This post is also available in Dutch.
Somebody touches an object gently and whispers a little something. These kinds of videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people. Many viewers get a feeling of deep calmness, and a tingling sensation. How can we explain this?
Why do people watch such a video?
This video, even though next to nothing happens, was watched more than 700,000 times. The reason is that many viewers experience an ASMR from such videos. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a calm, tingling feeling. In the only scientific publication found on this topic, it was reported that people often describe the feeling to originate from the back of the head, and then expand to the shoulders, back, and arms. Many people use this feeling to calm down, against depression or even as a pain relief. I want to try to explain this feeling. I think that experiencing an ASMR is a combination of several psychological phenomena.
I propose that an ASMR is actually nothing else than the experience of subtle psychological brain reactions, which usually go unnoticed. In order to feel something that is otherwise drowned out by the noise of sensory inputs, you have to focus your attention inwards, as in many meditation techniques. Some consider it to be meditative to do nothing but watch a boring video and attend to your body’s reaction. In this way, you focus on your subtle psychological reactions, but in terms of the brain, what reactions are happening?
Photo: made by B Zedan via Flickr.
Where does an ASMR come from?
I would like to speculate that ASMR allows the person to feel two very subtle sensations. The first sensation, and this may sound crazy, is partly based on our ability to feel what someone else feels. Often ASMR videos include soft hand touches or touches on the back. Research suggests that observing someone else being touched leads to certain brain regions being more active. A subset of these regions is also more active when you yourself are being touched.
Now you might think that if we really did have this ability, we would constantly have the feeling of being touched. I think this is unlikely because the signals we feel from our own hands are much stronger than the signal from mirroring what someone else feels. The stronger signals dominate our experience. Only through a lot of inward attention we can feel subtle signals.
In relation to this, individuals whose hand was amputated no longer receive this type of strong signal from their own hand. Yet, in place of this, they often feel that a sort of phantom hand. These people can sometimes feel in their phantom hand how someone else gets touched. So, the strong signal is missing and suddenly the mirroring of what someone else feels can be experienced.
Why all these small sounds in ASMR videos?
The second sensation from an ASMR video is that of someone being extremely close. Nearly all ASMR videos present sounds which are audible at a short distance e.g., whispering, sounds of touching an object. The space just outside of our skin is our ‘personal space’. Our brain treats things in this space as more important compared to objects farther away. It is possible that the tingling partly originates from a focus on the brain reaction to things which are very close without actually touching them.
Of course, this blog post is a speculative search for explanations for this phenomenon. I hope that ASMR will get more attention by researchers because it could be helpful for people with hyperactivity or depression.