Autonomous sensory meridian response
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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is an experience characterised by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. It has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia. Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) signifies the subjective experience of 'low-grade euphoria' characterised by 'a combination of positive feelings, and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin'. It is most commonly triggered by specific acoustic, visual and digital media stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attentional control.
Origins of the nameEdit
The term 'autonomous sensory meridian response' (ASMR) was coined on 25 February 2010 by Jennifer Allen, a cybersecurity professional residing in New York in the introduction to a Facebook Group she founded entitled the 'ASMR Group'.
Prior to the subsequent social consensus that led to what is now the ubiquitous adoption of that term, other names were proposed and discussed at a number of locations including the Steady Health forum, the 'Society of Sensationalists' Yahoo! Group, and the 'Unnamed Feeling' Blog.
Proposed formal names included 'Attention Induced Head Orgasm', 'Attention Induced Euphoria', and 'Attention Induced Observant Euphoria'; whilst colloquial terms in usage included 'brain massage', 'head tingle', 'brain tingle', 'spine tingle', and 'brain orgasm'.
Whilst many colloquial and formal terms used and proposed between 2007 and 2010 included reference to 'orgasm', there was during that time a significant majority objection to its use among those active in online discussions, many of whom have continued to persist in differentiating the euphoric and relaxing nature of ASMR from sexual arousal. However, by 2015, a division had occurred within the ASMR community over the subject of sexual arousal, with some creating videos categorized as ASMRotica, which are deliberately designed to be sexually stimulating.
The initial consensus among the 'ASMR Community' was that the name should not pose a high risk of the phenomenon being perceived as sexual. Given that consensus, Allen proposed 'autonomous sensory meridian response' (ASMR). Allen chose the words intending or assuming them to have the following specific meanings:
- Autonomous – spontaneous, self-governing, within or without control
- Sensory – pertaining to the senses or sensation
- Meridian – signifying a peak, climax, or point of highest development
- Response – referring to an experience triggered by something external or internal
Allen verified in a 2016 interview that she purposely selected these terms because they were more objective, comfortable, and clinical than alternative terms for the sensation. Allen explained she selected the word meridian to replace the word orgasm due to its meaning of point or period of greatest prosperity.
The term 'autonomous sensory meridian response' and its initialism 'ASMR' were adopted by both the community of contributors to online discussions, and those reporting and commentating on the phenomenon.
The sensation and how it is triggeredEdit
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The subjective experience, sensation, and perceptual phenomenon now widely identified by the term 'autonomous sensory meridian response' is described by some of those susceptible to it as 'akin to a mild electrical current…or the carbonated bubbles in a glass of champagne'.
ASMR is usually precipitated by stimuli referred to as 'triggers'. ASMR triggers, which are most commonly acoustic and visual, may be encountered through the interpersonal interactions of daily life. Additionally, ASMR is often triggered by exposure to specific audio and video. Such media may be especially made with the specific purpose of triggering ASMR, or originally created for other purposes and later discovered to be effective as a trigger of the experience.
Stimuli that can trigger ASMR, as reported by those who experience it, include the following:
- Listening to a softly spoken or whispering voice
- Listening to quiet, repetitive sounds resulting from someone engaging in a mundane task such as turning the pages of a book
- Watching somebody attentively execute a mundane task such as preparing food
- Receiving altruistic tender personal attention
- Initiating the stimulus through conscious manipulation without the need for external video or audio triggers
Furthermore, watching and listening to an audiovisual recording of a person performing or simulating the above actions and producing their consequent and accompanying sounds is sufficient to trigger ASMR for the majority of those who report susceptibility to the experience.
