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Two Studies of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): The Relationship between ASMR and Music-Induced Frisson

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Abstract

In recent years, a widely popular phenomenon has emerged as exemplified in thousands of videos available on the Internet. Referred to using the impressive sounding term "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response" (abbreviated ASMR), followers claim that ASMR videos evoke a special "tingling" sensation that is regarded as highly pleasurable and relaxing. The popularity of this phenomenon is reflected in individual ASMR videos receiving more than 43 million views and a reddit ASMR forum with over 130,000 subscribers. Two exploratory studies are reported. In the first study, a content analysis was carried out on 30 popular ASMR videos, and compared with 30 videos employing two different control methods. In the second study, a content analysis was carried out on 3,600 comments on discussion forums and accompanying ASMR videos. The results indicate that ASMR videos typically employ a quiet, private scene, with a relaxed, friendly, and intimate actor ("ASMRtist"). Although ASMR is evoked by non-musical stimuli, the physiological responses to ASMR (skin-related tingling and goosebumps) strongly resemble the classic frisson experience—a phenomenon that has received considerable attention among music perception researchers. Careful consideration of ASMR stimuli and responses suggest that ASMR is consistent with Huron's (2006) theory of frisson.
© 2019 Kovacevich & Huron. This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial
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Two Studies of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response
(ASMR): The Relationship between ASMR and Music-
Induced Frisson
ALEXSANDRA KOVACEVICH[1]
Ohio State University
DAVID HURON
Ohio State University
ABSTRACT: In recent years, a widely popular phenomenon has emerged as
exemplified in thousands of videos available on the Internet. Referred to using the
impressive sounding term “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” (abbreviated
ASMR), followers claim that ASMR videos evoke a special “tingling” sensation that is
regarded as highly pleasurable and relaxing. The popularity of this phenomenon is
reflected in individual ASMR videos receiving more than 43 million views and a reddit
ASMR forum with over 130,000 subscribers. Two exploratory studies are reported. In
the first study, a content analysis was carried out on 30 popular ASMR videos, and
compared with 30 videos employing two different control methods. In the second
study, a content analysis was carried out on 3,600 comments on discussion forums and
accompanying ASMR videos. The results indicate that ASMR videos typically employ
a quiet, private scene, with a relaxed, friendly, and intimate actor (“ASMRtist”).
Although ASMR is evoked by non-musical stimuli, the physiological responses to
ASMR (skin-related tingling and goosebumps) strongly resemble the classic frisson
experiencea phenomenon that has received considerable attention among music
perception researchers. Careful consideration of ASMR stimuli and responses suggest
that ASMR is consistent with Huron's (2006) theory of frisson.
Submitted 2017 August 11; accepted 2018 September 7.
KEYWORDS: ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, frisson, pleasure
INTRODUCTION
IN the past several years, media reports have drawn attention to a newly popular phenomenon known as
autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) (e.g., Cheadle, 2012; Taylor, 2013, 2014; Tufnell, 2012).
The phenomenon refers to a particular feeling state or states that are evoked by specially recorded videos.
Widely available on popular video services such as YouTube, the videos involve individual actors/artists
(commonly called ASMRtists) who enact everyday scenarios such as cutting hair, sorting through papers,
putting on makeup, etc. The recordings commonly feature an actor (usually female), speaking directly to
the camera using an intimate tone of voice. Viewers are encouraged to view the videos using headphones.
As we will see, people often react to these videos with a feeling of confusion (and disbelief that anyone
would find these videos compelling). However, dedicated followers find that the videos evoke strong
feelings, commonly described as an intensely pleasurable “tingling” sensation. Indeed, ASMRtists note that
they explicitly set out to create videos that evoke this response.
Apart from popular press reports, ASMR has been the subject of a handful of research studies
(Barratt & Davis, 2015; Fredborg, Clark, & Smith, 2017; McErlean & Banisssy, 2017; Smith, Katherine, &
Kornelsen, 2016). In their recent review of the ASMR literature, del Campo and Kehle (2016) explicitly
suggest that ASMR might be regarded as a mild form of frisson. Both music-induced frisson and ASMR
are pleasurable experiences associated with pilomotor responses (goosebumps). In this paper, we offer new
empirical evidence consistent with this idea. We report on two exploratory studies of ASMR. The first
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40
study focuses on the nature of ASMR-inducing stimuli, while the second study focuses on descriptions of
ASMR responses. After treating ASMR on its own terms, we then offer an interpretation of the
phenomenon highlighting similarities and differences to music-induced frisson. The results are shown to be
consistent with Huron's (2006) theory of frisson.
ASMR
Although the phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response has only recently gained substantial
online prominence, the response is reportedly not new. Many proponents of ASMR report that they first
experienced the response as a child (Barratt & Davis, 2015). For many, the Internet and social media
facilitated awareness of other people who have similar experiences (Cheadle, 2012). Online communities
began forming around the idea of an “Attention Induced Head Orgasm” in the late 2000s, notably with the
development of the Yahoo group, the “Society of Sensationalists,” in 2008 (Taylor, 2014). The current
popular designation, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, was eventually coined by Jenn Allen, the
founder of an ASMR website (Cheadle, 2012).
In media accounts, the sensation is frequently likened to “brain orgasms.” Relatively little
empirical work has been conducted on this subject. Three studies have surveyed viewers about their
experiences (Barratt & Davis, 2015; Fredborg, Clark, & Smith, 2017; McErlean & Banisssy, 2017). Barratt
and Davis’s exploratory survey recruited self-identified ASMR aficianados from the ASMR subreddit, and
surveyed viewer demographics, viewing habits, triggers, location of ASMR, and purposes for viewing
ASMR. They additionally looked into potential relationships between ASMR and synesthesia, misophonia,
flow-state, and mood. They found that most people prefer to watch ASMR before bed, in quiet and relaxed
environments, with binaural headphones. The identified whispering, attention, crisp sounds, and slow
movements as the most common triggers. Most viewers experience ASMR in a consistent position, often as
a tingling sensation originating at the back of the scalp, progressing down the spine and to the shoulders.
Most viewers listen to ASMR for relaxation, to help sleep, and to deal with stress. Fredborg et al. also
recruited ASMR viewers via reddit, and surveyed viewers regarding five major personality domains and
their ASMR experiences. Their results indicated that ASMR users score significantly higher on neuroticism
and openness to experience, but lower on conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. In addition,
they identified five factors that could independently predict viewersperceived intensity ratings: watching,
touching, repetitive sounds, simulations, and mouth sounds. McErlean and Banissy similarly investigated
personality traits associated with experiencing ASMR. They also surveyed viewers regarding the Big Five
personality inventory, and additionally about the Inter-personal Reactivity Index, as well as viewer
preferences and motivation. Like Fredborg et al., their results indicated that ASMR viewers scored higher
regarding openness to experience and lower on conscientiousness, but found no differences with regard to
neuroticism, agreeableness, or extraversion. The Inter-personal Reactivity Index indicated that ASMR
viewers scored higher with regards to fantasizing and empathic concern. McErlean and Banissy’s survey
results aligned with and expanded upon Barratt and Davis’s survey results, regarding viewer preferences
and motivations. They concluded that viewers predominantly watch ASMR videos to relax, fall asleep, and
ease anxiety, and further expanded Barratt and Davis’s list of popular triggers.
Two additional studies have attempted to glean further understanding of ASMR via functional
imaging techniques: an fMRI study examining the default mode network (DMN) of individuals who
experience ASMR, and an unpublished fMRI study carried out by an undergraduate student (Lochte, 2013;
Smith et al., 2016). Smith et al. found that the default mode network in ASMR-experiencing individuals
showed significantly less connectivity than controls. They suggest that this may be a blending of multiple
resting-state networks, and such undifferentiated networks can be associated with atypical conscious
experiences and perceptions.
ASMR bears some similarity to the phenomenon of frisson (pleasant chills or shivers), frequently
induced by music, film, video games, and amusement-park rides. In the case of music, a number of studies
have examined the behavioral, physiological and musical concomitants (Blood & Zatorre, 2001; Colver &
El-Alayli, 2016; Craig, 2005; Gabrielsson & Lindström, 1993; Gabrielsson & Lindström, 2003; Goldstein,
1980; Grewe, Nagel, Kopiez, & Altenmüller, 2007; Guhn, Hamm, & Zentner, 2007; Halpern, Blake, &
Hillenbrand, 1986; Huron & Margulis, 2010; Konečni, 2015; Konečni, Wanic, & Brown, 2007; Maruskin,
Thrash, & Elliot, 2012; Panksepp, 1995; Panksepp & Bernatzky, 2002; Rickard, 2004; Sloboda, 1991).
However, aficionados of ASMR claim that ASMR differs from the experience of frisson (Collins, 2012;
Higham, 2014).
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In any seemingly new phenomenon, it is appropriate to begin empirical research by focusing on
exploratory studies. Accordingly, we carried out two studies. The aim of the first study is to describe the
content of the ASMR videos, whereas the aim of the second study is to describe written commentaries
reporting the responses of viewers.
