Monday, June 25, 2018

ASMR may be a real thing but the science is largely missing

Hopelessly behind the curve as usual, I have just discovered ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. If you too are behind the ever-steeper and ever-more-slippery slope of the current cultural Zeitgeist, then be advised that ASMR refers to a kind of pleasant, tingling, static-like sensation, coupled with a feeling of peacefulness and relaxation, that many people experience from certain videos and sounds. It is sometime referred to, slightly more sensationalistically, as "attention induced head orgasm" or "attention induced euphoria" or even "brain orgasm". The sensation reportedly starts in the crown of the head and spreads down the spine to the rest of the body. Many people swear by it as a method of dealing with anxiety, depression and insomnia. Some people even get off on it sexually, although most stress that it is very much not a sexual phenomenon.
Not everyone, however, experiences the effects. It certainly doesn't seem to do anything for me, but maybe I am just too cynical by nature, and not entering into the spirit of the thing. Some of the videos I have watched, I swear, just have to be ironic, they are so weird and unlikely, and I am never entirely sure whether or not I (and potentially thousands of others) am being taken for a ride. Here is one of many tests that can be found on YouTube so you can assess whether or not you personally are susceptible. I have been unable to ascertain what proportion of people are able to experience the effect.
ASMR trigger sounds include a low whisper, vocal fry, rustling leaves, crumpling paper, candle burning, dry scratching, pen-on-paper, light tapping on a hard surface, stroking material, rubbing hands, running water, gum chewing, etc. Some people get a similar effects from watching other people have their hair cut or stroking plush toys, moving lights, pretend hugs, etc.
This is another example of a pervasive internet phenomenon with which the science community is scrambling to catch up. ASMR has been a "thing" for almost a decade now, and apparently there are now some 13 MILLION(!) YouTube videos devoted to ASMR (here are just a few examples). There is a whole sub-culture out there who are devoted to it, and there are ASMRtists (most of them involving, for some reason, good-looking young women) who make a healthy living off producing these videos. But is there actually any scientific basis for the phenomenon, or is it just another runaway YouTube meme with no substance to it?
Well, apparently there may be some scientific substance to it, although it is an understatement to say that it is still not well-understood. A University of Sheffield study has confirmed that ASMR does in fact result in a significantly lower heart-rate, comparable to the effects of other stress-reduction techniques like music and mindfulness. An earlier Swansea University study showed that ASMR triggers are remarkably consistent. Claims that the ASMR effect is related to oxytocin, the so-called cuddle hormone, though, remain unproven at best (and, for that matter, many of the claims for oxytocin are pretty unscientific in the first place), although it does seem like the personal attention people imagine they are getting is an important aspect of it. Some say it is a kind of synesthesia, even a sixth sense, but again these are not claims made from a scientific perspective. It resides rather uncomfortably in the domain of pseudoscience.
Essentially, the scientific jury is still out on ASMR, and study of the phenomenon still in its infancy. Which, given that there are 13 million videos out there, and some of the claims being made for it, is actually quite surprising.

No comments: