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What does ASMR do to the brain?

What does ASMR do to the brain?

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Winner bachelor’s thesis prize psychology: Ana Reinartz Groba

A whispering voice, gentle knocking on wood, the rustling of the pages of a book. In some people, these kinds of sounds create a relaxing, tingling feeling in the scalp, known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Why? We don’t know. In fact, we know very little about ASMR in general. Prize winner Ana Reinartz Groba (now a student in the Cognitive Neuroscience research master’s programme) decided to go explore uncharted territory. For her bachelor’s thesis, she studied the brain during ASMR using EEG.

EEG is a method to record electrical activity in the brain. Electrodes consisting of small metal discs with thin wires are pasted onto your scalp. Different activity leads to different wave patterns that researchers can interpret.

Reinartz Groba connected 23 participants to an EEG machine. “All of them were people who said they had felt relaxed by ASMR before. We did a baseline recording and then let them watch ASMR videos. They were given a button. When they felt the tingling, they pressed ‘start’; when it stopped, they pushed the ‘stop’ button. Eighteen of them felt it during the experiment.”

The recordings showed a difference in brain activity when people experience ASMR. “We saw a distinct pattern, different from the baseline recording and also different from when people watched the ASMR videos without experiencing that special feeling. Just watching the videos puts people in a kind of meditative state – but along with that feeling, something else happens. We don’t know what it is or what it means. More research is needed. I was just happy we found something.”

Reinartz Groba did her research at Dalhousie University in Halifax, on the east coast of Canada. “In the beginning, I found it a bit intimidating to go into this lab where I didn’t know anyone. I had only talked to my supervisor via video call. But they were very welcoming. They treated me as one of their own and took my ideas seriously.”

She feels that the experience solidified her love of research. “I love every step of it. Coming up with an idea, writing the proposal, testing people – that was the most fun part –, analysing the results. It’s an extremely rewarding process to me. Even the stress that comes with it is something I gladly take upon me.”

Pursuing a PhD seems like the next logical step for her. “At the moment I’m still working on my research master’s degree, but that is a goal I want to set for myself.” Will she focus on ASMR again? “I needed a break from it after my thesis, but there is still a lot to discover. I’ll definitely consider it.”

Every year during the Dies Natalis, special attention is paid to the students who wrote the best bachelor’s and master’s theses. Although the event was cancelled due to COVID-19, 27 lucky students (18 bachelor’s theses and nine master’s theses) were awarded a cash prize of 500 euros and a certificate. Observant selected eight theses. Their stories will be published on this website in the coming weeks.

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