STUDY 1
On YouTube, a search for “ASMR” produces over 8,700,000 hits of nominally distinct videos in which the
term ASMR is present in the video title. Similarly, a Google “video” search for “ASMR” produces over 5
million hits (accessed July 23, 2017). The phenomenon is not obscure. On YouTube, the top 10 ASMR
videos report between 9 million and 43 million views (accessed July 23, 2017).
The videos typically range between 10 and 50 minutes in length and feature a variety of activities,
from a faux haircut to leafing through a stamp collection. In order to better characterize the content of these
videos, we carried out a formal sampling procedure, including sampling of control videos. We then
followed an a priori method for analyzing the content of both the ASMR and control videos.
Sample
For the purposes of this study, we selected the 30 most popular ASMR videos. These were selected by
searching for the term “ASMR” on YouTube and selecting the 30 videos with the highest number of views.
All searching was done using private browsing in order to minimize the selection effects arising from
browser history and marketing profiles. Within the world of ASMR, there are several popular ASMR
producers. This includes individual ASMRtists such as GentleWhispering and Heather Feather. In order to
increase the independence of the sampled items, we a priori included no more than three videos by a single
artist.
Most ASMR videos are in English; however, large active discussion forums can be found in other
languages, notably Japanese and Korean. Moreover, some of the English-language videos have been
produced by non-native English speakers. For the purposes of this study, we limited our sampled material
to English. Using our popularity criterion, our sample included three videos by non-native (Russian-
accented) speakers. Most of the remaining videos employed American-accented speakers, with two videos
involving a British-accented speaker, and two involving an Australian-accented speaker.
Some ASMR-related videos are explanatory in nature rather than intended to evoke the
experience. These videos typically feature a person offering a tutorial, explanation, or guide to the
purported ASMR phenomenon. These videos were explicitly excluded from our sample. In addition, we
excluded ASMR parodies, and any “videos” that consisted of a still image with overlaid audio.
Using these criteria, we selected 30 videos by 18 distinct producers. Of the 30 videos, 25 featured
female artists, 2 featured male artists, and 1 featured both a male and female. Two of the videos had no
discernible actors. All of the materials were accessed through YouTube.
Control Sample
If our aim is to describe the unique content of ASMR videos, we must necessarily compare that content
with other similar videos. It is not entirely clear what constitutes an appropriate control group. Accordingly,
we selected two control conditions. One control group consists of general videos (“general control videos”)
posted on the same websites that include ASMR videos. In particular, since videos range wildly in terms of
their popularity, it would be most appropriate to select control videos that have a similar number of views.
In locating suitable control videos, some sort of search term or search criterion is needed. We were
concerned that just about any search term might introduce an unwanted bias. Even words like “neutral” can
produce subtly biased results. Initially, we aimed to search for videos whose release or posting date
matched the date of posting for each of the target videos. Having identified a number of videos with the
same posting date, we would then select as a control video that video that best matched the number of
views to the target ASMR video. However, the YouTube search interface still requires some sort of search
term in order to return a list of videos. As a result, we made use of six low-content words as search terms.
Specifically, we used the terms “the,” “an,” “with,” “and” “for” and “from” as keywords for the searches.
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We used each term to select five videos, resulting in 30 control videos. Consequently, our “general control”
videos, shared the same date of posting and a roughly equivalent popularity in terms of the number of
views. It should be noted that our search criterion unexpectedly returned a number of music videos. Since
ASMR videos rarely include music, we also discarded the music videos as unsuitable controls.
Posted videos differ dramatically in terms of their content. These may include vacation videos, pet
or animal behaviors, birthday parties, sporting events, humorous antics, natural disasters, and so on. Nearly
all ASMR videos involve a single person in an indoor setting addressing the camera. Accordingly, our
second control sample sought to match these same gross features. Specifically, we aimed to select videos
from the same websites in which a person addresses an imagined audience of viewers in an indoor setting
(“talking-head control videos”). In this second control sample, no effort was made to match the videos in
terms of popularity, or with regard to the date of posting. In order to identify suitable videos, we found that
the search term “tutorial” led to many videos in which a single person addresses the camera and explains or
describes some activity, such as how to apply makeup, commentaries on current events, etc. For this second
control group, we matched the same proportion of male and female actors. Some ASMR videos include
more than one actor, so these were matched with control videos involving an equivalent number of actors.
In selecting “tutorial” videos as controls, we recognize that tutorial, lecture, or commentary videos might
be expected to exhibit their own distinctive vocal mannerisms. Once again, videos in which music was
prominent were also excluded.
Content Analysis
For the purposes of this study, we devised an a priori custom protocol for content analysis of the videos. In
order to select measures for comparison, we began by referencing the online community and existing
media. We reviewed news articles, forums, and blog posts to develop an idea of what viewers perceive to
be crucial aspects of the stimuli. We additionally conducted an interview with a self-identified ASMR
aficionado. A synopsis of this interview is available in Appendix 1. Both online sources and the
interviewee suggested that attributes of the ASMRtists themselves are fundamental to the ASMR
experience, so we developed several measures to describe the actor (Richard, 2014). Users further reported
that topical content and setting often influence a video’s effectiveness (Cheadle, 2012). As such, we
included measures that capture aspects of the content and setting. The interviewee also identified several
perceived auditory requirements for ASMR triggers. With this, we included measures which describe the
audio. Additionally, as ASMR potentially shares similarities with frisson, we included measures which
capture known triggers of frisson. Existing literature provides evidence that certain auditory elements play
a vital role in triggering the frisson response in viewers (Huron & Margulis, 2010). Frisson is often induced
by acoustic correlates such as rapid and large increases in volume, broadening of the range of frequency, or
entry of new instruments (Panksepp, 1995). As such, we included several measures which capture these
auditory elements. Ultimately, we determined to analyze the video content with regard to four major areas:
the person, the speech/audio, the topical content, and the setting. The content analysis protocol is detailed
in Table 1.
All measures (except where noted) were taken from a randomly selected 60-second excerpt. The
randomization procedure was devised so that all portions of the video were equally likely to be sampled. In
the case of “setting,” it is common for camera angles or degree of zoom to change from time to time.
Accordingly, the coding was done for only the first camera scene/angle in the randomly selected excerpt.
In analyzing “speech/audio,” shorter samples were used, ranging from between 5 and 10 seconds
selected from the randomly sampled 60-second excerpt. Spoken passages are sometimes obscured by
prominent background sounds. In these situations, we used the first subsequent unmasked or unobscured
speech segment for analysis. In some cases, the sampled excerpt lacked isolated speech. In these cases,
sampling of the video continued until a speech passage was identified. In a few videos, the entire video was
devoid of speech: this fact was coded separately. In the case of subjective estimates, all coding was carried
out twiceonce by one of the authors, and a second coding by an independent rater unfamiliar with the
study or the project objectives.
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Table 1. Detailed protocol for content analysis.
Measure
Coding procedure
The Person
1. Face Time
The proportion of time in the video sample in which a person’s face is
visible in the frame.
2. Hands Time
The proportion of time in the video sample in which a person’s hands are
visible in the frame.
3. Actors
The maximum number of people present in the video sample.
4. Sex
The apparent sex of individuals appearing in the video sample, encoded as
the proportion of “maleness” (0-1).
5. Age
The average estimated age of all individuals appearing in the video sample.
6. Face frame
The vertical proportion of the frame occupied by a face (when present).
7. Face forward
Proportion of the time in which the face is directly facing the camera.
8. Eye contact
Proportion of the sampled time in which eye contact is made with the
camera.
9. Makeup
Presence of makeup (subjective rating from none "1" to heavy makeup "5").
10. Dress
Style of dress (subjective rating from intimate "1" to professional "5").
11. Smiling
Proportion of the sampled time in which the person is smiling.
Speech and Audio
12. Mic visibility
Whether or not the microphone is visible.
13. Vocal energy
Subjective rating of vocal energy (whispering "1" to shouting "5").
14. Oral wetness
Subjective impression of oral wetness (dry mouth “1” to wet mouth “5”).
15. Syllable rate
Both the number of words and syllables was counted over a 15-second
sample. The syllable rate was used as a measure of speaking rate.
16. Word complexity
Compared with professional or technical conversation, casual conversation
commonly exhibits more monosyllabic words. Consequently, we measured
the average number of syllables per word in the sampled sequence as an
index of the technical sophistication of the speech.
17. Loudness non-speech
Loudness of non-speech sounds (quiet “1” to loud “5”).
18. Proportion non-speech
Proportion of non-speech sounds over a 60-second sample.
19. Audio roaming
Subjective impression of the amount of movement for the sound sources (no
movement “1” to high movement “5”).
20. Dorsal sound
Subjective impression of the occurrence of sound behind the listener (no
dorsal sound “1” to frequent dorsal sound “5”).
21. Proximity
Average estimated distance between microphone and speaker (in meters).
22. Sound pointing
Drawing attention to sounds (subject impression of the amount of attention-
drawing from none “1” to explicit frequent attention “5”).
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23. Voicing
Proportion of a random 5-10 second excerpt when the voice is sounding
(proportion of pulse time measured using the PRAAT voice analysis
software).
24. Pitch
Average pitch of the voice over the same random 5-10 second excerpt.
(Mean F0 as measured using PRAAT).
25. Pitch variance
Average pitch excursion (or F0 variance) over the same random 5-10 second
excerpt.
26. Music
Subjective impression of the proportion of music (no music “1” to constant
music “5”).
Topical Content
27. Activity
Nature of the activity (open-ended coding).
28. Activity intimacy
Judgment of the intimacy of the activity (low "1" to high "5").
29. Singular self reference
Count of the number of occurrences of single first-person words I, me, my,
mine.
30. Plural self reference
Count of the number of occurrences of plural first-person words we, us, our,
ours.
31. Observer reference
Count of the number of occurrences second-person words you, your, yours
when addressed to the camera (as opposed to a second actor).
Setting
32. Frame size
An estimate of the physical distance (in meters) between the top and bottom
of the picture.
33. Location 1
Indoor versus outdoor (scale of 1 "indoor" to 5 "outdoor").
34. Location 2
Domestic versus professional setting (scale of 1 "domestic" to 5
"professional").
35. Location 3
Private versus public setting; e.g., bedroom versus lobby (scale of 1
“private” to 5 “public”).
36. Lighting level
A subjective rating between dark “1” and bright “5”.
37. Background sound
Quiet “1” versus noisy “5”.
38. Background visual
Open-ended description of background (e.g., color, soft versus hard surfaces,
etc.).
Results
In the case of the subjective estimates, codings by our independent rater allow us to calculate the inter-rater
reliability. The degree of agreement between raters was calculated using a Kappa statistic across all 13
numerical subjective measures. This included such judgment categories as lighting level, makeup, style of
dress, vocal energy, oral wetness, etc. The Kappa statistic was a rather low .47, indicating only a moderate
correlation across all ratings. For this first study, we only used the first rater’s ratings (who was one of the
authors). The second rater’s data was simply used to calculate the interrater reliability
The results of our analyses are reported in Table 2. The three columns in Table 2 report the means
and standard errors for the each of the three video conditions (ASMR videos, general control videos, and
talking-head control videos). In addition, p values are reported comparing each control condition with the
ASMR condition. Given the large number of tests performed, a Bonferroni correction would require .00071
corresponding to p=.05, or .00014 corresponding to p=.01. Significant values have been marked with single
(*) or double asterisks (**) accordingly. In order to help visualize effect sizes, relationships between the
three conditions are graphically represented in Figure 1 for all measures exhibiting p values below .05.
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Compared with both the general control videos and the talking-head control videos, ASMR videos
appear to exhibit significantly more oral wetness cues, audio roaming, and intimacy but less vocal energy,
syllable-rate, and voicing.
ASMR videos showed additional differences in comparison to only one of the control groups.
Overall, compared to the general control, ASMR videos exhibited less music, decreased frame-size, and a
decreased loudness of non-speech sounds. The videos also showed a greater proportion of female actors,
greater proportion of the frame occupied by the actor’s face, increased proximity, and increased use of
makeup. The videos also showed an increased tendency to be in a private setting as compared to a public
setting. In comparison to the talking-head control group, the ASMR videos showed decreased proportion of
non-speech sounds.
Our measures showed no statistically significant differences for ASMR videos with regard to the
amount of face time, the amount of hands time, the number of actors, average age of actors, the level of
lighting, the amount of time the actor faces forward, the amount of eye contact, the formality of attire, the
amount of smiling, the amount of sound pointing, the amount of dorsal sound, word complexity,
microphone visibility, pitch of voice, the variance of the pitch of the voice, the number of singular self-
references, the number of plural self-references, the number of references to the observer, the tendency to
be indoors versus outdoors, or the tendency to be in a domestic versus a professional setting.
Apart from the formally-coded observations, recall that the two raters were asked to provide open-
ended general observations with regard to the background and the activity for all of the videos. General
observations regarding background simply reflect the findings of the formally-coded results, namely that
the background environment tends to be more private and indoor. With respect to the type of activity, the
open-ended observations drew attention to the implicit understanding that the sounds in ASMR videos are
important, whether or not the actor engaged in explicit sound “pointing.” In addition, it was observed that
ASMR videos typically involve some sort of role-playing in which the viewer is considered a subject in the
interaction. For example, the viewer may be a patient in an eye examination, a patron in a spa, recipient of
a foot massage, having a bra fitting at Victoria’s Secret, or a customer who is booking a hotel room in outer
space.
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Table 2. Results of Study 1 content analysis.
ASMR
Talking-head control
Category
M (SEM)
M (SEM)
p
M (SEM)
p
The Person
Face Time
.86 (.07)
.84 (.05)
.974280
.82 (.07)
.875466
Hands time
.48 (.08)
.63 (.06)
.263651
.63 (.06)
.262528
Actors
1.17(.07)
2.30 (.52)
.029823
1.13 (.06)
.995559
Sex
1.09 (.05)
1.56 (.08)
.000011**
1.15 (.06)
.789434
Age
26.20 (.49)
33.95 (2.50)
.006696
27.11 (1.61)
.927388
Face Frame
.58 (.07)
.25 (.03)
.000636*
.56 (.07)
.976553
Face Forward
.65 (.08)
.40 (.07)
.065255
.70 (.07)
.893769
Eye Contact
.31 (.05)
.14 (.05)
.080525
.25 (.06)
.713554
Makeup
3.38 (.26)
1.52 (.22)
.000085**
3.37 (.36)
.999671
Dress
3.22 (.29)
2.87 (.26)
.625822
2.00 (.25)
.008450
Smiling
.08 (.02)
.15 (.04)
.241325
.07 (.02)
.972647
Speech/Audio
Mic Visibility
.07 (.05)
.20 (.07)
.154919
.00 (.00)
.621165
Vocal Energy
1.92 (.14)
3.56 (.11)
<.000001**
3.17 (.07)
<.000001**
Oral Wetness
4.00 (.20)
3.04 (.06)
.000013**
3.17 (.12)
.000109**
Syllable Rate
122.81 (12.57)
216.00 (16.23)
.000019**
206.27 (11.34)
.000061**
Word complexity
1.36 (.05)
1.32 (.02)
.637645
1.25 (.02)
.031993
Loudness non-speech
1.93 (.18)
3.44 (.15)
<.000001**
2.73 (.22)
.009040
Prop non-speech
.59 (.07)
.65 (.06)
.791217
.23 (.05)
.000135**
Audio Roaming
2.97 (.29)
1.03 (.03)
<.000001**
1.00 (0.00)
<.000001**
Dorsal Sound
1.87 (.28)
1.00 (.00)
.000745
1.00 (0.00)
.000745
Proximity
.51 (.06)
2.29 (.38)
.000006**
1.05 (.18)
.291180
Sound Pointing
1.30 (.16)
1.00 (.00)
.061805
1.00 (.00)
.061805
Voicing
66.09 (3.26)
32.81 (1.78)
<.000001**
36.27 (2.32)
<.000001**
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Pitch
2.34 (.04)
2.29 (.03)
.524000
2.32 (.02)
.800569
Pitch Variance
.10 (.01)
.11 (.01)
.930689
.10 (.00)
.999984
Music
1.33 (.19)
2.67 (.33)
.000423*
1.50 (.26)
.872994
Topical content
Intimacy
3.77 (.21)
1.23 (.12)
<.000001**
1.83 (.13)
<.000001**
Sing. Self-Ref.
3.38 (.60)
3.38 (.90)
.999972
7.03 (1.09)
.017480
Plur. Self-Ref.
.71 (.22)
1.37 (.40)
.504667
2.03 (.49)
.062205
Obs. Ref.
3.00 (.53)
1.58 (.51)
.362113
5.00 (.91)
.121836
Setting
Frame Size
.66 (.06)
1.72 (.27)
.000089**
.68 (.09)
.999646
Loc1
1.00 (0.00)
1.82 (.30)
.015054
1.29 (.20)
.58429
Loc2
2.47 (.31)
2.64 (.29)
.890895
2.07 (.21)
.561524
Loc3
1.00 (0.00)
2.61 (.36)
.000003**
1.18 (.15)
.829596
Lighting
2.83 (.14)
3.07 (.17)
.574310
3.00 (.17)
.752670
Note. The table lists the means (M) for each measure, the standard error of the means (SEM), and the p-
values identifying significant differences between General control videos and ASMR videos, and Talking-
head control videos and ASMR videos.
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Figure 1. Graphical representation of measures with significant p-values. (Note: Each graph compares
mean values for the ASMR videos, general control videos, and talking-head control videos. Error bars
represent standard error for each mean. The associated number corresponds with measure number from
Table 1, which details how the measure was collected.)