ASMR triggers typically originate from human behaviors. Triggering behaviors are reportedly consistent with behaviors arising from individuals who are fully present in a given moment, as described in Buddhist texts. For example, in the book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa's description of a fully present person performing a Japanese tea ceremony is consistent with descriptions of visual ASMR triggers: "If you pour a cup of tea, you are aware of extending your arm and touching your hand to a teapot, lifting it and pouring the water. Finally the water touches your teacup and fills it, and you stop pouring and put the teapot down precisely...each precise movement has dignity." In the same text, a description of how a fully present person speaks is consistent with descriptions of verbal ASMR triggers: "Every pause made in the process of speaking becomes a kind of punctuation. Speak, allow space, speak, allow space. It is beautiful that you are not rushing, that you are not talking at tremendous speed, raucously."
Psychologists Nick Davis and Emma Barrat discovered that whispering was an effective trigger for 75% of the 475 subjects who took part in an experiment to investigate the nature of ASMR; and that statistic is reflected in the popularity of intentional ASMR videos that comprise someone speaking in a whispered voice.
Many of those who experience ASMR report that some specific non-vocal ambient noises are also effective triggers of ASMR, including those produced by fingers scratching or tapping a surface, the crushing of eggshells, the crinkling and crumpling of a flexible material such as paper, writing, or a person eating. Many YouTube videos that are intended to trigger ASMR responses capture a single person performing these actions and the sounds that result.
Personal attention role play triggersEdit
In addition to the effectiveness of specific acoustic stimuli, many subjects report that ASMR is triggered by the receipt of tender personal attention, often comprising combined physical touch and vocal expression, such as when having their hair cut, nails painted, ears cleaned, or back massaged, whilst the service provider speaks quietly to the recipient. Furthermore, many of those who have experienced ASMR during these and other comparable encounters with a service provider report that watching an 'ASMRtist' simulate the provision of such personal attention, acting directly to camera as if the viewer were the recipient of a simulated service, is sufficient to trigger it.
Psychologists Nick Davis and Emma Barrat discovered that personal attention was an effective trigger for 69% of the 475 subjects who participated in a study conducted at Swansea University, second in popularity only to whispering.
Clinical role play triggersEdit
Among the category of intentional ASMR videos that simulate the provision of personal attention is a subcategory of those specifically depicting the 'ASMRtist' providing clinical or medical services, including routine general medical examinations. The creators of these videos make no claims to the reality of what is depicted, and the viewer is intended to be aware that they are watching and listening to a simulation, performed by an actor. Nonetheless, many subjects attribute therapeutic outcomes to these and other categories of intentional ASMR videos, and there are voluminous anecdotal reports of their effectiveness in inducing sleep for those susceptible to insomnia, and assuaging a range of symptoms including those associated with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.
In the first peer-reviewed article on ASMR, published in Perspectives in Biology during the summer of 2013, Nitin Ahuja, who was at the time of publication a medical student at the University of Virginia, invited conjecture on whether the receipt of simulated medical attention might have some tangible therapeutic value for the recipient, comparing the purported positive outcome of clinical role play ASMR videos with the themes of the novel Love in the Ruins by author and physician Walker Percy, published in 1971.
The story follows Tom More, a psychiatrist living in a dystopian future who develops a device called the Ontological Lapsometer that, when traced across the scalp of a patient, detects the neurochemical correlation to a range of disturbances. In the course of the novel, More admits that the 'mere application of his device' to a patient's body 'results in the partial relief of his symptoms'.
Ahuja alleges that through the character of Tom More, as depicted in Love in the Ruins, Percy 'displays an intuitive understanding of the diagnostic act as a form of therapy unto itself'. Ahuja asks whether similarly, the receipt of simulated personal clinical attention by an actor in an ASMR video might afford the listener and viewer some relief.
Background and historyEdit
The contemporary history of ASMR began on 19 October 2007 when a 21-year-old registered user of a discussion forum for health-related subjects at a website called 'Steady Health', with the username 'okaywhatever', submitted a post in which they described having experienced a specific sensation since childhood, comparable to that stimulated by tracing fingers along the skin, yet often triggered by seemingly random and unrelated non-haptic events, such as 'watching a puppet show' or 'being read a story'.
