Mar 12 2012

ASMR

You can find almost anything on YouTube. I can imagine a future historian analyzing the millions of videos from a certain period of time, using it as a window into our contemporary society. I further imagine some videos would be quite mysterious, however. For example, why is there a video of a person whispering Genesis in Latin? Another video is a static picture of a wrapped present with the sound of someone wrapping presents (several people apparently loved this). There is also video of is a real people getting eye exams. This seems ordinary enough – but there is a strange connection between the eye exam videos and the previous two.

The phenomenon is called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). I have been reading about this for a short time, it seems to be a growing subculture on the internet and is just peaking through to mainstream awareness.

By the way – this is perhaps another phenomenon worth pointing out, the internet allowing for previously personal and hidden experiences to come to general awareness. Human communication has been increased to the point that people who have what they think are unique personal experiences can find each other, eventually bringing the phenomenon to general awareness, giving it a name and an internet footprint. Of course, such phenomena are not always real – sometimes a real pattern emerges from the internet, sometimes illusory or misidentified patterns, the cultural equivalent of pareidolia.

But I have left you waiting long enough – what is ASMR? It is described as a pleasurable and calming tingling sensation in the back of the head. It is often called a brain orgasm, or braingasm (which I think is a bit misleading, since the regular kind of orgasm occurs in the brain with some peripheral manifestations). This experience can be triggered by a variety of odd sensations. The ASMR Research and Support website (you knew that had to exist) gives a list:

– Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
– Viewing educational or instructive videos or lectures
– Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
– Enjoying a piece of art or music
– Watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner – examples would be filling out a form, writing a check, going through a purse or bag, inspecting an item closely, etc.
– Close, personal attention from another person
– Haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back

This is a diverse list of triggers, but I can see what they all have in common. They all seem to engage the same networks of the brain – that part of us that interacts carefully and thoughtfully with our environment or with other people.  There is something calmly satisfying about such things. (Total aside – this reminds me of an episode of Spongebob in which he confessed he loves the sound that two pickles make when you rub them together.)

But of course not everyone gets a definite tingling sensation in their head and spine as a result of this soft satisfaction. I always start my investigations of such phenomena by asking the most basic question – is it real? 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 (that is always the key, but it is a recent enough phenomenon that this appears to be true) experienced and described the same syndrome with some 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.

Another way to address this question is to ask how plausible the phenomenon is. For reasons I will get into below, I think it is entirely plausible, or at least this is no obstacle to acceptance of ASMR as real.

So, with the small caveat that we are not completely sure at this time, it seems reasonable to proceed with the working assumption that ASMR is a real thing. If it is, then what’s going on. That is a matter for research. While there are references to research on the internet, it seems if any is happening at this time it is entirely descriptive. A PubMed search for ASMR (the full name, not the acronym) yielded exactly zero results. This could mean that there is a more technical term for ASMR and  I need to find out what that is, but I have not been able to find any other terms for ASMR. So if there is real research going on nothing has been published in the peer-reviewed literature so far.

Nicholas Tufnell wrote about his own experience with ASMR at the Huffington Post, and his description seems typical. I have never experienced this myself. I listened to the whispering in Latin video, which was eerily intimate at first, and then just a bit weird, although I always love listening to Latin. But I experienced no tingling or euphoria. The only thing in my life that I can relate to this is when I was a child very occasionally listening to a certain frequency of tapping, just about two per second, like a relentless monotonous beat, would “resonate” in my brain. I basically grew out of these experiences and have not had them for decades.

Looking back as a neurologist I have wondered what they were. They could even have been little seizures.  Seizures can be triggered by auditory stimuli. Perhaps ASMR is a type of seizure. Seizures can sometime be pleasurable, and can be triggered by these sorts of things.

Or, ASMR could just be a way of activating the pleasure response. Vertebrate brains are fundamentally hardwired for pleasure and pain – for positive and negative behavioral feedback. We are rewarded with a pleasurable sensation for doing things and experiencing things that increase our survival probability, and have a negative or painful experience to make us avoid harmful behavior or warn us about potential danger or injury. Over evolutionary time a complex set of reward and aversion feedbacks have developed.

Add to this the notion of neurodiversity – the fact that all of our human brains are not clones or copy cats, but vary in every possible way they can vary. We have a range of likes and dislikes, and there are individuals and even subcultures that seem to have a different pattern of pleasure stimulation than what is typical. (Perhaps in some cases this is largely cultural, not neurotypical.) S&M comes to mind. If reports are accurate, there are some people who experience pain as pleasurable and erotic.

Admittedly it gets very difficult teasing out learned associations and behaviors from innate hardwired ones, and all this applies to ASMR as well.

In any case it is plausible that a subset of the population has a particular pattern of neural hard wiring so that when they experience certain things that are typically quietly satisfying they get a little extra shot to their pleasure center. Once they experience this then they seek out greater and greater triggers of this response, and perhaps then a learning or conditioning component kicks in. Tufnell even describes getting a little addicted to seeking out ASMR stimuli.

What we need at this point are functional MRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation studies that look at what is happening in the brains of people while experiencing ASMR, vs typical controls. Are their brains really different, and in what way? I also wonder if the same or similar experience can be artificially induced in typical (non-ASMR) people.

This is just another example of how our brains are fantastically complex and weird. How else can you explain the existence of videos of whispering Latin and wrapping paper noise on YouTube.

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Thanks to kwilliams1 for suggesting the topic.

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