Discussion
In general, the results point to seven apparent themes. These include relaxation, quiet, proximity, intimacy,
attraction, privacy, and movement. Relaxation is evident in the lower vocal energy, slower speaking rate,
the quieter environment, and the greater use of pauses and whispering. Oral wetness (salivation) is
associated with parasympathetic activation (rest & digest response), which further connotes relaxation.
Many of these same qualities are also characteristic of close physical proximity, close-up framing, and
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simply a quiet sound environment. The use of makeup and increased oral wetness cues are consistent with
increased intimacy and attraction. Another theme appears to be the private setting. Finally, movement
(especially the movement of sound) appears to also characterize ASMR videos in contrast to the various
control videos.
STUDY 2
What makes a video an “ASMR” video is arguably less about the content of the video, and more about the
responses of viewers. As a psychological phenomenon, our second study aims to characterize the common
elements described by viewers responding to ASMR videos.
Recall that three earlier studies have surveyed ASMR viewers using a priori questions to gain
insight into the viewer experience (Barratt and Davis, 2015; Fredborg et al., 2017; McErlean & Banissy,
2017). In our exploratory study, we focused on unsolicited comments instead. Nevertheless, we will see
that the results of our more open-ended approach provide converging evidence with these earlier studies.
For the purposes of this second study, we examined written comments and discussions found on various
websites, including YouTube comments and reddit discussion forums. We also included the descriptions
accompanying the uploaded videos, as well as the forum description (called “rules” on reddit).
In reviewing the comments, we specifically sought out comments related to physiology, etiology,
psychology, and utility. That is, descriptions of physical symptoms, precipitating stimuli, subjective
experiences, and functional uses of ASMR. Of course web comments are not necessarily representative;
nor are comments independent responses. Not all viewers who experience ASMR from these videos will
leave comments. Additionally, on the web, comments typically encourage further responses, sometimes
reinforcing the original comment, or often disputing the comment. In this regard, web-originating
comments differ considerably from the sorts of comments one might collect from an individually
administered survey. These caveats notwithstanding, we nevertheless aimed to glean common
characterizations related to physiology, etiology, psychology, and function.
With regard to sampling, we examined the comments for the same 30 videos used in the first
sample of Study #1. For each of the 30 videos, we examined the first 100 comments on YouTube. In
addition, we examined the first 20 comments for the top 30 posts on Reddit.com/r/ASMR. Comments are
commonly followed by discussion threads which respond to the initial comment. In order to increase data
independence, we sampled only initial comments and ignored ensuing threads. Compared with YouTube
threads, reddit threads tend to be shorter. Accordingly, we analyzed the “best” 20 comments (as labeled by
reddit) from the top 30 threads. We first collected the primary comments; if there were fewer than 20, we
augmented the sample by collecting the first child comment beneath each initial comment until we
achieved the sampling quota of 20 comments. Discussions of parodies were excluded as well as logistical
posts discussing how to moderate the forum. We initiated sampling by collecting from the 25 all-time top
posts, then continued with the top ASMR videos from this past year until we achieved the sampling quota
of 30 posts.
In total, we assembled a sample of 3,600 comments. Individual comments were tagged with one or
more of five tags: physiology (a comment related to a bodily state or bodily feeling), etiology
(identification of an action or event in the video that was identified as the cause of some response),
psychology (an introspective description of a cognitive or emotional state), and function (reports of how the
viewer makes use of the video). A fifth category was simply tagged “interesting” if the comment was
deemed intriguing, but not fitting into the other four categories. Note that a given comment could receive
more than one of the five tags.
Comments were assigned to these five a priori categories twice, once by one of the experimenters,
and a second time by an independent researcher not involved with the project. Roughly a third of the
comments (1,331 - rater 1 / 1,016 - rater 2) were deemed to be irrelevant, tangential, or otherwise unsuited
for further analysis. According to our a priori categories, 260/290 comments were deemed to relate to
physiology, 968/690 comments related to etiology, 1,375/1,819 comments related to psychology, 174/224
comments related to function, and 229/411 comments were classified as otherwise “interesting.” Comments
within each of these five categories were then subjected to a content analysis using the pile sorting method
commonly used in anthropology (De Munck, 2009). That is, each independent rater sorted the comments
according to whatever categories seem salient given the contents of the comments. After independent
sorting, both raters provided descriptive labels for each of their sorted categories.
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Results
On the basis of the two independent content analyses, an aggregate set of categories was created as shown
in Tables 3-7. These categories were an effort to provide a superset of the two content analyses. This
aggregate set of categories was created informally rather than employing any formal method. Each Table
shows three columns. The first column identifies the agreed label for the comment category. The second
column identifies the number of comments identified by each of the two raters that were deemed to fit in
the category. The third column provides a sample comment.
Table 3. Study 2 categories which relate to Physiological Response.
Label
Observations
Example
Tingling
163/145
major tingles all the way to my hands
Localized response
59/61
Normally I always get tingles in the back of my
neck and my spine, this is the first time getting
them in the top of my head
Sexual arousal
7/38
I’m getting a tingling sensation in my balls.
Shivers/chills
11/8
Her voice gives me chills
Goosebumps/cold
8/8
I started to get goosebumps
Tickling
2/5
your voice and the glass sounds make my spine
tickle
Relaxed muscles
1/5
i cold feel the muscles in my back loosen
Actually feeling the sensations
0/6
Omg did anyone else feel her breath go through
ur earphones?!
Smelling things
0/6
Never has it happened before, but I actually smelt
herbs. What is this sorcery?
Feel sick
2/3
For some weird reason I started feeling nauseous
Sweating
2/1
This is so weird, my palms are sweating and my
shoulders are tingling
Vibrations
2/0
I could feel the vibrations all over my head, that’s
so awesome!!
Eyes watering
1/1
while I was hearing that brush sound my eyes
started watering like crazy
Stomach drop
0/1
I dont get tingles, my stomach just has a slight
drop feeling like on a swing.
Pain
0/1
For some reason this hurts my nose
Weak knees
1/0
these sounds to make my knees feel weak
Teeth
1/0
Is it normal that I get freeky feelings in my teeth?
Pins and needles
0/1
I was just getting pins and needles.
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Table 4. Study 2 categories which relate to etiology.
Label
Observations
Example
Voice (general)
103/122
Your voice is just so beautiful, it lulls me off to
sleep.
Didn’t work
0/121
I have some questions because it didn’t work for
me.
Detracting aspect
0/88
I do like your voice however i think you talk too
quickly for it to be relaxing. You sound rushed.
Physically attractive person
87/0
wow you’re beautiful.
Certain spoken sounds (sk, ch,
ts, tk, etc)
40/23
I really liked the sksksk, idk why but it makes my
ears feel so good!! Thanks for the video
Brushing
32/24
Love the sound of the brushing.
High quality sound (binaural,
headphones)
43/13
God Bless 3d Mics
Buzzing/electric noises (white
noise)
25/28
it’s good to know that there are a lot of crazy
people like me who love the hair dryer sounds and
other vacuuming sounds to get some sleep
Whispers
28/22
Your whispering definitely sends triggers down my
spine and I hadn’t even begun the full video.
Tapping
27/19
Some triggers are insanely effective (finger
tapping imo).
Role Play
37/8
Best ASMR spa role play... thank you
Too much talking is bad
44/0
are there any videos with more sounds and not so
much talking? As soon as I begin appreciating the
tapping, bristles, etc....a voice interupts it and the
purpose is lost
Visuals (general)
13/29
The lighting and background for this was perfect
Sounds (general)
33/9
Oh I love them sounds you make I find them
relaxing.
Water noises
20/15
I really enjoyed all of these sounds. The spray
bottle especially...
Too loud is bad
12/23
I loved the sounds, but for my taste the background
noise was relatively loud.
Paper noises (writing, cutting,
crinkling)
22/12
I found my trigger within the first few mins.. that
paper, wow!
Non-American accent
31/0
I love your accent, I’m jealous.
Ads are bad
29/0
Loud ads should be banned on ASMR videos
Watching a certain person
16/13
Maybe I’m too used to gentle whispering that I
don’t like any other Asmr
Mouth noises (eating, chewing)
17/12
I go tingle crazy when someone smacks their lips
when they talk.. strange.
Hair or face touching in real life
14/13
I thought I was the only one totally addicted to
other people touching my hair lol
Playing with hair
26/0
I could watch you braid hair all day, it’s so
relaxing!
High quality videos
24/0
couldnt fall asleep with this video because i was
just so fascinated by the special effects
Eyes
21/0
Your eyes are hypnotizing. Feel like youre actually
looking at me through the phone
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Label
Observations
Example
Specific viewing conditions
21/0
I use Screen Dimmer on my Android. Love it.
Creative/intellectually
stimulating
19/0
This is my favorite ASMR video on YT, it’s so
imaginative and clever with the ideas you
referenced.
Music
12/7
please do more music / soft voice/whispering vids.
