ASMR: Science, sentiment or placebo effect? | Health & Wellness

A woman records content.
A woman records content.UNSPLASH

Richard Craig is a physiologist and teaches Biomedical Sciences at Shenandoah University (Virginia). Also, he is bald. A quality that he wouldn’t stress if it weren’t for the fact that it’s Craig himself who uses it like that in a TED talk. “I’m bald, but what I miss is not my hair, but going to the hairdresser.” From there, the professor recounts the ritual of his childhood and youth that used to begin with the walk to the head wash where a hairdresser sat him down, placed a towel on his shoulders and took pains to wash his hair with a cranial massage that caused a “luminous tingle” in the center of his head, down his neck, reached his spine and left him in a deep state of relaxation.

Professor Craig was experiencing autonomic sensory meridian response (ASMR), but didn’t know it at the time. In fact, that very pleasant tingling sensation that begins in the center of the head in response to the touch of hands, but also to sounds, sighs and soft and rhythmic tapping was not called that or anything else. In those years, Craig also did not imagine that ASMR would be the theme that would support his academic research. The only thing he could verify was his exaggerated spending on hairdressing. He ranked among those people who pay the barber even when they don’t need a haircut.

It was 2013 when Craig first heard of ASMR, a term coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen after an epic discussion on the forum. At that time there was no reliable study on the matter. Today, Professor Craig pilots one of the largest ASMR databases in the world (made up of 25,000 people), which has allowed him to verify that his experience, sometimes spontaneous as in the hairdresser and others induced by videos and audios created ad hoc, is shared by people from 130 countries. In many cases, the triggers are repeated, although they are very varied. But, beware! It is not a democratic pleasure: some will never experience ASMR for a reason that has to do, experts believe, with the availability of oxytocin, also called the pleasure hormone.

“It is important to differentiate the physiological and emotional response to certain sensory stimuli, ASMR, from the content designed to induce it,” says Claudia Nader, a 2019 Sound Engineering graduate from the University of York who is now researching ASMR for her doctoral thesis. effects of ASMR on well-being. “So far, scientific studies have shown physiometric and anecdotal evidence that there is a significant reduction in heart rate during and after exposure to audiovisual content with common ASMR stimuli, suggesting that the viewer relaxes. However, the physiological response is complex, since, although a reduction in the heart rate is observed, there is also an increase in the conductivity of the skin or sweating, something that could be related to stress, but also to positive sensations such as euphoria”, he explains through an email.

Claudia refers to the first research on ASMR, published in the scientific journal PeerJ and signed by Emma Barratt, a psychology student at Swansea University, and her professor, Dr Nick Davis. This was a descriptive study in which 500 ASMR enthusiasts recounted their experiences. Davis confirms by email to this newspaper that, since then, interest in the matter has multiplied: “Several articles are published every month,” he says, and recommends one published just four weeks ago that confirms the reduction in heart rate and some brain changes

For Nick Davis, ASMR is “a state of relaxation.” “In our first work on the subject, Emma Barrat and I found that people were using ASMR-inducing content to reduce stress and relax before bed.” They also described the most common inducers of this pleasurable response: sighs (75%), personal attention (69%), creaking sounds (64%), and slow movements (53%). 34% of participants said their ASMR was often triggered by watching repetitive tasks. Davis acknowledges that little is yet known about what happens in the brain while watching or listening to ASMR-inducing content. “There are few studies, but it seems that brain waves associated with relaxation are increased.”

Agnieszca Janic McErlean, a psychologist at the University of Bath Spa and one of the pioneering researchers in the field, also details by email the results of several neuroimaging studies during ASMR experiences. For example, atypical functional connectivity has been found between brain areas involved in sensory processing and attention control and increased activity in brain areas involved in emotion processing. “These results suggest that people who experience ASMR process information related to sensations and emotions differently,” explains the scientist.