Replies to this post, which indicated that a significant number of others experienced the sensation to which 'okaywhatever' referred, also in response to witnessing mundane events, precipitated the formation of a number of web-based locations intended to facilitate further discussion and analysis of the phenomenon for which there was plentiful anecdotal accounts, yet no consensus-agreed name nor any scientific data or explanation.
These included a Yahoo! Group called 'The Society of Sensationalists', founded on 12 December 2008 by a user named 'Ryan, AKA M?stery'; a blog at Blogspot.com called 'The Unnamed Feeling', launched on 13 February 2010 by Andrew MacMuiris; an ASMR Facebook Group founded on 25 February 2010 by Jennifer Allen; a Subreddit forum created by an individual with the username ' MrStonedOne' on 28 February 2011; and a number of other web locations that facilitate user interaction.
Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz suggests that a passage from the novel Mrs. Dalloway authored by Virginia Woolf and published in 1925, describes something distinctly comparable. In the passage from Mrs. Dalloway cited by Setz, a nursemaid speaks to the man who is her patient 'deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper's, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound'.
According to Setz, this citation generally alludes to the effectiveness of the human voice and soft or whispered vocal sounds specifically as a trigger of ASMR for many of those who experience it, as demonstrated by the responsive comments posted to YouTube videos that depict someone speaking softly or whispering, typically directly to camera.
Nothing is known about whether or not there are any evolutionary origins to ASMR because the perceptual phenomenon is yet to be clearly identified as having biological correlates. Notwithstanding, a significant majority of descriptions of ASMR by those who experience it compare the sensation to that precipitated by receipt of tender physical touch, providing examples such as having their hair cut or combed. This has precipitated conjecture that ASMR might be related to the act of grooming.
For example, David Huron, Professor in the School of Music at Ohio State University, states that the 'ASMR effect' is 'clearly strongly related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention' and has a 'strong similarity to physical grooming in primates' who 'derive enormous pleasure (bordering on euphoria) when being groomed by a grooming partner' 'not to get clean, but rather to bond with each other'.
The two categories of the 'ASMR' experienceEdit
While little scientific research has been conducted into potential neurobiological correlates to the perceptual phenomenon known as 'autonomous sensory meridian response' (ASMR), with a consequent dearth of data with which to either explain or refute its physical nature, there is voluminous anecdotal literature comprising personal commentary and intimate disclosure of subjective experiences distributed across forums, blogs, and YouTube comments by hundreds of thousands of people. Within this literature, in addition to the original consensus that ASMR is euphoric but non-sexual in nature, a further point of continued majority agreement within the community of those who experience it is that they fall into two broad categories of subjects.
One category depends upon external triggers in order to experience the localized sensation and its associated feelings, which typically originates in the head, often reaching down the neck and sometimes the upper back. The other category can intentionally augment the sensation and feelings through attentional control, without dependence upon external stimuli, or 'triggers', in a manner compared by some subjects to their experience of meditation.
The most popular source of stimuli reported by subjects to be effective in triggering ASMR is video. Videos reported to be effective in triggering ASMR fall into two categories, identified and named by the community as 'Intentional' and 'Unintentional'. Intentional media is created by those known within the community as 'ASMRtists' with the purpose of triggering ASMR in viewers and listeners. Unintentional media is that made for other purposes, often before attention was drawn to the phenomenon in 2007, but which some subjects discover to be effective in triggering ASMR. One of the most popular examples of unintentional media as several journalists have noted is of famed painter Bob Ross and his videos on YouTube triggering the effect on many of the viewers.
Some ASMR video creators use binaural recording techniques to simulate the acoustics of a three dimensional environment, reported to elicit in viewers and listeners the experience of being in close proximity to actor and vocalist.
Viewing and hearing such ASMR videos that comprise ambient sound captured through binaural recording has been compared to the reported effect of listening to binaural beats, which are also alleged to precipitate pleasurable sensations and the subjective experience of calm and equanimity.
