New research into ASMR – the tingling some people feel on the head and spine when watching triggering videos – has identified a fading ‘afterglow’ effect in the brain, opening up possibilities for ASMR videos to be used therapeutically.
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) describes a multisensory experience when exposed to specific audio-visual triggers. Inducing stimuli vary, but soft, whispered, voices and some repetitive sounds such as brushing noises are common triggers.
It is unclear how many people are capable of experiencing ASMR (‘ASMR Responders’) or why some people experience it and not others. ASMR induction is thought to be involuntary and heavily dependent on the environment and individual mood. Many people will never experience it, but for those who do it creates a low-level euphoria.
While anecdotal evidence suggests individuals watch ASMR-eliciting stimuli to relieve symptoms of stress, anxiety, or even chronic pain, little research has been done on the potential therapeutic benefits of ASMR. The brain’s electrical activity – which brain areas and brainwaves are affected by ASMR, and how – has also been largely unexplored.
A team of psychologists, led by Joydeep Bhattacharya, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, recorded brain activity before, during and after participants watched ASMR-inducing videos and self-reported changes in their state.
The research team set out to identify oscillatory changes in the brain (i.e. brain waves - the rhythmic electrical activity in neural tissue generated in response to stimuli) induced by ASMR videos and investigate potential ‘decaying’ effects – the oscillatory changes in the minutes after the ASMR experience.
26 adult volunteers between the ages of 18 and 45 took part in the study, all classified as either weak or strong ASMR Responders. Each was provided with a 10 minute long individualised ASMR videos for the experiment. The videos were chosen by the participant to be their current favourite ASMR-inducing clip to maximise their ASMR experience during the study. Each participant watched their chosen ASMR video, once scrambled (where the sequence of five second clips were randomly shuffled), and once in its original form.
While watching the ASMR videos, participants were instructed to keep their eyes open and press one of four buttons as frequently as they needed to indicate a change to their subjective state: unchanged or normal; relaxed with no tingling; weak tinging sensations; strong tingling sensations.
Using EEG to record brain activity, researchers found that ASMR was associated with a robust change in five frequency bands over a multitude of brain regions, with ASMR amplifying low frequency oscillations and reducing high frequency oscillations in the brain.
They found decreases in delta power in prefrontal regions; increases in alpha power in parietal, frontal, and temporal regions; increases in low beta power in parietal and temporal regions, decreases in high beta power in parietal and occipital regions, and decreases in gamma power in occipital regions.
Importantly, increases in alpha power during the ASMR experience persisted for up to 45 minutes after the videos ended, indicating a long term, fading, ASMR effect or state of relaxation.
The study found no noticeable differences in the induction of ASMR in the participant if the video they watched was scrambled, or if it was played in an original form.
Thomas Swart, the study’s first author and a PhD researcher in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “Our results provide the first evidence that the sources of ASMR tingling sensations in the brain may arise from decreases in higher frequency oscillations, and that ASMR may induce a sustained relaxation state.
“Distinct from previous research, we observed the modulation of beta power by ASMR. Beta modulation has been found in tasks involving sensorimotor processing, processing sounds, action observation and emotional recognition, and even the predictive coding of audio-visual stimuli. These processes are all particularly relevant for processing ASMR stimuli and the perception of the ASMR tingling sensations.
“This could be explained by the extraction of acoustically complex features from whispered or softly spoken speech in ASMR stimuli. Consider this reasoning with the inhibitory effect of the alpha also seen during ASMR: the enhanced alpha may represent the suppression of distractors irrelevant to the goal of vocal processing. If ASMR stimuli do indeed prime the individual to be more capable of filtering out distractions, this could explain the reported use of ASMR as a study aid.”
Professor Bhattacharya, the study’s senior author, added: “Our findings identify brain correlates of ASMR, but these are purely correlational evidence – we cannot make any claim of causality. The study is one step towards understanding the underlying mechanisms of ASMR, and hopefully, in future, we will have a deeper insight into why and how ASMR impacts us.”
'ASMR amplifies low frequency and reduces high frequency oscillations' by Thomas R. Swart, Michael J. Banissy, Thomas P. Hein, Ricardo Bruña, Ernesto Pereda and Joydeep Bhattacharya was published in the Journal Cortex on 2 February 2022.