Testing for Tingles: A screening tool for sustainable ASMR Research in the general population

Research Team

Tom Swart | Goldsmiths, University of London
Hostler Tom | Manchester Metropolitan University
Emma Palmer-Cooper | University of Southampton
Agnieszka Janik McErlean | Bath Spa University
Giulia Poerio | University of Essex

BACKGROUND

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a sensory experience commonly described as a ‘tingling’ sensation in the scalp associated with feelings of relaxation. ASMR is triggered in some people by stimuli including whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds, and slow hand movements. Although ASMR can be experienced in real life, those who experience it often watch online content ‘ASMR videos’ to experience its purported therapeutic benefits, such as relieving insomnia, aiding relaxation, and combatting stress (Barratt & Davis, 2015).

ASMR has garnered extraordinary public interest: ‘ASMR’ is the third most popular search term on YouTube worldwide (Hardwick, 2021) with hundreds of thousands of YouTube ASMR videos amassing millions of views. Despite immense public interest and widespread use of ASMR content, there is a lack of robust scientific research on the phenomenon with only a handful of journal articles on the topic (here’s what we know so far).

Why has ASMR received so little scientific attention? Perhaps due to perceptions of ASMR as a bizarre internet craze, the difficulties in obtaining research funding for topics with no established research base, and scepticism around whether ASMR is amenable to scientific investigation. As a group of researchers, we are joining forces to accelerate ASMR research by connecting people, ideas, and resources, as well as engaging with the public.

Assessing the prevalence of ASMR - Theoretical importance

A significant outstanding question in ASMR research that we seek to answer in this project is its prevalence in the general population. Until now, ASMR research has relied on self-selection and identification of participants making an accurate population estimate impossible. Knowing the prevalence of ASMR and how it compares to other experiences (such as synesthesia and misophonia) will:

(1) help to inform theories regarding the origins of ASMR (why do only some people experience it?)

(2) feed into the potential future applications of ASMR for mental health and well-being (e.g., ASMR could be recommended as a sleep aid but without knowing how many people could benefit, it is difficult to assess the potential value).

The Prolific platform provides a unique opportunity to recruit an unbiased and representative sample of the population, and utilise a recently-validated ASMR screening process to identify what percentage of the population experience ASMR. This would provide us for the first time with an estimate of the prevalence of ASMR which would represent a foundational result in this developing literature (as it has done in other areas such as synesthesia; Banissy et al., 2009; Simner et al., 2006).

Mass screening for ASMR - Practical importance

As well as getting an initial estimate of ASMR prevalence, an equally important benefit of our proposed research is the potential to use this initial study as a screening tool to be able to accurately identify and distinguish between people who are capable of experiencing ASMR from those that do not for future research.

Until now, ASMR and control samples in research have been self-selected and so are often not matched on key characteristics, or screened for comorbidities (e.g., sensory processing difficulties). Especially in studies that rely on volunteers, differences between control and ASMR samples may simply reflect self-selection biases rather than telling us anything concrete about the phenomenon. Knowing a-priori who experiences ASMR and who does not is essential because it enables us to examine differences between ASMR-responders and matched controls on various characteristics (e.g., perceptual, cognitive, emotional) to shed light on the potential mechanisms underlying ASMR.

Prolific is uniquely placed to enable the mass screening of participants, before they take part in further ASMR research studies. Therefore, our proposed study can not only be useful as a standalone piece of research but can be used as a screener to identify and recruit both ASMR-responders and controls for future studies. This mass screening will make future research on ASMR more efficient (we can match control and ASMR participants on several characteristics), collaborative (it will reduce the need for other researchers to spend time/resources on properly screening participants) and specialised (we will be able to recruit participants based on their types of ASMR triggers, or the strength of their ASMR response).

METHODS

We will use a recently validated, data-driven, tool to accurately identify ASMR status. The ASMR-Experience Questionnaire (Swart et al., 2021) involves participants watching a series of short ASMR videos and answering sensory-affective questions immediately afterwards. Using a k-means clustering approach, participants are sorted into 5 data-driven groupings.

ASMR-Responders differentiate based on ASMR propensity and intensity (ASMR-Strong; ASMR-Weak); non-responders differentiate based on how their emotional state changes after watching ASMR videos (Control+; Control−; False-Positive). An individual would be deemed a false positive when they report experiencing something that does not align to the hallmark features of ASMR (e.g., pleasant, calming, head-dominant tingles).

The AEQ relies on an unsupervised machine learning algorithm and thus the more data available the more accurate the output groupings will be. The data is likely to have high re-use value to other ASMR researchers as “baseline” data on ASMR prevalence across different demographics, and the granular level of detail of the AEQ results across such a large number of participants will be a valuable resource for secondary data analysis for a number of research questions. For example the AEQ collects responses to five main ASMR trigger types, which could reveal demographic or trigger-types that influence the identified groupings.

The AEQ will be complemented by a newly developed ASMR trigger checklist to identify individual differences in ASMR intensity and triggering modality (Succi, Gillmeister & Poerio), which will allow for further screening within the ASMR population. Additional measures will examine potential comorbidities with other conditions and atypical sensory experiences (e.g., misophonia, synesthesia) based on previous literature.

SAMPLE SIZE & COSTS

Our primary aim is to screen as many participants as possible from a diverse and nationally representative sample; sample size (N = 1268) is therefore based on the number of people we can recruit to take part in our 45 minute screener (see below). Our ultimate aim is to keep the screener running on Prolific when additional funding becomes available so that ASMR researchers can use it to recruit pre-screened participants for their Prolific studies.

1268 participants will be paid £5.63 for their 45 minute participation in the screener. This is based on paying £7.50/hour as recommended by Prolific. With the 33% service fee the total amount requested is £9994.38.

PRE-REGISTRATION AND OPEN SCIENCE

Our ASMR screening study will be pre-registered on the OSF: This link is to a word document with the contents of our proposed registration (we want the opportunity to improve the pre-registration with feedback from the community and in case of any changes imposed by ethics before actually registering prior to data collection). In the document we report the procedure and scoring as well as transparently reporting all measures. Although data quality on Prolific is high we will include a number of attention checks and measures to identify careless responders and pre-register exclusion criteria.

When we have written up our study for publication all study materials, analysis code and data (stripped of Prolific IDs) will be openly available on the OSF. This is a practice we have followed in our previous ASMR research. We will also allow other researchers access to Prolific IDs (for recruitment of pre-screened ASMR participants and controls in their studies) subject to appropriate data sharing agreements being in place. Our Open Science ethos extends beyond open data to public engagement (opening science to society): we regularly engage with those interested in ASMR research though our ASMRNet mailing list and on social media.

This project is so important! Widening participantion and accessibility in wellbeing research is urgent. ASMR research has so much potential to offer health support to more people around the globe.

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Sounds like a really interesting and well-planned out study. ASMR is fascinating, and I look forward to hearing about your findings!

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This is important research about a cross-sensory phenomenon.

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I think your proposal is over the word limit which is 1000 max

A well defined screening tool is highly needed for the continuation of ASMR research.
So happy someone are working on this!