Binaural recordings are made specifically to be heard through headphones rather than loudspeakers. When listening to sound through loudspeakers, the left and right ear can both hear the sound coming from both speakers. By distinction, when listening to sound through headphones, the sound from the left earpiece is audible only to the left ear, and the sound from the right ear piece is audible only to the right ear. When producing binaural media, the sound source is recorded by two separate microphones, placed at a distance comparable to that between two ears, and they are not mixed, but remain separate on the final medium, whether video or audio.
Listening to a binaural recording through headphones simulates the binaural hearing by which people listen to live sounds. For the listener, this experience is characterized by two perceptions. Firstly, the listener perceives being in close proximity to the performers and location of the sound source. Secondly, the listener perceives what is often reported as a three dimensional sound.
There are no scientific data nor any clinical trials from which to deduce evidence that might support or refute any clinical benefits or dangers of ASMR, with claims to therapeutic efficacy remaining based on voluminous personal anecdotal accounts by those who attribute the positive effect on anxiety, depression, and insomnia to ASMR video media.
Amer Khan, a physician who practices sleep medicine at the Sutter Neuroscience Institute, has advised that watching ASMR videos as a means to treat insomnia may not be the best method by which to induce high-quality sleep, as it could become a habit comparable to dependence on a white noise machine.
This point of view is contradicted by Carl W. Bazil, Professor of Neurology at Columbia University Medical Center and director of its Sleep Disorders Center, who suggests that ASMR videos may provide ways to 'shut your brain down' that are a variation of other methods, including guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis and meditation', of potential particular benefit for those with insomnia, whom he describes as being in a 'hyper state of arousal'.
Research and commentaryEdit
Several peer-reviewed articles about ASMR have been published.
The first, by the medical student Nitin Ahuja, is titled It Feels Good to Be Measured: clinical role-play, Walker Percy, and the tingles. It was published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine during 2013 and focused on a conjectural cultural and literary analysis.
Another article, published in the journal Television and New Media in November 2014, is by Joceline Andersen, a doctoral student in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, who suggested that ASMR videos comprising whispering 'create an intimate sonic space shared by the listener and the whisperer'. Andersen's article proposes that the pleasure jointly shared by both an ASMR video creator and its viewers might be perceived as a particular form of 'non-standard intimacy' by which consumers pursue a form of pleasure mediated by video media. Andersen suggests that such pursuit is private yet also public or publicized through the sharing of experiences via online communication with others within the 'whispering community'.
Another article, 'Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state', by Nick Davis and Emma Barratt, lecturer and post-graduate researcher respectively in the Department of Psychology at Swansea University, was published in PeerJ. This article aimed to 'describe the sensations associated with ASMR, explore the ways in which it is typically induced in capable individuals…to provide further thoughts on where this sensation may fit into current knowledge on atypical perceptual experiences…and to explore the extent to which engagement with ASMR may ease symptoms of depression and chronic pain ' The paper was based on a study of 245 men, 222 women, and 8 individuals of non-binary gender, aged from 18 to 54 years, all of whom had experienced ASMR, and regularly consumed ASMR media, from which the authors concluded and suggested that 'given the reported benefits of ASMR in improving mood and pain symptoms…ASMR warrants further investigation as a potential therapeutic measure similar to that of meditation and mindfulness.'
An article titled An examination of the default mode network in individuals with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)  by Stephen D. Smith, Beverley Katherine Fredborg, and Jennifer Kornelsen, looked at the default mode network (DMN) in individuals with ASMR. The study, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), concluded that there were significant differences in the DMN of individuals who have ASMR as compared to a control group without ASMR.
Prior to the publication of these three peer-reviewed articles, in May 2013, Bryson Lochte, an undergraduate in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, submitted his final thesis entitled Touched Through a Screen: Putative Neural Correlates of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response based on studies conducted at the college's Brain Imaging Laboratory supervised by Professor William M. Kelley.
