Is ASMR an altered state of consciousness?

A few days ago, I was watching Would I Lie to You (WILTY), a BBC panel show in which contestants have to bluff about their deepest secrets…and the opposing team have to find out which ones are true. One of the best things on TV.  On this particular episode, a mystery guest Charlotte came onto the show, and each member of one team had to explain how they knew Charlotte.  Joe Lycett claimed that “In the evenings, I like to relax by watching videos of her wrapping gifts on YouTube. “

It turned out to be true. Afterwards, I looked up Charlotte on YouTube and found a video of her wrapping presents.

I watched a bit of this video but got bored and started browsing on the internet, but left the video playing in another tab. I had earbuds in, and suddenly started to feel my scalp tingling, and then tingling shivers, quite pleasant, running up and down my neck and back.  Quite distinctive and strong.  This twigged some memory and I searched for the meaning of ASMR which was in the title of the video.  Turns out it means autonomous sensory meridian response and refers to exactly this tingling response.  Somewhat similar to the frisson, and considered to be a non-sexual sensual experience which is very pleasurable. There is a large subculture of people who follow ASMR videos. Apparently about 20% of people are strong reactors, and another 40% are moderate reactors, the other 40% do not respond.

I also remembered that I had come across ASMR some years back and had watched a video but had no response at all. So now I am much more sensitive.  This was not an expectation effect, as I was not aware of the meaning of ASMR in the title of the video when I played it, and was not aware that its purpose was to induce ASMR in the listener. I tried a few other ASMR videos and found that I responded also to them.

So now I was curious, and did a bit of reading to find out more about ASMR. Wikipedia has a good article about it. The article defines ASMR as “the subjective experience of low-grade euphoria characterized by a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin. It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attention control.” The experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. There has been little research on it until recently.

The mention of “intentional attention control” reminded me of a time many years ago when I smoked marijuana for a while but stopped using it because I hated smoking.  However, I found that by focusing my attention on my cerebellum in a certain way I could start a similar “buzz” to that experienced with marijuana. I didn’t keep doing this for long.  But now reminded of it, I sat back, relaxed and focused my attention in the way that I remembered I used to do. And lo and behold, I got tingling sensations on the scalp and back of my neck that were essentially the same as the ASMR I had experienced.  So I can induce ASMR by control of attention alone. Wikipedia says that people able to induce ASMR this way compare it to their experience of meditation.  I would agree with that, the focus of attention is quite similar to the focus on breathing or a particular part of the body in some forms of meditation.

New Scientist has a good article describing ASMR and research that has been done on it. Early studies of ASMR estimated that about half of people experienced it, that the four most popular triggers were whispering, personal attention, slow movements and “crisp sounds” like tapping fingernails, and found differences in personality traits between people who did and did not experience ASMR.  However, it wasn’t at all clear what ASMR actually is, or what factors were associated with the ability to experience it. It bears some resemblance to other neurological states and sensations, such as “flow” or “frisson”  but also has differences. Physiological studies found that ASMR resulted in lower heart rates and greater skin conductance indicating emotional arousal.  They also showed significant increases in positive emotions including relaxation and feelings of social connection.

To really understand the phenomenon, however, we need to know what is going on in the brain during ASMR. In 2013, a student named Bryson Lochte at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire scanned the brains of people experiencing ASMR as part of his thesis. But the study went unpublished for years while Lochte studied medicine. In the meantime, another group also used functional MRI to scan brain activity in 11-ASMR sensitive people and 11 non-sensitive people as they lay down doing nothing in particular.  They found that a region of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN) showed significantly less functional connectivity than that of controls, and also a different pattern of increased connectivity between various parts of the DMN. (DMN and ASMR)

The default mode network is a large scale brain network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain. It is most active when a person is not engaged in external tasks, but is ruminating, daydreaming, thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The DMN is thought to be responsible for the sense of self.  Meditative states and psychedelics such as psilocybin reduce the activity of the DMN, and this may be responsible for the experience of ego dissolution that can occur with meditation or psychedelics.  But I will post more on the DMN in another post when I have time.

Why is this research on the DMN and ASMR of particular interest to me?  I recently returned from a five day meditation retreat in the Netherlands.  Unlike previous Zen retreats I have been on, this retreat used a range of meditative and sensory experiences which I found had some quite powerful effects.  Since the retreat, I find that I am more open to experience of emotions and am dropping into meditative states quite easily. I suspect my Default Mode Network is readily quieted or may even be in a generally quieter state than before.  As I sit typing this, I feel myself slipping into centred relaxed state, with lower level of thinking, and I get the tingles over back of my head.  I think it is quite likely that this is why I accidentally found that I am now quite sensitive to ASMR triggers. And that I can induce ASMR without needing external triggers. That’s a nice tool to have in the toolkit to pick up my mood when I need to.

So back to the question in the title.  I think the evidence clearly suggests that ASMR is an altered state of consciousness not just some tingly sensations on the skin.  The DMN activity changes in a way that appears somewhat similar to that in meditative or psychedelic states, and the brains of people experiencing ASMR are functioning somewhat differently to those who do not experience it.  Some scientists have suggested that ASMR triggers neurological pathways involved in emotional bonding.  Personal attention, grooming, someone running their hands through your hair, are all triggers for ASMR. Perhaps the ASMR response has evolved to encourage us to seek and enjoy personal attention from those around us, and to facilitate emotional bonding.

Brainwave entrainment

The basic idea of brainwave entrainment is to use an external periodic stimulus to cause wave1brainwave frequencies to fall into step with it at a frequency corresponding to the intended brain-state (for example, to induce sleep or meditative states). There is good evidence that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant EEG frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus. Such a stimulus may be aural, as in the case of binaural or monaural beats and isochronic tones,or light (visual), or a combination of the two with a mind machine.

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