People With Higher Empathy Process Music Differently Than Others

June 13, 2018

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.

Music is listened to in all known cultures. Similarities between human and animal song have been detected: both contain a message, an intention that reflects innate emotional state that is interpreted correctly even among different species. In fact, several behavioral features in listening to music are closely related to attachment: lullabies are sung to infants to increase their attachment to a parent, and singing or playing music together is based on teamwork and may add group cohesion.

Our willingness to listen to music is biological trait and related to the neurobiological pathways affecting social affiliation and communication.

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.

“This may indicate that music is being perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence,” Wallmark said.

Researchers in 2014 reported that about 20 percent of the population is highly empathic. These are people who are especially sensitive and respond strongly to social and emotional stimuli.

The SMU-UCLA study is the first to find evidence supporting a neural account of the music-empathy connection. Also, it is among the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how empathy affects the way we perceive music.

The new study indicates that among higher-empathy people, at least, music is not solely a form of artistic expression.

“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,” said Wallmark, who is director of the MuSci Lab at SMU, an interdisciplinary research collective that studies — among other things — how music affects the brain.

“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,” he said.

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