Expectancy effects in the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response

The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a tingling, almost euphoric, sensation often elicited following certain visual or auditory stimulations (Barratt & Davis, 2015). Despite considerable media attention, little empirical work has investigated the underlying mechanisms. In the present study, ASMR enthusiasts and naïve observers listened to audio clips with and without ASMR-eliciting characteristics. We also manipulated participants’ expectations of ASMR, providing a measure of “placebo effects.” Although naïve participants were susceptible to suggestive instructions, experienced users were not, suggesting that initial exposure to ASMR media may evoke somatosensory responses consistent with one’s expectations. Implications for at-home stress management techniques are discussed.

The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a sensory phenomenon that is typically elicited in response to visual or audio stimuli that cause static, tingling sensations that originate in the head and often spread to the neck and sometimes other regions of the body (Barratt & Davis, 2015). In addition to these tingles, ASMR users often report feeling more relaxed and content following the ASMR experience, leading some to suggest that ASMR can be used as a treatment for stress, depression, chronic pain, and as an at-home relaxation tool (Taylor, 2013), although its users vary in their reported intent when engaging with ASMR materials (Marsden, 2012; see also ASMR University, 2018). ASMR is similar to other sensory phenomena, such as frisson, the tingling sensations that are often associated with emotional responses to music (e.g., “chills;” Del Campo & Kehle, 2016), and synesthesia, a neurological condition in which individuals experience multiple senses concurrently (e.g., visually presented material may be associated with specific scents). Despite these similarities, ASMR is associated with several physiological experiences that set it apart from other sensory phenomena. For example, although frisson and ASMR can both be described as “pleasant tingling,” their time courses differ: frisson typically occurs and spreads quickly, while ASMR has idiosyncratic durations, coupled with sensations that often spread to other bodily areas with increasing intensity (Barratt & Davis, 2015). Similarly, although ASMR and synesthesia are both produced consistently to specific stimuli, individuals can choose to disengage from ASMR, while synesthetic experiences are uncontrollable (Hubbard & Ramachandran, 2005Lupiáñez & Callejas, 2006).

ASMR has enjoyed considerable media attention, having been hailed as a “must try” remedy for the stressors of daily life (Gibson, 2014). Despite its current popularity, ASMR was unknown until the late 2000s (ASMR University, 2018Del Campo & Kehle, 2016), when users on an Internet forum (Reddit) began questioning whether other individuals felt the same tingling sensations while watching various YouTube videos. In 2010, these discussions led to the phenomenon being colloquially termed the ASMR, with each word of the name describing a component of ASMR sensations: the feeling is autonomous, in that individuals are assumed to have no control over initiating it, and sensory, in that it is a physical response that occurs along the body’s meridian, or center (Young & Blansert, 2015). Having a name for the experience resulted in a surge of interest in both the experiences and characteristics of stimuli that elicit ASMR. This curiosity shows no signs of abating, as there now exist many forums and websites dedicated to ASMR, including an ASMR-specific Reddit forum (www.reddit.com/r/ASMR) with over 131,735 subscribers. Moreover, when ASMR is featured in popular media, it is often described using attention-grabbing terms, such as “brain orgasms” and “whisper porn” (Beck, 2013Milzoff, 2015), which serve to expose more people to the potential benefits of ASMR but may also contribute to significant confusion about what the phenomenon entails.

Despite popular interest in ASMR, relatively little research has examined the phenomenon, and very few studies have been empirical. In one of the first assessments of ASMR, Barratt & Davis (2015) categorized common triggers for ASMR, and where these sensations were often experienced on the body. They found that the top triggers for ASMR included audio or visual stimuli that depicted whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds (e.g., metallic foil, tapping fingernails), and slow or repetitive movements. When presented with such stimuli, participants often reported the characteristic tingling sensations as originating at the top of the head, and then traveling down the spine toward the rest of the body. Moreover, Barratt & Davis (2015) found that these ASMR experiences were often associated with self-reported temporary reductions in chronic pain, and/or improvements in mood, a finding that resembles the benefits demonstrated with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy and yoga.