I literally cannot get enough! They make me so
happy! :)
Hands
8/10
The best Asmr video ever [(y)] I loved the hand
brushing!
Bob Ross
17/0
Bob Ross used to set my ASMR off back before I
had any idea what it was.
Watching playing with ears
12/4
the ear massage really helped me relax, more of
the same sound please!!!
Feathers
8/7
The feathers are AMAZING
Gentle, slow movements
15/0
Tap slower please it feels rushed
Soft Speaking
15/0
This was great! It gave me brain tingles! I love the
soft way you talk
Clicking
9/6
I like the sound of a computer mouse clicking
Scratching
6/5
I think my trigger was the book scratching!
Birds
4/7
I like the bird sounds in the background.
Sound problems
0/11
Please speak louder, i can’t understand anything.
Too fast is bad
0/10
I felt agitated when you kinda rushed it
Too quiet is bad
9/0
Please speak louder, i can’t understand anything.
Glass
0/9
The glass tapping was beautiful and sprung my
trigger of tingglieness [:-)]
Breathing (and blowing)
5/4
Best asmr video in YouTube. The whispering and
the breathing in the ear kills me right away
Artist’s mouth or smile
8/0
the sounds in this vid are good but I get the tingles
from your smile also
Unintentional
8/0
I watching unboxing videos. Unintentional ASMR
is the most intense for me.
Close proximity
7/0
I loved that you came close to the screen
Harsh sounds (rustling,
crunching)
0/6
Please do turning a page slowly and noisily
Movement
6/0
my trigger seems to be book scratching...or most
calm hand movements.
Fabric noises
6/0
and the shirt you wore for this was the icing on the
cake, such good soft crinkles.
Intentional
5/0
I usually can’t stand intentional videos but this
was FANTASTIC.
Only visual triggers
4/0
Am I the only one who watches this video with the
sound off?
Smoke/Steam
4/0
Love that steam!
Smells
3/1
I was surprised that I got tingles from the lavender
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Label
Observations
Example
Gloves
0/3
THE GLOVESSS
Only females
3/0
for some reason only Asmr videos by girls relaxes
me... is this normal?
Real life sound bath
3/0
This women in LA gives “sound baths” aka real
life ASMR.
Crunching
3/0
its like the feeling i get when i hear cars or trucks
driving over gravel.
Instructional simple task
2/0
Watching other people performing simple tasks
Bottle opening
0/2
Their are several triggers for me here, the sound
of bottles being opened, and the clinking of glas
Pebbles
0/2
The pebble one made me feel a numbing tingly
feeling on my scalp
Discomfort
1/1
Idk why but I can only experience tingles while
experiencing very slight discomfort.
Feeling through headphones
0/1
It feels like she is right next to you with
headphones
Counting
1/0
I love it when you count in your videos. You could
count to a million and I would get tingles all the
way through.
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Table 5. Study 2 categories which relate to Psychological Response.
Label
Observations
Example
General positive reaction
456/400
My all-time favorite ASMR video.
Love/admiration for the artist
119/427
She is just amazing!
Calm/relaxation
198/248
Most relaxing thing ever:)
Gratitude
121/251
Thank you for doing these they help so much!
Sleepy
100/95
i fell asleep when waching this
Confusion
48/103
what is this stuff? I don’t get it…
Weird/creepy
68/83
I feel violated and creeped out.
Favorite ASMR
0/102
My all-time favorite ASMR video.
Can’t get it to work
48/0
ASMR doesn’t work for me
Nostalgia
9/35
it reminds me my childhood.
Comforted/cared for
26/11
You make feel so cozy and comforted with this,
thank you.
Misophonia/irritation
34/9
I HATE and I mean HATE the sound of the lips and
breathing you make when you whisper etc. This is
ear rape for me.
Sexual
36/0
This does sound so sexual.
Anxious/scared
29/0
ASMR is supposed to be relaxing? It gives me a
heart attack
Laughter
28/0
LOL! I laughed out loud.
Drug like
0/21
this is my kind of getting high and relaxing…
Feel like its real
20/0
The latex gloves one is like having someone put
their fingers in your ears
Hate interruptions
0/17
I hate it how you go to listen to an ASMR video,
and then some ad comes on with music loud enough
to burst your eardrums.
Surprise
0/17
Wow! sksksksksk took me by surprise... LOVED it!
Happiness that more people
experience it
13/0
OMG I now know that I have ASMR!!! THANK
YOU!!!! GREAT TO BE PART OF THE
COMMUNITY
Ease anxiety
10/0
I was having some anxiety but this video definitely
calmed me down and helped
Crazy
9/0
it’s good to know that there are a lot of crazy
people like me who love the hair dryer sounds and
other vacuuming sounds to get some sleep
Not frisson
3/0
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH MUSIC BASED
TINGLES/SHIVERS. Those are called frisson and
can be discussed in/r/frisson
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Table 6. Study 2 categories which relate to Function.
Label
Observations
Example
Sleep
79/118
I usually listen to MassageASMR before bed.
Easy anxiety
25/29
I have horrible anxiety and your videos always calm
me down. Thank you so much.
Relax/Unwind
14/36
My go-to relaxation video
While doing Work
16/15
I’m doing some boring paperwork right now and
this video is helping me so much!
Ease pain/sickness
15/15
Thank you for this video. I listen and watch this at
night when I am in pain and can’t sleep. It relaxes
me enough to ease my fibromyalgia.
Insomnia
15/0
This video has cured my problem with not being
able to sleep at night. THANK YOU.
For children
7/8
This has relaxed my 6 month old since birth.
Thanks!
Relax muscles
3/0
I think it’s honestly helped with tension in my
shoulders!
When sad
0/3
When I’m feeling down or just need to relax (i.e.
now,when I have a fever) I watch or rather listen to
this video.
Table 7. Study 2 comments which were otherwise interesting.
Label
Observations
Example
Requests
65/149
I have a request. Could you please do whispering
while painting your nails? Thanks!
Frequent usage
45/166
I love this vid, can’t stop watching it
Theories
15/50
to me they are emotion strings they trigger parts of
life that where maybe left out that you longed for ....
My theory anyways ..
First ASMR ever seen
0/37
Oohh this is my very first AMSR video! Thanks you
soooo much
Extreme love for the artist
30/0
i want to marry this girl!!
Addiction/tolerance
20/0
Dude, I am so addicted to your videos that I’m
getting resistant ASMR.
Places in the world its listened
to
19/0
I am Korean. This is so nice! Thanks♥
“Imagine” statements
12/0
If you were to put a screamer at the end of a
video...........
Gender/sexuality Theory
0/9
The interesting thing about ASMR is the
undoubtedly sexual element, whether that gets
acknowledged or not.
Sense of community
8/0
Hi! Nice to be a part of this community.
With drug usage
8/0
smoke weed and listen to ASMR =)
Association with Asperger’s
7/0
Have Asperger’s and am obsessed with ASMR.
There is 100% a connection for me.
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Discussion
As an exploratory study, we did not have any a priori hypotheses to test. Once again, the goal is simply to
provide a reasonably representative characterization of ASMR. Based on the collected comments, we
distilled any common themes.
Regarding physiology, very few comments described specific somatic or physiological symptoms.
The most common physical description was a feeling of “tingling.” Depending on the coder, between 145
and 163 comments were deemed to include a “tingling” description. The next most common comment
group for physical symptoms pointed to a specific somatic location (59/61 comments). Common locations
included the back of the neck and spine, and the back of the head. To a lesser extent viewers identified
shoulders and arms. These findings reinforce Barratt and Davis’s (2015) surveyed results, that the
physiological response consists of a tingling sensation most often originating at the back of the head and
neck. The third most common comment group was sexual arousal (7/38 comments). A much smaller
number of comments (8/11 comments) identified feelings of shivers or chills. Eight comments specifically
identified goosebumps.
Regarding etiology, it was common for commentators to describe what “does it” and what
“doesn’t do it” for them. The comments here spanned a wide variety of circumstances. Some comments
relate to visual aspects, others to auditory aspects. Comments pointed to both important “triggers” of the
ASMR response, and also pointed to aspects that suppressed or “ruined” the effect. As might be expected,
comments revealed a number of disagreements. Some of these disagreements led to independent threads
where people would effectively celebrate that they had found people of like experience, while
acknowledging that other ASMR enthusiasts appear not to have the same experience. The most popular
category was the quality of the voice. Common preferences were for whispered or soft-spoken voice.
Comments often identified particular speech sounds, most notably sibilants (“s”, “sh,” and “sk”). Other
popular sounds included breathing, chewing, and eating sounds.
Non-vocal triggers included brushing, buzzing, and tapping sounds, clicking or scratching, water
noises, and the sound of hair being combed or brushed. Viewers expressed appreciation for high quality
sound recording as well as good visual production. Both ASMR producers and ASMR viewers frequently
note the importance of headphone listening, and binaural recording. Complaints were often voiced that the
sound was too loud, too fast, (or less commonly) too quiet. Frequent complaints focused on interruptions
due to YouTube advertising, especially when the advertising resulted in dramatic increases in loudness.
