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.

12 Rules for Life – Jordan Peterson (part 1)

In the wake of the New Zealand mosque shootings, one major New Zealand bookshop, Whitcoulls, apparently removed Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” from its shelves. This was reported in a range of print and online media, particularly various right-wing sites. For example, the New Zealand Herald on  March, commented in an article mainly about the many positive responses to the massacre that “Contributions to our national wellbeing such as Whitcoulls’ removal of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life from its shelves, while Hitler’s Mein Kampf remains on sale, and shutting down debate on the UN’s Immigration Pact are tokenism, and misguided to boot.”

I checked six large New Zealand bookstores (either big chains or online) and indeed Whitcoulls is the only one which does not have 12 Rules for Life available for sale. It does have Mein Kampf, and the Collected Writings of Chairman Mao, as well as some other writings by Peterson. Earlier in February this year, a group called Auckland Peace Action, objected to Peterson’s planned visit to New Zealand, with a “press release” claiming that “Jordan Peterson Threatens Everything of Value in Our Society.”

If you are not aware, Jordan Peterson has become an internet phenomenon, with a massive following, particularly among young men, and there are lots of negative reactions to him from journalists and other commentators. My teenage son has been reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules and also watching various videos of Peterson interviews and lectures, and gave me a copy of “12 Rules for Life” for my birthday. So I am going to read it with interest, to see whether it does indeed threaten everything of value in our society, or should be banned as “extremely disturbing material”. As I make my way through the book, I will add review comments to this blog post, starting with the Introduction below.

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Free Solo – inspiring and disturbing

Last week I took my boys to see Free Solo. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is a documentary about Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000 foot cliff of El Capitan without any ropes or other protective equipment. One slip or missed hold and he would die. The documentary not only looks at Honnold the climber, his mindset and attitudes, his preparations and the actual climb itself, but also has two other main threads, the process of filming the feat and the moral dilemmas the filmmakers faced, and the very substantial stresses his loved ones have to deal with.

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan. Photo credit: National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

I had actually put the DVD in my shopping trolley at Amazon because it did not seem to be screening anywhere in Geneva, when a friend let me know there was a one night showing at Pathe Balexert. So I deleted my draft purchase and took the boys to see it. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. It is a gripping account of one of the greatest athletic feats of all time, but is also very thought-provoking. It won an Oscar this year for Best Documentary, and has a critics rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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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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This is how things are; what is to be done about them?

It is not profitable to spend time on such questions as whether there was ever a beginning to the succession of universes that have been arising and reaching their end for innumerable aeons, or why sentient beings must revolve endlessly from life to life in this sad realm of samsara. What is needed is to direct one’s attention to the present, thinking: “This is how things are; what is to be done about them?

Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin by John Blofeld, page 88

Zen practice in Japan

My main Zen teacher in the 1990s was Hogen Yamahata, known as Hogen-san to his students, who travelled regularly from Japan to conduct sesshin, and in the late 1990s started to spend more of his time in Australia. I was planning a visit to Japan in 1995 and hoped to visit Hogen-san at his temple, Chogen-ji, near Mt Fuji. Apart from the fact that I found out he was actually visiting Australia at the time I planned to go to Japan, his long-term student Peter Thompson advised me that Hogen-san’s temple was only a small family temple with one or two students at most. and that it would be better for me to visit Bukkokuji, where Hogen-san had trained with his main teacher, Harada Tangen Roshisama. So in 1995, I went to Bukkokuji and spent a week training with Roshisama.

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The entrance to Bukkokuji, a Zen monastery in Obama, Japan.

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Zen practice in Australia

I started practicing Zen with the Canberra Zen Group in 1992 following my separation from my first wife. I had become interested in Zen practice as part of my jujutsu training at black belt level. My jujutsu teacher had been exploring some of the inner (mind, spirit) aspects of budo with his yudansha students, and from around 1989 I had started to sit zazen fairly regularly at home.

The Canberra Zen Group met for zazen several times a week at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in the north of Canberra, and were also affiliated with the Sydney Zen Group who have a zendo in Annandale, where I used to live, and also have a retreat centre at Gorricks Run, a remote valley in the Northern Blue Mountains.

In 1993 I attended my first sesshin (7 day silent retreat) at Gorricks Run where the teacher was John Tarrant Roshi, the first Australian to be authorized to teach Zen. Tarrant Roshi had been a long-time student of Robert Aitken Roshi, one of the most influential figures in the transmission of Zen to the West.

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