Although Barratt & Davis (2015) surveyed individuals who reported regularly watching ASMR media and experiencing ASMR, participants’ self-reports differed in common triggers, physical experiences, and psychological outcomes. For example, whereas 38 participants reported that ASMR improved their chronic pain, 40 reported that ASMR had no effect on their pain symptoms. These, and other, differences suggest the existence of individual differences in ASMR susceptibility and consequences. Fredborg, Clark & Smith (2017) used the Big Five Personality Inventory to investigate the personality traits that are associated with individuals who experience ASMR, vs. those who do not. Relative to individuals who did not report experiencing ASMR, those who did were found to have higher scores on the Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism measures, but lower scores on Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness. Fredborg, Clark & Smith (2017)suggested that the differences between groups on the Openness-to-Experience measure are related to ASMR users’ heightened sensitivity to aesthetic and sensory experiences. Similarly, McCrae (2007) found that individuals who experienced frisson were likely to score high on Openness-to-Experience, suggesting additional similarities between frisson and ASMR. Further, although Neuroticism is often associated with “negative” traits (e.g., anger, hostility, anxiety; John & Srivastava, 1999), Fredborg, Clark & Smith (2017) suggested that ASMR users scored higher on this measure due to frequent concurrent reports of depression (Barratt & Davis, 2015), although it is important to note that susceptibility to ASMR experiences has not been linked with predisposition for depression. That said, one of the therapeutic uses of ASMR is the temporary relief of depression and stress.

In addition to personality characteristics, there exist individual differences in functional neural connectivity across individuals who do and do not experience ASMR. Smith, Katherine Fredborg & Kornelsen (2017) examined activity in the default mode network (DMN) in 11 individuals who experienced ASMR compared to 11 who did not. The DMN consists of a distributed network of interconnected brain regions (see Buckner, Andrews-Hanna & Schacter, 2008Raichle, 2015) in which neural activity covaries in the absence of internal or external stimulation (hence the name “default”). Using resting-state fMRI, Smith, Katherine Fredborg & Kornelsen (2017) found that individuals who reported experiencing ASMR showed reduced functional connectivity, relative to individuals who did not report experiencing ASMR. This reduced functional connectivity was hypothesized to reflect the inability to inhibit sensory-emotional experiences, as similar changes in functional connectivity are observed in disorders with sensory-emotional deficiencies (e.g., autism, Kennedy & Courchesne, 2008; schizophrenia, Bluhm et al., 2007). In addition, individuals who reported experiencing ASMR show greater functional connectivity between regions not typically considered part of the DMN (e.g., occipital, frontal, and temporal cortices), suggesting that ASMR may be linked to the recruitment or involvement of several resting-state networks.

Given the potential health benefits of using ASMR for stress reduction, more research is needed to better understand the underlying psychological and neurological mechanisms. Among many unanswered questions about the psychology behind ASMR is whether the phenomenon truly exists, or rather is a product of individual expectations. Although many people report using the phenomenon as a stress reduction technique, many other individuals report not experiencing ASMR at all (e.g., control participants in empirical ASMR investigations; Fredborg, Clark & Smith, 2017Smith, Katherine Fredborg & Kornelsen, 2017). Moreover, does the veracity of the effect matter? For example, perhaps ASMR users are experiencing placebo effects, stress reduction because they expect to experience stress reduction. Such a placebo effect is not without precedent. For example, Greenwald et al. (1991) observed improvements in participants’ memory and self-esteem when they were given audiotapes merely labeled as containing subliminal messages geared toward improving those domains. Although the experience was a placebo effect, it was nevertheless beneficial. Moreover, an important consideration in measuring the efficacy of any medical or psychological intervention is the role of expectations (Boot et al., 2013), which can powerfully sway individuals’ subjective experiences. Indeed, Boot et al. (2013) suggest that, without measures of expectations, claims about the efficacy of interventions should be considered with caution, or not at all.

Regardless of whether ASMR is a real and/or placebo effect, it potentially carries important implications for at-home stress management programs. As a first step toward better understanding ASMR, the goal of the current study was to assess whether ASMR is affected by individuals’ expectations or if the phenomenon emerges regardless of expectations. To address this question, we presented ASMR users and naïve participants with audio clips that were and were not expected to produce ASMR. Additionally, we varied whether participants were told to expect the ASMR experience for the clips, allowing us to better appreciate the role of expectations in ASMR. To preface the results, we found that ASMR users were immune to our expectation manipulation, but naïve users experienced ASMR when they were told to expect it and did not experience ASMR when told not to expect it. These results have implications for at-home stress management programs, and we discuss the benefits of placebo effects in the “General Discussion.”

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