Regarding visual triggers, the most common comment related to the visual attractiveness of the
ASMR actor. Expressions of appreciation included the proximity of the actor to the camera (“I love that
you came close to the screen”). A few viewers note that they mute the audio and simply enjoy watching the
visual. These etiological findings converge with prior surveyed results. Barratt and Davis (2015) identified
whispering, attention, crisp sounds, and slow movements as common triggers. McErlean and Banissy
(2017) identified whispering, finger tapping, hair brushing, various role-playing scenarios, and eating to be
popular triggers. This open-ended approach helps to illustrate the immense potential for variety in stimuli
used to evoke ASMR in viewers.
Regarding psychology, the single most important observation is that the experience of ASMR is
regarded as enjoyable or pleasurable. As might be imagined, commentaries polarize into praise and
criticism. Positive comments include expressions of love or appreciation for the artist, appreciation of the
calming or relaxing effect of the video, feeling comforted or cared-for, appreciation of the video’s ability to
induce sleepiness, and expressions of nostalgic appreciation, such as reminding a viewer of how their
mother would speak to them as a child. Negative comments indicate that ASMR is clearly experienced by
only a subset of the population. The most popular negative comments include expressions of confusion by
non-ASMR individuals. For these viewers, ASMR videos seem odd-ball, weird, or (in some cases)
“creepy.” Negative comments include expressions of how the video makes the viewer feel anxious, scared,
or engenders misophonia. Finally, negative comments include complaints (by ASMR fans) that a particular
video fails to work for them.
Regarding function, the most commonly reported “use” for ASMR videos is to facilitate falling
asleep. Other commonly claimed functions include easing anxiety, inducing a relaxed state, and helping to
unwind. In addition, comments indicate that ASMR videos are used to deal with insomnia, to calm infants,
and (in several cases) to ease pain or sickness. For example, one viewer reportedly used ASMR videos to
deal with pain following a dental operation, and another viewer reported using ASMR videos to better
handle fibromyalgia. Finally, viewers report using ASMR videos while working, such as doing homework,
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or dealing with paperwork. These results directly align with surveyed results, indicating that ASMR videos
are most commonly used for relaxation, sleep-aid, and to ease stress (Barratt & Davis, 2015; McErlean &
Banissy, 2017).
Among the comments grouped in the “interesting” category, some viewers reported a sense of
being addicted to the videos. Frequent viewers would sometimes report a feeling of increasing tolerance or
reduced effect. Eight comments explicitly noted enjoying viewing ASMR videos in conjunction with
recreational drug use, the most commonly reported drug being marijuana. One discussion thread speculated
about the relationship between ASMR and Asperger’s syndrome, noting anecdotally that people with
Asperger’s may be more likely to enjoy ASMR. Although anecdotal and speculative, such observations are
consistent with sensory sensitivity thought to be symptomatic of Asperger’s (e.g., Baron-Cohen, Ashwin,
Ashwin, Tavassoli, & Chakrabartia, 2009). It was common for ASMR fans to express appreciation for the
sense of community experienced through the online groups.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a recently popular phenomenon whose purpose-created
videos have attracted millions of viewers, including a large dedicated community of appreciative fans. In
light of study #1, ASMR videos exhibit a number of distinctive characteristics. They typically involve
private scenes in which an attractive female actor engages in quiet role-playing activities, speaking in a
relaxed, low-energy voice, sometimes whispering. With respect to both audio and visual stimuli, the videos
exhibit considerable warmth or intimacy, occasionally exhibiting some flirtatious elements but otherwise
devoid of overt sexuality.
In light of study #2, viewers of ASMR videos appear to readily polarize into two different groups.
ASMR fans find the videos relaxing and enjoyable, sometimes intensely pleasurable. Non-fans report
finding the videos weird, odd-ball, and stressful. Among ASMR fans, pleasant physiological responses
include a tingling sensation, especially around the back of the head and the neck. These positive feelings
appear to be triggered by quiet voice, associated intimate sounds, as well as perhaps visual close up. ASMR
fans report using the videos to induce relaxation and as an aid for sleep.
Future investigations of ASMR might consider two questions. First, what are the personal or
experiential attributes that distinguish ASMR fans from non-fans? Second, detailed examination of the
physiological responses is warranted. These might include topical and metabolic measures as well as
further imaging of the central nervous system during ASMR experiences.
Relationship Between ASMR and Frisson
Ultimately, the most compelling question is one of hedonics: how is it that ASMR is able to evoke
pleasure? The similarity of ASMR to frisson suggests that the two phenomena might share a common
source.
For researchers interested in the phenomenon of frisson (whether musically-induced or not),
ASMR raises something of a paradox. On the one hand, the physiological symptoms of ASMR strongly
resemble the classic symptoms of frisson. Both involve phenomenologically pleasurable pilomotor
activation (Blood & Zatorre, 2001; Panksepp, 1995; Sloboda, 1991). Historically, "pleasurable
goosebumps" has provided the principal operational definition of frisson -- implying that ASMR might be
regarded as a type of frisson. On the other hand, many people who experience ASMR also report
experiencing frisson in response to music, and several aficionados insist that ASMR experiences differ
qualitatively from frisson (Collins, 2012; Higham, 2014).
One apparent difference between ASMR and frisson is that ASMR responders are more likely to
describe the topical (skin-related) response as a "tingling" sensation rather than as goosebumps. In addition,
tingling feelings from ASMR are more likely to be reported as sustained and subdued in comparison to
frisson (Collins, 2012). Nevertheless, pilomotor activation is common to both experiences, and the topical
distribution (neck, shoulders, head) appears to be virtually identical in both experiences (Barratt & Davis,
2015). The most notable difference between the two experiences is the contrasting nature of the stimuli. In
the case of musically-induced frisson, extant research points to a cluster of acoustical/musical properties.
These include loud sounds, volume or extensity (many sound sources), low pitch, approaching sounds
(crescendos), infrasound, scream-like sounds, and surprising (unexpected) sounds (see Huron & Margulis,
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2010 for a review). As we have seen, the stimuli associated with ASMR are much quieter, more proximate,
are more likely to entail sounds behind the listener, and involve more human vocalizing, especially
whispered speech. In short, the sounds associated with ASMR appear much more intimate in character.
This raises the question of how two broadly similar responses might arise from such contrasting
stimuli. Theories of music-induced frisson have been reviewed in Huron and Margulis (2010). The most
developed theory is that proposed by Huron (2006). Inspired by McGraw (1999, McGraw & Warren,
2010), Huron proposed that affective contrast can lead to marked pleasurable experiences. That is, a
negatively valenced response (such as fear) can be suppressed resulting in an overall positively valenced
effect. A classic example is provided by the surprise party in which an unexpected surprise produces
momentary startle or even panic, which is then suppressed due to cognitive appraisal of the innocuousness
of the situation. As long ago as 1757, Burke proposed that sublime experiences entail some element of fear.
For example, Burke defined "awe" as "wonder tinged with fear." Expanding on Burke's observations,
Huron (2006) noted that the pilomotor response (goosebumps) is a classic fear response. All mammals
(including humans) commonly respond to fear-inducing stimuli by hair-raising, especially around the neck
and shoulder regions. Similarly, breath-holding is a component of tonic immobility which characterizes the
fear-induced "freeze" response. Huron proposed that the suppression of fear results in positively valenced
breath-holding, commonly associated with the experience of awe.
Finally, the idea that suppressing fear can be pleasurable is evident in the two most popular
theories of laughter. Both Vilayanur Ramachandran's false alarm theory (1998) and McGraw and Warren's
benign violation theory (2010) posit the idea that laughter is provoked by an initially alarming or fear-
inducing stimulus that is subsequently assessed as inconsequential.
Huron (2006) argued that the suppression of fear underlies all three responses: frisson, awe, as
well as laughter. Following Burke, Huron proposed a "suppressed fear" theory, whose basic claim is that
pleasure is evoked when a stimulus activates subcortical structures associated with fear (notably the
amygdalae) which are then inhibited or suppressed due to cognitive (cortical) appraisal that the stimulus is
innocuous.
In the case of classic music-induced frisson, common stimulus properties (loud, voluminous, low
pitch, approaching, infrasound, scream-like timbres, and surprise) are all plausibly-linked to alarm, and so
would be expected to contribute to subcortical activation of fear.
What is missing from this account is the recognition that loud/surprising/scream-like sounds are
not the only way to evoke fear. There are innumerable ways to evoke anxiety, fear, or panic (Marks, 1987).
Common sources of fear include fear of pain, fear of death, fear of hunger, cold, heat, injury, disease,
excrement, sexual assault, social threat, embarrassment, loss of financial resources, loss of friends, being
lost, physical confinement, confusion, blindness, etc.
