An exploration of euphoria is making waves
It’s called autonomous meridian response and it’s proving a big chillout hit on social media. It is beguiling scientists who can’t quite agree on its appeal.
When people talk of the latest YouTube sensation, they are normally referring to an exciting new singer or comedian.
But there is one phenomenon associated with the online channel that offers an experience that could hardly be more different to watching a frenetic pop performance or larger-than-life comedy sketch.
These videos might show someone whispering gently, folding towels, running water into a bath or gently scrunching plastic packaging.
Listening to the sounds and watching the images can, many people report, promote something known as autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), described as a state of relaxation that involves tingling in the scalp and head that may also travel down the back. Certain smells and types of touch are also said to trigger the response.
Discussion of its effects – and the number of hits on online ASMR videos – have grown in the past five years or so, although some professional researchers have taken a sceptical view, not least because a comprehensive scientific explanation of what is happening has yet to be published.
Among the academics interested in ASMR is Dr Franziska Apprich, an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Media Studies at the Canadian University Dubai.
Her work on the subject, looking at how ASMR could have a calming effect in a social media-dominated world in which people are bombarded with information, recently earned her an Outstanding Scientist award, presented to her in Chennai in India by the Venus International Foundation.
Written in a paper titled The Impact of ASMR on the Social Media Generation, the study involved observing how participants, lying on a bed and covered in a blanket, responded when the sound of a person chewing gum was played to them. Electrical activity in the brain was recorded on an electroencephalogram.
Dr Apprich said characteristic patterns associated with relaxation were identified in the volunteers, and the longer participants were exposed to the sound, the more they relaxed.
Typically, when a person is alert, pulses of electrical activity in the brain are seen at a frequency of about 13 to 60 Hertz (Hz or pulses per second), known as beta waves. During relaxation this falls to between 7 and 13 Hz, referred to as alpha waves.
“Through ASMR they became far more calm, their brainwaves slowed down but their eye movements were still there – they were still awake. Some drifted into the first stage of sleep,” said Dr Apprich, whose work on ASMR represents a new venture for her academically, as her background is in business and communications.
Until now, few researchers have studied ASMR and many people say they are unable to experience the sensations associated with it. Also, there were warnings from some researchers that claims made for ASMR, such as that it could improve mood and lead people suffering from clinical depression to try to use the technique as self-help instead of getting proper clinical support.
Last year, however, a favourable assessment came from a peer-reviewed study written by two psychologists at the University of Swansea in Wales, Emma Barratt and Dr Nick Davies.
Their paper, published in the journal PeerJ and called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a Flow-Like Mental State, involved 475 participants.
The researchers said the results indicated there was “temporary improvements in symptoms of depression and chronic pain in those who engage in ASMR”.
Almost all individuals taking part said ASMR was relaxing, while more than four-fifths said they used it to help them sleep, and seven out of 10 turned to it to reduce stress levels.
The work noted that if people are to experience ASMR, it may be necessary for them to be in a state of “flow”, the psychological term for when a person is completely immersed in what is happening to them.
Although ASMR has now found its way into the scientific literature, Dr Apprich said: “There’s still immense rejection of ASMR.”
Much of the scepticism is from people who are unable to experience the effects, according to psychologist Dr Giulia Poerio, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of York in England.
“I think people don’t like what they cannot understand quite a lot of the time. It’s difficult to convince people who don’t experience this. Researchers tend to generalise from their own experience,” she said.
Dr Poerio reports having experienced ASMR since childhood. Before moving to York, she was a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, where she and three fellow postgraduate students set up an ASMR research project outside their main work.
The Sheffield project has been looking at things such as body temperature, breathing rate and heart rate when people are played ASMR videos.
The results of the work are described by Dr Poerio as interesting, but the researchers cannot reveal anything more at present because they have yet to submit their work for peer review, something that is likely to take place this summer.
But it seems likely that when the findings are published, they may take psychology a step closer to understanding what ASMR really is. Dr Poerio said she believed that, as more evidence for ASMR was gathered, acceptance would increase.
“I don’t think there’s any reason why not. There are lots of experiences which science has explained or tried to come up with a good explanation for that tell us something about psychological functioning,” she said.
“I think ASMR is one of those things. It’s at the beginning of a potentially very interesting scientific journey.”
Daniel Bardsley is a UK-based freelance journalist and former reporter at The National.
Updated: February 20, 2016 04:00 AM