ASMR: Explaining an Experience
This article is authored by Sydney Simon and Lucy Cui and is a part of the 2018 pre-graduate spotlight week.
Fingernails tapping on plastic, the sharp snips of metal scissors cutting hair, droplets of water plopping into a puddle; many consider these sounds satisfying or relaxing. In fact, some individuals experience a physical sensation similar to ‘pins and needles,’ shivers, or tingles in response to these sounds. This sensory experience is known formally as the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, otherwise known as ASMR. ASMR is a controversial psychological phenomenon that raises the question of the body’s response to certain auditory stimuli and possible clinical implications. When compared with responses like frisson and other known physical reactions to sensory triggers, ASMR lacks widespread credence by academia as a veritable, separate sensory experience. Is there a clear physiological and psychological basis for this phenomenon, or is it largely anecdotal and pseudoscientific? Could this information be used in a clinical setting, and does it have empirically measurable effects on apparently ASMR capable individuals? The subject of a slew of recent research publications aims to answer these questions.
What is ASMR?
The autonomous sensory meridian response refers to a tingling sensation in response to audio or visual stimuli known as triggers; it is often felt in the skull, and frequently reported toward the base of the head and down the spine to the extremities (Barratt & Davis, 2015). Although the ASMR response is often closely associated with auditory stimuli, visual triggers such as painting, smoothing out a fleece blanket, or hand motions mimicking personal touch along a camera lens often produce an ASMR reaction. Common auditory triggers include crisp sounds, whispers, and personal attention (Barratt & Davis, 2015).
How does ASMR Compare with Misophonia and Frisson?
Many have heard of misophonia, or an adverse emotional reaction and heightened autonomic activity in response to unpleasant trigger sounds, which has been found to be associated with other disorders including Tourette’s syndrome and various neuropsychiatric disorders (Cavanna & Seri, 2015). These triggers can include gum chewing, engine roaring, or finger tapping, and can be a product of most anything; animals, people, and machines. It is not tied to visual stimuli, unlike ASMR (Cavanna & Seri, 2015). A similar phenomenon is reported by the Spanish, who describe this negative, repulsive sensation as “grima,” roughly translated as ‘disgust’ (Fernandez-Dols, Gallo, Gollwitzer, & Keil, 2017). ASMR would be considered the opposite of this phenomenon, as it occurs as an often pleasurable or relaxing response to a sound, although the nature of these prefered sounds can vary from person to person. Some trigger sounds can be controversial, including what are considered ‘mouth sounds,’ or lip smacks and other noises produced using the tongue or mouth; this includes slurping and eating. These sounds have often been associated with misophonia, but are a somewhat common triggers for many people who experience ASMR (Cavanna & Seri 2015; Barratt, Davis, & Spence, 2017).
A similar and likely related experience is known as frisson, or the fleeting experience of shivers and goosebumps when experiencing an emotional response to music (Del Campo & Kehle 2017). Interestingly, 50% of variance in fission can be explained by the Big Five personality traits, suggesting a strong relationship between personality and physical reactions to emotion; data has suggested that ASMR, too, is also tied with personality traits (Del Camo & Kehle 2017). Although frisson and ASMR have yet to be shown as distinct or related phenomena, they are similar in that they are both pleasurable sensory experiences in response to particular stimuli.
Who can experience ASMR?
Few studies have been conducted that explore the average demographic of ASMR experiencing people, or the percentage of the population that report experiencing it. It is likely that many more individuals have experienced ASMR than what is reported, but perhaps they do not recognize the sensation as such (Cavanna & Seri, 2015). Although most often first experienced in early childhood, ASMR capability can also spontaneously occur in adulthood (Cavanna & Seri, 2015; Barratt & Davis, 2015). Of those participants represented in Barratt’s study, nearly 50% of those that experience misophonia reported ASMR capabilities, suggesting that sensitivity to sound on both ends of the spectrum (Barratt et al., 2017). In fact, some data suggests that frisson is experienced more commonly than ASMR (Del Campo & Kehle, 2017). Synesthesia was thought to occur more frequently in people who experience ASMR, although significant results supporting this relationship have not yet been found (Barratt & Davis, 2015).