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the effects of two categories of popular ASMR videos on the brain, using 18 subjects. The first category depicted an ASMRtist giving direct attention to the camera; the second type showed two actors interacting from a third person perspective. Non-ASMR videos were used as a control.
Results showed that the first category precipitated increased activation in areas of the brain 'associated with self-referential and empathetic thought'; the second category 'caused activity in the mirror neuron system'; and both categories instigated 'activation of the somatosensory regions'. Based on these results, Lochte suggests that the first category of ASMR videos, in which the ASMRtist speaks and looks directly to camera, 'generate cognitive engagement indicative of actual human interaction'. Lochte's results are published as a dissertation at Dartmouth College and he intends to publish them in a scientific journal.
A number of scientists have published or made public their reaction to and opinions of ASMR.
On 12 March 2012, Steven Novella, Director of General Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine and an active contributor to widely reported and academically cited discussion and debate on topics related to neurology and scientific skepticism, published a post about ASMR on Neurologica, a blog dedicated to his writings on neuroscience, skepticism, and critical thinking. In it, Novella says that he always starts his investigations of such phenomena by asking whether or not it is real. Regarding ASMR, Novella says "in this case, I don't think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is. There are a number of people who seem to have independently experienced and described" it with "fairly specific details. In this way it's similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history." Novella tentatively posits the possibilities that ASMR might be either a type of pleasurable seizure, or another way to activate the "pleasure response". However, Novella draws attention to the lack of scientific investigation into ASMR, suggesting that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation technologies should be used to study the brains of people who experience ASMR in comparison to people who do not, as a way of beginning to seek scientific understanding and explanation of the phenomenon.
Four months after Novella's blog post, Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive sciences at the University of Sheffield, was reported to have said that ASMR "might well be a real thing, but it's inherently difficult to research...something like this that you can't see or feel" and "doesn't happen for everyone". Stafford compares the current status of ASMR with development of attitudes toward synesthesia, which he says "for years...was a myth, then in the 1990s people came up with a reliable way of measuring it".
Comparisons and associations with other phenomenaEdit
Comparison with synesthesiaEdit
Integral to the subjective experience of ASMR is a localized tingling sensation that many describe as similar to being gently touched, but which is stimulated by watching and listening to video media in the absence of any physical contact with another person.
These reports have precipitated comparison between ASMR and synesthesia – a condition characterized by the excitation of one sensory modality by stimuli that normally exclusively stimulates another, as when the hearing of a specific sound induces the visualization of a distinct color, a type of synesthesia called chromesthesia. Thereby, people with other types of synesthesia report for example 'seeing sounds' in the case of auditory-visual synesthesia, or 'tasting words' in the case of lexical-gustatory synesthesia.
In the case of ASMR, many report the perception of 'being touched' by the sights and sounds presented on a video recording, comparable to visual-tactile and auditory-tactile synesthesia.
Comparison with misophoniaEdit
Some commentators and members of the ASMR community have sought to relate ASMR to misophonia, which literally means the 'hatred of sound', but manifests typically as 'automatic negative emotional reactions to particular sounds – the opposite of what can be observed in reactions to specific audio stimuli in ASMR'.
For example, those who suffer from misophonia often report that specific human sounds, including those made by breathing or whispering with any loudness can precipitate feelings of anger and disgust, in the absence of any previously learned associations that might otherwise explain those reactions.
There are plentiful anecdotal reports by those who claim to have both misophonia and ASMR at multiple web-based user-interaction and discussion locations. Common to these reports is the experience of ASMR to some sounds, and misophonia in response to others. In one case, a subject reports that the sound of someone whispering can precipitate ASMR or misophonia depending on who is producing it.
Comparison with frissonEdit
The tingling sensation that characterises ASMR has been compared and contrasted to 'frisson', which is a French word for 'shiver'.
