Chilling out: Starting to study the physiology of ASMR

Researchers from the UK’s University of Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan University have taken a closer look at what’s really going on with all those hugely popular, soft-spoken videos of cranial nerve exams and head-massage roleplays… and, in a PLOSone article, they’ve started to map out how ASMR affects the body:

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) describes the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, in response to a range of audio-visual triggers such as whispering, tapping, and hand movements. Public interest in ASMR has risen dramatically and ASMR experiencers watch ASMR videos to promote relaxation and sleep. Unlike ostensibly similar emotional experiences such as “aesthetic chills” from music and awe-inspiring scenarios, the psychological basis of ASMR has not yet been established. We present two studies (one large-scale online experiment; one laboratory study) that test the emotional and physiological correlates of the ASMR response. Both studies showed that watching ASMR videos increased pleasant affect only in people who experienced ASMR. Study 2 showed that ASMR was associated with reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance levels.

The pleasant tingling experience characteristic of ASMR is reminiscent of historically more well-researched emotional experiences such as awe- and music-induced chills [2–9]. However, unlike these well-established and accepted phenomena, the experience of ASMR has gone virtually unnoticed by psychological science. Is ASMR a genuine feeling in those that claim to experience it—does it produce reliable changes in affect and physiology?

More recently, neuroimaging research has revealed trait-level differences in resting-state brain activity between people who experience ASMR and those that do not. Specifically, ASMR experiencers (N = 11) show reduced functional connectivity (the coactivation of brain regions over time) in a number of areas of the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is large-scale neural network (comprising the angular gyri, posterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortices) that has been linked with internal mentation and self-referential processing….

Examining the psychological and physiological effects of ASMR is a particularly timely issue because the growing public recognition of ASMR media suggests that people are increasingly using ASMR videos for therapeutic benefit—including sleep and mood disorders. However, it is essential to establish whether ASMR produces the reliable emotional and physiological changes that would substantiate these anecdotal claims.

We recruited ASMR experiencers and matched controls and recorded their physiological and affective responses whilst they watched two ASMR videos (one of which was self-selected) and one control non-ASMR video for comparative purposes. Because ASMR is purported to induce relaxation, we expected ASMR videos to be associated with a commensurate physiological response in ASMR experiencers but not in non-experiencers; specifically, reduced heart rate and skin conductance level…. In both studies, we also tested whether ASMR videos produced feelings of connectedness and sexual arousal. Evidence suggests that ASMR is a non-sexual experience, but the interpersonal nature of many of the triggers (e.g., whispering) suggests that ASMR may have an impact on social (as well as non-social) feelings. Raw and meta data for both studies are available at:

ASMR participants showed significantly greater reductions in heart rate after watching both ASMR videos compared to non-ASMR participants (Mdiff = -1.48 [0.16, 2.80], d = 0.45). On average, this reduction was 3.41 bpm (d = 0.39) for ASMR participants (3.67 bpm for the standard ASMR video; 3.15 bpm for the self-selected video). Additionally, there was a significant main effect of ASMR group on changes in skin conductance, F(1, 105) = 5.92, p = .017, η2p = .05. ASMR participants showed significantly greater increases in skin conductance after watching both ASMR videos compared to non-ASMR participants (Mdiff = -0.26 [-0.47, -0.05], d = 0.46). On average, this increase was 0.30 μS (d = 0.17) for ASMR participants (0.27 μS for the standard ASMR video; 0.33 μS for the self-selected video).

Although we expected ASMR videos to be predominately associated with self-reports and physiological indices of relaxation (reduced heart rate and skin conductance level), we found evidence that ASMR is also an arousing (but not sexual) experience. ASMR videos were associated with increased excitement and skin conductance levels (an indicator of physiological arousal). The fact that seemingly opposing (i.e., activating and deactivating) self-reported emotions and physiology occurred simultaneously in response to ASMR videos may be indicative of the emotional complexity of ASMR.

[via PopSci]