Empathic People Process Music Differently In the Brain
By Southern Methodist University
People with higher empathy differ from others in the way their brains process music, according to a study by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and UCLA.
About 20 percent of the population is highly empathic. Really, to be an empath is to literally feel something in your own body that is happening in someone else. In studies, however, empaths are people who are especially sensitive and respond strongly to social and emotional stimuli.
This new SMU-UCLA study is the first to find evidence supporting a neural account of the music-empathy connection by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how empathy affects the way we perceive music. For empaths, music is not just an artistic form of expression.
The researchers found that compared to low empathy people, those with higher empathy process familiar music with greater involvement of the reward system of the brain, as well as in areas responsible for processing social information.
“High-empathy and low-empathy people share a lot in common when listening to music, including roughly equivalent involvement in the regions of the brain related to auditory, emotion, and sensory-motor processing,” said lead author Zachary Wallmark, an assistant professor in the SMU Meadows School of the Arts.
But there is at least one significant difference.
Highly empathic people process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain’s social circuitry, such as the areas activated when feeling empathy for others. They also seem to experience a greater degree of pleasure in listening, as indicated by increased activation of the reward system.
Wallmark said that perhaps the music is being vaguely perceived as some kind of social entity or as an “an imagined or virtual human presence.”
If music was not related to how we process the social world, then we likely would have seen no significant difference in the brain activation between high-empathy and low-empathy people.
This tells us that over and above appreciating music as high art, music is about humans interacting with other humans and trying to understand and communicate with each other.
But in our culture we have a whole elaborate system of music education and music thinking that treats music as a sort of disembodied object of aesthetic contemplation – In contrast, the results of our study help explain how music connects us to others. This could have implications for how we understand the function of music in our world, and possibly in our evolutionary past.
“The study shows on one hand the power of empathy in modulating music perception, a phenomenon that reminds us of the original roots of the concept of empathy — ‘feeling into’ a piece of art,” said senior author Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Music plays on the same social processes that happen when we interact with one another.
Comparison of brain scans showed distinctive differences based on empathy
Participants were 20 UCLA undergraduate students. They were each scanned in an MRI machine while listening to excerpts of music that were either familiar or unfamiliar to them, and that they either liked or disliked. The familiar music was selected by participants prior to the scan.
Afterward each person completed a standard questionnaire to assess individual differences in empathy — for example, frequently feeling sympathy for others in distress, or imagining oneself in another’s shoes.
The researchers then did controlled comparisons to see which areas of the brain during music listening are correlated with empathy.
Analysis of the brain scans showed that high empathizers experienced more activity in the dorsal striatum, part of the brain’s reward system, when listening to familiar music, whether they liked the music or not.
The reward system is related to pleasure and other positive emotions. Malfunction of the area can lead to addictive behaviors.
Empathic people process music with involvement of social cognitive circuitry
In addition, the brain scans of higher empathy people in the study also recorded greater activation in medial and lateral areas of the prefrontal cortex that are responsible for processing the social world, and in the temporoparietal junction, which is critical to analyzing and understanding others’ behaviors and intentions.
Typically, those areas of the brain are activated when people are interacting with, or thinking about, other people. Observing their correlation with empathy during music listening might indicate that music to these listeners functions as a proxy for a human encounter.
Beyond analysis of the brain scans, the researchers also looked at purely behavioral data — answers to a survey asking the listeners to rate the music afterward.
Those data also indicated that higher empathy people were more passionate in their musical likes and dislikes, such as showing a stronger preference for unfamiliar music.
Precise neurophysiological relationship between empathy and music is largely unexplored
A large body of research has focused on the cognitive neuroscience of empathy — how we understand and experience the thoughts and emotions of other people. Studies point to a number of areas of the prefrontal, insular, and cingulate cortices as being relevant to what brain scientists refer to as social cognition.
Activation of the social circuitry in the brain varies from individual to individual. People with more empathic personalities show increased activity in those areas when performing socially relevant tasks, including watching a needle penetrating skin, listening to non-verbal vocal sounds, observing emotional facial expressions, or seeing a loved one in pain.
In the field of music psychology, a number of recent studies have suggested that empathy is related to intensity of emotional responses to music, listening style, and musical preferences — for example, empathic people are more likely to enjoy sad music.
This article (Empathic People Process Music Differently In the Brain) appeared at Natural Blaze via Southern Methodist University. It can be reshared with attribution.