However, the English word 'shiver' signifies the rhythmic involuntary contraction of skeletal muscles which serves the function of generating heat in response to low temperatures, has variable duration, and is often reported subjectively as unpleasant. By distinction, the French word 'frisson', signifies a brief sensation usually reported as pleasurable and often expressed as an overwhelming emotional response to stimuli, such as a piece of music. Frisson often occurs simultaneously with piloerection, colloquially known as 'goosebumps', by which tiny muscles called arrector pili contract, causing body hair, particularly that on the limbs and back of the neck, to erect or 'stand on end'.
Despite such similarities and commonalities between the two, if you enter "ASMR and frisson" into an internet search, you may see a number of posts claiming that frisson and ASMR are two different phenomena. These comparisons are taking place primarily on internet forums, however, as very few legitimate studies have been done on ASMR, and even fewer have discussed the link between it and frisson specifically. At this time, much of the data on ASMR comes from primarily anecdotal sources.
Association with sexualityEdit
There have been persistent efforts by many of those who form the 'ASMR community' to distinguish the euphoric sensation that characterizes ASMR from sexual arousal, and to differentiate video media created with intent to trigger it from pornography.
Meanwhile, some journalists and commentators have drawn attention to the way in which many videos made as triggers are susceptible to being perceived as sexually provocative in a number of ways. Firstly, the use of objects as acoustic instruments and points of visual focus, accompanied by a softly spoken voice has been described as potentially fetishistic. Secondly, commentary and reporting on ASMR videos points out that the majority of 'ASMRtists' appearing in them are 'young attractive females', whose potential appeal is further allegedly sexualized by their use of a whispered vocal expression and gentleness of simulated touch purportedly associated exclusively with intimacy. The popularity of ASMR videos featuring women does substantially exceed those created by male performers. However, there are some popular male 'ASMRtists'.
Representation in literature and the artsEdit
British artist Lucy Clout's single channel video 'Shrugging Offing', made for exhibition in March 2013, uses the model of online ASMR broadcasts as the basis for a work exploring the female body.
The first digital arts installation specifically inspired by ASMR was by the American artist Julie Weitz and called Touch Museum, which opened at the Young Projects Gallery on 13 February 2015, and comprised video screenings distributed throughout seven rooms.
The music for Julie Weitz' Touch Museum digital arts installation was composed by Benjamin Wynn under his pseudonym 'Deru', and was the first musical composition specifically created for live ASMR arts event.
Subsequently, artists Sophie Mallett and Marie Toseland created 'a live binaural sound work' composed of ASMR triggers, broadcast by Resonance FM, the listings for which advised the audience to 'listen with headphones for the full sensory effect'.
On 18 May 2015, contemporary composer Holly Herndon released an album called Platform which included a collaboration with artist Claire Tolan named Lonely At The Top, intended to trigger ASMR.
The track "Brush" from Holly Pester's 2016 album and poetry collection Common Rest featured artist Claire Tolan, exploring ASMR and its relation to lullaby.
Fictional and creative literatureEdit
In March 2013, the American weekly hour-long radio program This American Life, produced by WBEZ and hosted by Ira Glass, broadcast the first short story on the subject of ASMR, called A Tribe Called Rest, authored and read by American novelist and screenwriter Andrea Seigel.
In addition to the information collected from the 475 subjects who participated in the scientific investigation conducted by Nick Davies and Emma Barratt, there have been two attempts to collate statistical data pertaining to the demographics, personal history, clinical conditions, and subjective experience of those who report susceptibility to ASMR.
Firstly, in December 2012, Craig Richard – a blogger on the subject of ASMR – published the first results of a poll comprising 12 questions that had received 161 respondents, followed by second results in August 2015 by which time there were 477 responses.
Secondly, in August 2014, Craig Richard, Jennifer Allen, and Karissa Burnett published a survey at SurveyMonkey that was reviewed by Shenandoah University Institutional Review Board, and the Fuller Theological Seminary School of Psychology Human Studies Review Committee. In September 2015, when the survey had received 13000 responses, the publishers announced that they were analyzing the data with intent to publish the results. No such publication or report is yet available.
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