As we have seen, ASMR is evoked by rather different sorts of stimuli than the prototypical
musical frisson stimulus. Most notably, ASMR videos are characterized by high levels of intimacy and
proximity. Proximity is known to be an important physical cue that can evoke fear or panic. Hearing a fly
buzzing around a room, listeners typically do not experience high arousal levels. However, should the fly
buzz in close proximity to one's face or ears, the result can lead to a considerable increase in physiological
arousal. Nor is this effect limited to insects. A person whispering quietly in your ear is more likely to raise
arousal levels than a person speaking in a louder voice from across a room.
In general, there are excellent reasons for an animal to become attentive to close proximity,
especially when the other individual is a stranger. The phrase "violation of personal space" highlights the
sense of the potential peril or danger associated with close physical proximity. Although sexual intimacy is
rarely explicit in ASMR videos, when present, implications of sexual intimacy can be both compelling as
well as threatening.
If, as conjectured, ASMR and frisson begin as subcortical fear responses, then one might expect
ASMR and frisson responders to exhibit greater sensitivity to threat or danger compared with non-
responders. Extant studies of both ASMR and frisson do indeed show the expected personality traits. For
example, Nusbaum (2012) showed that scoring significantly higher on neuroticism and openness in the
five-factor personality assessment had significant main effects on the occurrence of chills from music.
Others have similarly shown that openness to experience is a strong predictor of experiencing frisson
(Colver & El-Alayli, 2016; Nusbaum & Silvia, 2011). In their study of ASMR responders, Fredborg et al.
(2017) similarly found that ASMR-responders score significantly higher on neuroticism and openness. The
disposition towards neuroticism is consistent with a greater sensitivity to threat. That is, both ASMR and
Empirical Musicology Review Vol. 13, No. 1-2, 2018
59
frisson experiences are more likely to occur among those who are more vigilant and more prone to perceive
danger.
In their review of the ASMR literature, del Campo & Kehle (2016) suggest that ASMR might be a
milder form of frisson. Note that this suggestion might account for the tendency to describe the topical
effects as a "tingling" sensation rather than as goosebumps.
Accordingly, we might propose the following interpretation of ASMR and it's relationship to
frisson. Like frisson, we suggest that ASMR might achieve its emotional power by evoking unconscious
subcortical fear that is then cognitively assessed as inconsequential. However, the fear evoked by ASMR
stimuli arises through the mechanisms of proximity and intimacy rather than via acoustic bombast. In both
cases, the pilomotor response is symptomatic of classic fear, and in both cases the experience of pleasure
implicates positive cortical assessment posited as characteristic of suppressed fear theory. In short, the
physiological and hedonic responses are similar, even though the precipitating stimuli differ notably.
If this interpretation is correct, it suggests that ASMR might be reasonably regarded as a type of
frisson. We need only explain why many of those who experience ASMR insist that it is qualitatively
different from frisson. Misattribution theory provides a plausible explanation. In general, stimuli are
cognitively more salient than responses; moreover, responses tend to be attributed to the stimuli. In the
seminal work on misattribution, young men were induced to experience mild vertigo, but in the presence of
a beautiful woman the men misconstrued their response as enfatuation for the woman (Dutton & Aron,
1974). Said another way, people are generally more attentive to sights and sounds, and less attentive to
internal affective states. Two contrasting stimuli might evoke similar experiences, but the perceptual
contrast holds greater psychological weight. Consequently, it makes sense that ASMR fans might focus on
the differences that distinguish ASMR stimuli from the sorts of stimuli commonly described in the frisson
literature.
Finally, one further person-related variable deserves mention. In certain cases, listeners can
experience sound-induced anger ("misophonia,” which literally translates as “hatred of sound”). For
example, Schröder, Vulink, and Denys (2013) have documented how some listeners intensely dislike eating
sounds (such as chewing) or the sound of tapping. Moreover, in a large-scale study of misophonia, Rouw
and Erfanian (2017) found that 49 percent of listeners who experience misophonia are also prone to
experience ASMR. This suggests that ASMR and misophonia share a heightened sensitivity to certain
sounds, especially sounds that might induce forms of irritation, including anger (misophonia) and fear.
Kumar et al. (2017) recently conducted an fMRI study on misophonic individuals which indicated that
these individuals attribute abnormal salience to particular sounds, based on abnormal functional
connectivity of the anterior insular cortex (AIC). AIC activity mediated both the increased heart rate and
galvanic skin responses of individuals to trigger sounds, which are both classic fear responses (Kumar et
al., 2017). Future investigation into ASMR may wish to take into consideration and build off past work
conducted on misophonia as the two phenomena may very well be related.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Special thanks to Susan Meyer, Stephne Rasiah, and Dr. Johanna Devaney for their assistance with
completion of this project. Additional thanks to the Ohio State University URO for providing funding. This
article was copyedited by Tanushree Agrawal and layout edited by Kelly Jakubowski.
NOTES
[1] Correspondence can be addressed to: Alexsandra Kovacevich, The University of Toledo
College of Medicine, 2237 Parkwood Avenue Apartment 2A, Toledo, Ohio 43620,
alexsandra.kovacevich@rockets.utoledo.edu.
Empirical Musicology Review Vol. 13, No. 1-2, 2018
60
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APPENDIX 1
The subject first experienced ASMR as a child, during grade school, and discovered these online videos 3
years ago. The subject frequently watches ASMR videos, typically on a daily basis before bed or during a
“lull period” during the day. The subject suggests that it is vital to use headphones to experience ASMR
from videos, ideally over-ear headphones to experience the full effects of the audio roaming. She also
explained that the sound must be equalized in a certain way to “create a treble-y sound” and eliminate bass.
The subject suggests that role-play videos are particularly effective, and expressed a preference for creative
content. The subject suggests that good ASMRtists must be non-threatening, more motherly, and generally
females are better. She also suggests that she likes nonverbal stimuli, such as the sound of tapping on glass.
The subject describes the sensation as a pleasurable shiver that originates at the shoulder blades
and quickly runs up the back of the neck. The subject also experiences frisson, and explains that ASMR is a
less emotional experience than frisson. The subject also explains that while watching a video, she may
experience ASMR every 30 seconds, whereas frisson may only occur one time.
APPENDIX 2
Data for Study 1 and a list of video samples are available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1811/86953
... ASMR experiences are touted by many as promoting calm and relaxed feelings [33,43,52] and are associated with positive affect and a sense of interpersonal connection [31,54,62]. Barratt and Davis found that ASMR combines positive feelings, relaxation, and tingling sensation of the skin and provides temporary relief from depression [5]. ...
... Smith et al. analyzed neuroimages during ASMR tingles and found ASMR was associated with a blending of multiple resting-state networks [64]. Kovacevich examined comments to ASMR videos and found positive comments appreciated the calming or relaxing effects [33]. For social and intimate experiences, Klausen argued that ASMRtists leverage binaural sounds and haptic interactions to create a form of embodied presence and distant intimacy with the viewers [31]. ...
... Prior work found that people can have different feelings with the same ASMR trigger [19,53] and don't publicly share ASMR experiences with others [4,5]. Comments represent immediate and direct user reactions to a video and analyzing comments is a more straightforward way to capture viewers' feelings than rating by external participants [33]. Word analysis of YouTube comments is a common approach to infer the influence of videos on viewers [2,59,61]. ...
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... Sounds that elicit ASMR include whispering, speaking with less vocal energy, slow speaking rates, increased use of pauses, oral wetness cues, the greater use of silibants, sounds of breathing, alternating binaural stimuli, crisp sounds, and tapping or scratching sounds (Andersen, 2015;Kovacevich & Huron, 2019). Broadly, ASMR-inducing clips can be broken into two categories-mouth-related sounds and non-mouth sounds. ...
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... Participants were directed to the Qualtrics link where the purpose and the procedure of the study was explained and participants could give informed online consent. Participants were asked to find somewhere quiet and wear headphones for the duration of the study to maximise the chance that ASMR was experienced (see [6]). They were presented with the demographic questions and pre-video ASMR experience questionnaire. ...
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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) describes an atypical multisensory experience of calming, tingling sensations in response to a specific subset of social audiovisual triggers. To date, the electrophysiological (EEG) correlates of ASMR remain largely unexplored. Here we sought to provide source-level signatures of oscillatory changes induced by this phenomenon and investigate potential decay effects—oscillatory changes in the absence of self-reported ASMR. We recorded brain activity using EEG as participants watched ASMR-inducing videos and self-reported changes in their state: no change (Baseline); enhanced relaxation (Relaxed); and ASMR sensations (ASMR). Statistical tests in the sensor-space were used to inform contrasts in the source-space, executed with beamformer reconstruction. ASMR modulated oscillatory power by decreasing high gamma (52-80 Hz) relative to Relaxed and by increasing alpha (8-13 Hz) and decreasing delta (1–4 Hz) relative to Baseline. At the source level, ASMR increased power in the low-mid frequency ranges (8-18 Hz) and decreased power in high frequency (21-80 Hz). ASMR decay effects reduced gamma (30-80 Hz) and in the source-space reduced high-beta/gamma power (21-80 Hz). The temporal profile of ASMR modulations in high-frequency power later shifts to lower frequencies (1-8 Hz), except for an enhanced alpha, which persists for up to 45 minutes post self-reported ASMR. Crucially, these results provide the first evidence that the cortical sources of ASMR tingling sensations may arise from decreases in higher frequency oscillations and that ASMR may induce a sustained relaxation state.