Preliminary research has shown that personality may play a role in one’s ability to experience ASMR. In their 2017 study, Clark, Fredborg, and Smith found that ASMR is correlated with several of the Big Five personality traits. Specifically, ASMR listeners were associated with lower levels of Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. Higher scores for Openness and Neuroticism were also found among this group when compared with matched controls (Clark, Fredborg, & Smith, 2017). These initial findings suggest a higher likelihood for ASMR capabilities for certain personality types.
Barratt et al. conducted one of the largest existing survey-based investigations regarding ASMR and trigger preferences. The majority of their 130 participants hailed from Western countries including the United States and the United Kingdom (Barratt et al., 2017). Future studies could examine the frequency of people who experience ASMR, as well as their preferences, in other societies and cultures.
How Do We Experience Triggers?
Triggers are very specific to the individual, and can include many types of sounds and arrangements. Barratt and her colleagues explored the efficacy of trigger length, presentation, and other aspects of trigger performance in a 2017 study. They found that viewers preferred sound triggers that last between 5 and 7 minutes, are natural and unedited, and have a lower pitch (Barratt et al., 2017).
Not only is ASMR experienced in-person, but it can also be triggered through video transmission. The sudden increase in academic interest in this phenomenon may be explained by the recent growth of the ASMR community on video streaming sites like Youtube (example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oxyARXD_RM&feature=youtu.be). For just over a decade, videos of ASMR triggers or roleplays have been produced in the privacy of people’s homes by enthusiasts Powerful microphones and acoustically minded set-ups produce high quality sounds that can mirror lifelike quality. Called ASMRtists by their viewers, Youtube content creators produce trigger videos for millions of followers and have gained popular media attention (Andersen, 2015; Del Campo & Kehle, 2017).
What are the Purposes and Therapeutic Implications?
ASMR is described as a euphoric, relaxing, and anxiety reducing experience. Many ASMR capable individuals seek out ASMR videos and triggers as a sleep or concentration aid, or just to relax and reduce feelings of uneasiness (Barratt & Davis, 2015; Del Campo & Kehle, 2017). ASMR, like frisson, can be considered an aspect of mindfulness, and thus could possibly be used to increase subjective well being and contentment (Del Campo & Kehle, 2017).
Regarding interactions with medications and depression, research is largely anecdotal and does not suggest a widespread decrease or increase of the effectiveness of psychopharmacological drugs or sleeping medications. ASMR can provide negative mood relief for individuals with depression, with moderately to severely depressed individuals reportedly experiencing greater change in mood when compared with those without depression (Barratt & Davis, 2015). Data regarding the possible genetic transmission of ASMR are not plentiful, and remain unclear (Barratt & Davis, 2015).
Another potential use of ASMR is to foster a high level of concentration or immersion, otherwise known as flow (Bonaiuto et al., 2016). According to a study by Barratt and Davis in 2017, ASMR is considered to contribute to a flowlike state; they found a significant positive relationship between the number of triggers and greater flow experience (Barratt & Davis, 2015). A later study supports this claim, showing that ASMR capable viewers prefer relaxing, warm, and safe video triggers; these environmental qualities suggest conduciveness to flow (Barratt et al., 2017).
Despite the lack of academic consensus on the causes and applications of ASMR, it certainly is an intriguing topic with several potential therapeutic implications. Hopefully future studies will work to elucidate the physiological and psychological underpinnings, as well as the clinical applications of this mysterious phenomenon.
*Since there is less established literature focused on the experience of visual triggers, this article focused on auditory stimuli.
Sydney Simon is a third-year Psychobiology major from Sacramento, California. She is the associate editor-in-chief of the Undergraduate Research Journal of Psychology at UCLA, and enjoys volunteering with children as the Site Coordinator of Bruins Public Health. In addition, she is currently a research assistant in Dr. Philip Kellman’s Human Perception Lab and Dr. Joseph Manson’s EAR Lab. In her free time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, traveling, and going out to eat with friends and family.
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