginning of getting the super powers.

    I’d be happy if I could actually raise my hackles/induce goosebumps at will. This is a vestigial primate response, as is smiling to bare your teeth.

    There are also the Rumblers, who flex their tensor tympanis in such a way as triggers a yawn.

    I think this is the same as the Yoga Yawn, and the Yoga Yawn is induced by modulating one’s vagal nerve impulses, or otherwise affecting the state of the little bitty stape.

    My point I guess is, you do not need an externally-sourced sound. That with practice one is able to induce the tingles very consistently, like during a song you like. Instead of just feel it momentarily once or twice, stretch that sensation out longer, until you yourself are really in control of it. Turn it on at will.

    As the song says “Turn it on, and LEAVE it on!”

    Also I believe leaving the “Response” up the to Subject by clicking a mouse can be fine tuned by a generous application of EEG patches arranged about the body and use some galvanic skin testers plugged-together in series and fed into the computer via USB. (from Neulog – I Have one box for one pair of wires but I want more boxes to trace impulse patterns as the move about the body.) I got the thing to work on my XP box but not yet under Win7.

    Like

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