The (Vague) Science of ASMR

If you type ASMR into YouTube, you will find a plethora of videos that can strike people as quite odd.  Strangers whispering into the camera for long periods of time, a woman tapping on a chocolate bar for nearly an hour, or producing sounds from slime or lotion are some examples.  The name stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” though that mostly is just a name that was put together so that the little-known sensation could have a name (the history of the term is briefly discussed here).

Many who use the videos say that they have had an incredibly positive impact on their lives by reducing stress, anxiety and causing sleep.  Most ASMR enthusiasts believe that capacity to feel the ASMR sensation is something you either are or are not born with.  The ASMR sensation itself is often described as a pleasant tingling sensation in the head that can spread down the body.  Many viewers though say they don’t understand the attraction.  Some people react to the ASMR craze with a disdain either because the videos are deemed to be simply weird or are deemed to be a kind of fetish.

Situations in ASMR videos can include haircuts, doctor’s visits or android repairs-situations where someone is allowed to act in close proximity to another person (or robot).  It is this aspect of many ASMR videos that can creep people out.  The charge of that the videos are intended to be sexual deeply angers ASMR creators though since they do not wish do be viewed in that light and, furthermore, should public opinion turn too sharply against ASMR videos, demonetization will become a bigger threat for ASMR YouTubers than it already is.   Interestingly, one survey of ASMR enthusiasts found only 5% reported interest in the videos for sexual stimulation.

But is ASMR real?  According to research done by the University of Sheffield, it is, but only in some people.  Participants who reported that they experienced the ASMR feeling were shown to have lower heart rates when exposed to ASMR content in a lab.

“What’s interesting is that the average reductions in heart rate experienced by our ASMR participants was comparable to other research findings on the physiological effects of stress-reduction techniques such as music and mindfulness,” Dr. Giulia Poerio who lead the study.

As it is though, very little is understood as to what causes people to love videos depicting such simple stimuli so much.  Some compare the phenomenon to synesthesia while another hypothesis links the videos to the way we receive affection while young. Whether you love the trend, or are repelled by it, it seems the brain still has some more quirks we are yet to learn.

And who knows what the Internet will produce next.

Feel free to check out my other blog The Martian Muckraker or see this fun little “text an alien” webpage I made to learn a little PHP.

The High Hopes and Political Risks of the March for Science

(First published before April 22nd 2017 March; new posts coming soon)

This Earth Day, April 22nd, scientists and science advocates will be marching in support of evidence-based policy making in Washington DC and at over 500 sites across the world.  According to the official website of the movement, “People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings.  We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely…We must stand together and support science.”

The movement, which originated on social media, has grown very popular, getting endorsed by the editorial staff of leading science journal Nature and garnering over a half-million likes on Facebook.

Some are more skeptical of the movement however.  A scientist-authored opinion piece in the New York Times warns that this march “will turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate” and is instead recommending that supporters of science take measures that are more personal and help put a “face on the debate.”

More recently, an Op-Ed piece in the New Yorker has warned that, “there is a genuine risk that the March for Science will be widely regarded as a manifestation of the great urban-rural divide that helped elect Trump.”  The March for Science states that it is nonpartisan and that “anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle.”  This nonpartisan spirit is not shared by all.  The East Bay Times Editorial Board advocates the March as a way to stand against certain policies of President Trump and even calls the March for Science a matter of “Life or Death.”

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts include steep cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (targeted for an 18% cut) and the Environmental Protection Agency (targeted for a 31% cut).  For supporters of the march, such as the aforementioned Editorial Board of the East Bay Times, the planned cuts to NIH and possible future cuts to the National Science Foundation are projected to jeopardize medical research and harm the economy.

The endorsement in Nature acknowledges the risk the march could feed the (false) narrative that science is a “left-wing” issue and blur the line between science and politics.  Nonetheless they assert, “that line is already much fuzzier than some try to argue.”  Ultimately they, and scientists around the world, hope “despite internal wrinkles, the positive message that crowds of pro-science people on the streets present to the broader world will surely show through.”