MDes Talks: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and Its Opportunity for Design

Lionel Wong, a designer and part-time lecturer in Singapore, has joined PolyU's Interaction Design (MDes) programme since September 2018. After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Design from National University of Singapore, he spent the past decade designing toys, objects, and more recently wearable art pieces and accessories using innovative production processes coupled with traditional craft techniques.



MDes Talks: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and Its Opportunity for Design
ASMR Intense Microphone Brushing, Scratching & Stroking - (No Talking) Binaural 4K [1], Youtube

Official scientific research into ASMR started only recently, after the term was coined by cybersecurity professional Jennifer Allen in 2010. However, it is undeniable from a sociological viewpoint how much ASMR has influenced online culture over the last decade with over 10 million ASMR-related videos on the internet [2]. This is what interested me in the topic and why I am writing about it.

What is ASMR?

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), to the uninitiated, is a physiological phenomenon that happens to a certain percentage of the population. Upon reception of a stimulus, be it visual, aural or physical, among other forms, an ASMR receptive person would feel 'a tingling sensation which originated typically towards the back of the scalp and progressed down the line of the spine and, in some cases, out towards the shoulders' [3].

It is not sexual arousal or orgasm. It is not ticklish. But it makes people feel 'personal and is oddly soothing' [4]. ASMR is more akin to the concept of frisson, where a person gets goosebumps when listening to a stimulating piece of music. A study by psychology professor Stephen Smith of the University of Winnipeg found that 'people who experience ASMR reactions have neural networks that are fundamentally different to those of other people' [4].

MDes Talks: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and Its Opportunity for Design
ASMR Map (Barratt, Davis, 2015) [3]

This sensation is hard to put down in words, but ASMR proponents use the term 'tingling' to describe it. 'Tingling' is quite an apt term, for ASMR reactions are not unlike hundreds of tiny soft pins and needles touching a person's skin.

If you felt these tingles while receiving a massage, or through a hairdresser cutting or brushing your hair, you might have ASMR.

The World of ASMR on YouTube

Do a search for 'ASMR' on YouTube in the last hour and you'd find hundreds of curious videos of people (often women) performing a make-believe scenario on the viewer such as receiving a haircut, massage or ear cleaning, or such fantastical situations such as putting the viewer through a scenario of being the victim of a kidnapping or alien abduction. Through these narrative videos, these 'ASMRtists' make use of the opportunity to deliver to the viewer various stimuli such as whispers, visual touches and sounds of various kinds, all for the purpose of instigating an ASMR response.

Looking closer geographically, Lauren James of the South China Morning Post (2017) mentions ASMR Canto [5], one artist based in Hong Kong who provided her audiences videos with a Cantonese flavour. A search on YouTube turned up a few more names providing similar experiences for the HK-based audience.

Technology as Culture Catalyst

Technologies like video streaming allow ASMR susceptible individuals to access ASMR content without being restricted by boundaries of space and time. The ubiquity of cameras, microphones, all such recording devices as well as the accessibility of public expression offered by sites such as YouTube have allowed the population of ASMR artists to grow. This supply has grown to feed a demand that we as a population is starting to realise we had.

Messitte (2015) writes of the money-making potential for ASMR 'practitioners', whose subscriptions number 'in the hundreds of thousands, and views in the double-digit millions [6] '.

MDes Talks: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and Its Opportunity for Design
How to make Bubble Tea [5], Youtube

Commercial Aspects

MDes Talks: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and Its Opportunity for Design
‘Oddly IKEA’: IKEA ASMR’ [6], Youtube

Companies and corporations are increasingly aware of this phenomenon and are harnessing its effects in media of their own. '"Oddly IKEA": IKEA ASMR' is a video on YouTube that features 25 minutes of soft-spoken voice-over while showing sheets being folded and beds being made, all items being part of IKEA's line of products. Safeguard Philippines gives a more localised offering with an ASMR-styled advertisement showing the preparation of a local dish followed by a handwashing segment prominently using Safeguard's soap product [7]. These 'ASMRvertisements' rely on tried and tested formulae of ASMRtists, albeit the high production budgets due to the equipment needed and professional videography.

Health Benefits

Barratt and Davis (2015) report that besides the sensory reactions experienced by ASMR susceptible individuals, there were significant improvements in conditions for those suffering from chronic pain and depression [3]. Additionally, positive feelings were reported for those who did not suffer from these mentioned conditions [8].

Future Direction: ASMR and Design

Practitioners and their audiences have long regarded ASMR for its therapeutic effects, with companies and celebrities now grasping the scope and influence of this phenomenon. What should we, as designers, researchers and academics think of the growth of this sociological curiosity?

We understand that technologies have given us comprehensive methods to communicate worldwide, but I venture that the methods of communication so far have been lacking in the intangible quality of human touch. As the new communication technologies develop and designers research and introduce new ways to implement these technologies into human interactions, we may turn an eye to the methods, stimulants and triggers that have been defined in the ASMR community. We do so in order to redefine how individuals can establish deeper connection with others, and furthermore to explore ways for people to improve their health and wellbeing through new forms of therapy.

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References

1. ASMR Intense Microphone Brushing, Scratching & Stroking - (No Talking) Binaural 4K from
LauraLemurex ASMR (2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQgDQ8MFjsk

2. ASMR Could Have Health Benefits Beyond The Brain Tingles, Study Suggests from
DiSalvo D (2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/06/27/asmr-could-have-health-benefits-beyond-brain-tingles-study-suggests/#444e973a4752

3. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state. from
Barratt EL, Davis NJ (2015), https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.851

4. What is ASMR and why do some people react to it? from
McKeown S (2018), https://www.businesslive.co.za/fm/fm-fox/digital/2018-10-02-what-is-asmr-and-why-do-some-people-react-to-it/

5. The spine tingling phenomenon of ASMR: let me whisper in your ear from
James L (2017), https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/2098632/spine-tingling-phenomenon-asmr-let-me-whisper-your-ear

6. Is There Any Money To Be Made in ASMR? from
Messite N (2015), https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmessitte/2015/03/31/is-there-any-money-to-be-made-in-asmr

5. [No Music] How to make Bubble Tea from
Peaceful Cuisine (2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xebewT6lh2k

6. IKEA USA (2017) '"Oddly IKEA": IKEA ASMR from
Peaceful Cuisine (2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLFaj3Z_tWw

7. Safeguard Presents "The Wash" ASMR Video from
Safeguard Thailand (2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbGCKGuJDl0

8. More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology. From
Poerio GL, Blakey E, Hostler TJ, Veltri T (2018), https://doi.org/10.1371/ journal.pone.0196645

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About the Writer

Lionel Wong – Lionel is a current student at HK PolyU taking his Masters Degree in Interaction Design. He came in from off the beaten track; Lionel has been exposed to a myriad of different industries since he last graduated, and had the fortune of working with excellent mentors and multi-disciplinary, organic teams on a large variety of projects. He has contributed to User Experience related projects in the area of consumer computing, Aesthetic and Sports Design in the action toy business, and he has a growing appreciation and experience in designing for the exciting, booming consumer 3D printing community.

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MDes Talks is a series of student blogs produced by current MDes students and recent graduates. For its third edition, the editorial team consists of writers from China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Mexico, France, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. They write about study life, living abroad, design, and what you don't know about PolyU and Hong Kong.