First published study to show brain activity during ASMR

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityI’m happy to share that I am one of the co-authors of the first published study to show brain activity during ASMR.

The study is titled, “An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the ASMR” and was published by Bryson Lochte, Sean Guillory, Craig Richard, and William Kelley in the journal BioImpacts on September 23, 2018.

One of the biggest questions about ASMR is, “What is happening in the brain?”  Although this study doesn’t fully answer that question, it is the first data to provide some direct insights.

Participants quietly layed down in fMRI machines, watched ASMR videos, and  their brains were scanned during moments of brain tingling – and then those brain images were compared to moments without brain tingling.

The brain regions that were strongly activated during ASMR were similar to those regions activated when humans, and other animals, perform soothing social behaviors – known as affiliative behaviors.  Typical examples of affiliative behaviors include calmly sitting close to each other, touching each other gently, and mutual grooming.

So how exactly was this study done?

Ten participants (70% male, mean age 24 years) who reported brain tingling while watching ASMR videos were recruited.  Participants previewed and selected video clips which strongly stimulated their ASMR and then they abstained from ASMR videos for 48 hours prior to the brain scans.

While watching the videos during the scanning procedure, the participants pressed a button to indicate if they felt relaxed with tingles (“Tingles”), relaxed without tingles (“Relaxed”), or in a general baseline state (“Baseline”).  Moments in the videos which included simulated touch were also noted (“Touch”).  The brain scan images from these different moments were then analyzed and compared for areas of activation.

Baseline sensations (neutral moments):

  • For all participants: occurred 41% of the total video time
  • Average per person: 850 total seconds at 40 second durations
  • Average per video: 5 occurrences

Relaxation without tingles:

  • For all participants: occurred 51% of the total video time
  • Average per person:  1078 total seconds at  37 second durations
  • Average per video:  7 occurrences

Relaxation with tingles:

  • For all participants: occurred 6% of the total video time
  • Average per person:  124 total seconds at  6 second durations
  • Average per video:  6 occurrences

Forgot to press a button:

  • For all participants: occurred 2% of the total video time

Brain regions which showed more activation during the relaxation moments (w/o tingles) than the baseline moments:

  • medial prefrontal cortex

Brain regions which showed more activation during the tingling moments than the relaxation moments w/o tingling:

  • medial prefrontal cortex
  • nucleus accumbens
  • insula/inferior frontal gyrus
  • supplementary motor areas
  • dorsal anterior cingulate cortex
  • secondary somatosensory cortex

In summary, the brain regions above showed significant activation during ASMR brain tingling.

The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with self-awareness, social cognition, and social behaviors including grooming.   Oxytocin has been shown to bind to receptors in this region and mediate relaxation responses.

The nucleus accumbens is associated with reward, satisfaction, and emotion – often involving dopamine.  Dopamine may therefore also be released during ASMR.

The insula, supplementary motor areas, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex
are considered to be involved in empathy. The activation of these regions during ASMR tingles provides support for the association of ASMR with social cognition and caring feelings towards others.

Other studies which also utilized fMRI have shown that some affiliate behaviors
involve strong activation of many of the same brain regions activated in this study.   Affiliate behaviors, like grooming and other social bonding moments, are known to involve dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.

The results of this study are the first to demonstrate unique neural activation associated with the experience of ASMR.

The findings suggest that ASMR videos are activating brain regions previously observed to be activated during experiences like social bonding and may involve dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and other neurochemicals associated with affiliative behaviors.

Links for this study:

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  • Tips: How to be an ASMR researcher.
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  • 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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