Professor Richard Craig has founded the University of ASMR, where the first study has been carried out that has scanned what happens in the brain during an ASMR experience. “The images show the specific areas of the brain that are activated, and in some regions the most likely participation of oxytocin stands out, the behaviors that trigger the release of that hormone are similar to those generated with ASMR. We know that oxytocin stimulates feelings of relaxation and comfort very similar to those described by those who experience ASMR, “says the professor, who also produces the Sleep Whispers podcast.

The studies showed something that younger users and a nascent industry focused on inducing ASMR through sights and sounds had been exploring for years: that whispers, squeaks, sound intimacy, a brush running over dry skin, crackling of burning wood or the tap tap of fingernails hitting a smooth surface were hand of saint to relax, it can induce sleep and reduce anxiety. At least for some people. Taking the figures for the ASMR category on Twitch shows that, between January and September 2021, it was the only one that showed consistent growth on the platform. Of the four million hours viewed in January, it had passed in September of the same year to 12 million.

Before going to bed, Andrea CG slows down with a stay in the Hogwarts library, the paradise of Harry Potter. This is one of the most popular themes of immersive videos that recreate audiovisual landscapes designed to induce ASMR and can be found on the YouTube channel ASMR Rooms. The image is warm, the fireplace is lit and the firewood crackles, the pages of the books turn by themselves and produce a slight, very pleasant sound, the scratching of a pen is heard as she writes on an old parchment. Outside it rains. Andrea is fried after the first 10 minutes.

These ambient videos experienced their particular explosion during the pandemic. Curiously, at the time the demand also called for sounds and images that, in the midst of isolation, would remind us of the previous life: the sound chaos of the New York subway or the bustle of a co-working. Surely, the well-being produced was closer to confidence than to pure ASMR, but the experts consulted also recognize that we are not all relaxed in the same way. In her work, Agnieska Janin has found that common ASMR triggers (whispers, personal attention, gentle touch, etc.) are joined by more unexpected ones that can even be unpleasant: “Many find mouth sounds like eating and eating uncomfortable. chewing, but we have found that they trigger ASMR in some people, ”says the researcher.

The ASMR-inducing audiovisual industry that includes videos, Spotify playlists, and meditation apps makes up a category that some call Ddgital wellness and others, like researcher Helle Breth Klausen of Aarhus University in Denmark, “means of self-medication.”

It is difficult to give figures on the business of digital wellbeing. According to the economic portal Bloomberg, some podcasters of Spotify would be earning 17,000 euros a month just for producing white noise (white noise), a flat power sounds that induce ASMR in some people and are very popular for putting babies to sleep. The noise of ocean waves or the sounds of an African jungle are often classified as white noise.

“There is a lot of misinformation on the web regarding the terminology of sound with different coloratura,” warns Claudia Nader, who acknowledges that there is a lot of content labeled #White Noise on the internet, and that does not meet the technical specifications: “A combination of all frequencies audible to humans, between 20Hz and 20kHz, with the same amplitude. Given that this information is very specialized, it seems natural that Internet users associate similar sounds, for example, rain or a waterfall, with white noise”, explains the audio specialist.

“Since ASMR as an experience can be induced with real-life sounds, as well as digital audiovisual content created ad hoc, the stimuli may or may not have been designed to induce that sensation. This is not to say that intentional stimuli produce ASMR in everyone. The same sound stimulus can be ASMR-inducing for some and cause misophonia (a negative response to specific sounds that can cause anxiety and anger in the person experiencing it) in others.”

Richard Craig does acknowledge that “a lot of content on the internet labeled ‘ASMR’ isn’t, even if it’s useful for relaxation, and refers to some types of music and sounds of nature. “But genuine ASMR content revolves around the positive, personal attention a human being provides. The features of the video should include a nice voice, soft sounds, and some deliberate movement,” he explains.

What Davis doesn’t see the point of is paying for an ASMR experience: “It’s a very beneficial state of mind that doesn’t have any side effects, but for most people, triggers are free and I don’t think the experience will improve because money is spent on it. We should always be suspicious when too much hype is given to a wellness experience,” she warns. And, now that we have learned how to relax on the Internet without paying, please restrain yourself and do not play the content at double speed.

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