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ASMR is a complex positive emotion experienced by some people in response to triggers including auditory, visual, interpersonal and tactile stimuli. We propose that the ability to experience ASMR and its resulting intensity might be underlined by individual differences in sensory sensitivity to exteroceptive and interoceptive cues. In a pre-registered study (N = 557), we examined whether sensory sensitivity measures (1) differentiated ASMR from non-ASMR responders and (2) predicted ASMR intensity. Results showed that people with (stronger) ASMR had greater interoceptive sensitivity (MAIA2) and bodily awareness (BPQ-BA) and were more likely to be classified as highly sensitive (HSPS). Results are discussed in relation to individual differences in environmental sensitivity, interoception, and emotional appraisal processes.
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Objective: We aim to elucidate misophonia, a condition in which particular sounds elicit disproportionally strong aversive reactions. Method: A large online study extensively surveyed personal, developmental, and clinical characteristics of over 300 misophonics. Results: Most participants indicated that their symptoms started in childhood or early teenage years. Severity of misophonic responses increases over time. One third of participants reported having family members with similar symptoms. Half of our participants reported no comorbid clinical conditions, and the other half reported a variety of conditions. Only posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was related to the severity of the misophonic symptoms. Remarkably, half of the participants reported experiencing euphoric, relaxing, and tingling sensations with particular sounds or sights, a relatively unfamiliar phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Conclusion: It is unlikely that another "real" underlying clinical, psychiatric, or psychological disorder can explain away the misophonia. The possible relationship with PTSD and ASMR warrants further investigation.
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Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a self-reported multi-sensory phenomenon described as a pleasant tingling sensation, triggered by certain auditory and visual stimuli, which typically originates at the back of the head and tends to spread throughout the whole body resulting in a relaxed and sedated state. Despite growing reports of ASMR there is a lack of scientific investigation of this intriguing phenomenon. This study is the first to examine whether self-reported ASMR is associated with individual differences in personality characteristics compared to general population. To do so we administered the Big Five Inventory (BFI) and the Inter-Personal Reactivity Index (IRI) to a group of individuals reporting to experience ASMR and a matched control group. Our findings showed that ASMR self-reporters scored higher on Openness to Experience and lower on Conscientiousness measures of BFI. They also showed greater scores on Empathic Concern and Fantasizing subscale of IRI. These findings are discussed in the context of the personality profile found in synaesthesia, which has been recently suggested to be more prevalent among people reporting ASMR experiences.
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Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a perceptual condition in which the presentation of particular audio-visual stimuli triggers intense, pleasurable tingling sensations in the head and neck regions, which may spread to the periphery of the body. These triggering stimuli are often socially intimate in nature, and usually involve repetition of movements and/or sounds (e.g., hearing whispering, watching someone brush her hair). Reports of ASMR experiences first appeared in online communities in 2010; since this time, these communities have expanded, with some groups consisting of over 100,000 members. However, despite the apparent prevalence of ASMR, there is currently no research on the personality characteristics that co-occur with this condition. In the current study, 290 individuals with ASMR and 290 matched controls completed the Big Five Personality Inventory (BFI; John et al., 1991); participants with ASMR also completed a questionnaire related to their ASMR phenomenology. Individuals with ASMR demonstrated significantly higher scores on Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism, and significantly lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness compared to matched controls. Further, ratings of subjective ASMR intensity in response to 14 common ASMR stimuli were positively correlated with the Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism dimensions of the BFI. These results provide preliminary evidence that ASMR is associated with specific personality traits and suggest avenues for further investigation.
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Misophonia is an affective sound-processing disorder characterized by the experience of strong negative emotions (anger and anxiety) in response to everyday sounds, such as those generated by other people eating, drinking, chewing, and breathing [1–8]. The commonplace nature of these sounds (often referred to as “trigger sounds”) makes misophonia a devastating disorder for sufferers and their families, and yet nothing is known about the underlying mechanism. Using functional and structural MRI coupled with physiological measurements, we demonstrate that misophonic subjects show specific trigger-sound-related responses in brain and body. Specifically, fMRI showed that in misophonic subjects, trigger sounds elicit greatly exaggerated blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) responses in the anterior insular cortex (AIC), a core hub of the “salience network” that is critical for perception of interoceptive signals and emotion processing. Trigger sounds in misophonics were associated with abnormal functional connectivity between AIC and a network of regions responsible for the processing and regulation of emotions, including ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), posteromedial cortex (PMC), hippocampus, and amygdala. Trigger sounds elicited heightened heart rate (HR) and galvanic skin response (GSR) in misophonic subjects, which were mediated by AIC activity. Questionnaire analysis showed that misophonic subjects perceived their bodies differently: they scored higher on interoceptive sensibility than controls, consistent with abnormal functioning of AIC. Finally, brain structural measurements implied greater myelination within vmPFC in misophonic individuals. Overall, our results show that misophonia is a disorder in which abnormal salience is attributed to particular sounds based on the abnormal activation and functional connectivity of AIC.
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Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a perceptual condition in which specific visual and auditory stimuli consistently trigger tingling sensations on the scalp and neck, sometimes spreading to the back and limbs. These triggering stimuli are often social, almost intimate, in nature (e.g., hearing whispering, or watching someone brush her hair), and often elicit a calm and positive emotional state. Surprisingly, despite its prevalence in the general population, no published study has examined the neural underpinnings of ASMR. In the current study, the default mode network (DMN) of 11 individuals with ASMR was contrasted to that of 11 matched controls. The results indicated that the DMN of individuals with ASMR showed significantly less functional connectivity than that of controls. The DMN of individuals with ASMR also demonstrated increased connectivity between regions in the occipital, frontal, and temporal cortices, suggesting that ASMR was associated with a blending of multiple resting-state networks. This atypical functional connectivity likely influences the unique sensory-emotional experiences associated with ASMR.
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Earlier research has emphasized the emotional nature of frisson (pleasurable aesthetic chills) and has suggested that the personality trait Openness to Experience may predict more frisson episodes. The present study tested these notions by administering a measure of Openness and inducing actual instances of frisson using musical stimuli. One hundred college students completed the NEO-PI-R, which assesses the five factors of personality (Openness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness), and then listened to five musical selections that were likely to elicit frisson. Frisson was assessed via a combined self-report and physiological (galvanic skin response) measure. As predicted, frequency of frisson was positively correlated with overall Openness to Experience, as well as five of its six subfacets: Fantasy, Aesthetics, Feelings, Ideas, and Values. Examination of the more specific relationships suggests the possibility that cognitive attentiveness to music may be more closely related to frisson than had been emphasized in past research.
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Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a previously unstudied sensory phenomenon, in which individuals experience a tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp, back of the neck and at times further areas in response to specific triggering audio and visual stimuli. This sensation is widely reported to be accompanied by feelings of relaxation and well-being. The current study identifies several common triggers used to achieve ASMR, including whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds and slow movements. Data obtained also illustrates temporary improvements in symptoms of depression and chronic pain in those who engage in ASMR. A high prevalence of synaesthesia (5.9%) within the sample suggests a possible link between ASMR and synaesthesia, similar to that of misophonia. Links between number of effective triggers and heightened flow state suggest that flow may be necessary to achieve sensations associated with ASMR.
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Most people report that listening to music sometimes creates chills—feeling goose bumps and shivers on the neck, scalp, and spine—but some people seem to never experience them. The present research examined who tends to experience music-induced chills and why. A sample of young adults completed measures of chills, the Big Five domains, and their music preferences, habits, and experiences. Latent variable models found that openness to experience was the strongest predictor of the typical experience of chills during music. Several mediation models considered likely mediators of this effect. Openness to experience predicted music preferences, particularly for reflective and complex genres, but genre preferences did not in turn predict chills. In contrast, several markers of people’s experience and engagement with music in everyday life, such as listening to music more often and valuing music, did mediate openness's effects. Some implications for bridging state and trait approaches to the chills experience are considered.
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There are many important phenomena involved in human functioning that are unnoticed, misunderstood, not applied, or do not pique the interest of the scientific community. Among these, autonomous sensory meridian response(ASMR) and frisson are two very noteworthy instances that may prove to be therapeutically helpful in promoting subjective well-being or happiness, which can be considered synonymous with mental health. This review attempts to elucidate the characteristics of each phenomenon, including proposed similarities and differences between the two. We present an argument that ASMR and frisson are interrelated in that they appear to arise through similar physiological mechanisms, and both may be induced or enhanced through the practice of mindfulness.