The brains of people with higher empathy process music differently compared to their less empathetic peers. A study conducted by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has found that compared to people with low empathy, those who are highly empathetic 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 the study’s lead author Dr Zachary Wallmark.
Although the brains of both groups behaved in similar ways in these areas there was one fairly significant difference. Those who are highly empathetic had much greater involvement of the brain’s social circuitry, like the areas activated when feeling empathy for others.
“This may indicate that music is being perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence,” said Wallmark. “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,” Wallmark said.
Researchers reported their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The study placed 20 participants in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and took scans of their brains whilst listening to excerpts of music under four conditions; familiar music they liked, familiar music they disliked, unfamiliar music they liked and unfamiliar music they disliked. The familiar music was selected by participants prior to the scan. After the scans participants completed a standard questionnaire to assess individual differences in empathy.
Analysis of the brain scans showed that high empathisers experienced more activity in the part of the brain associated with reward when listening to familiar music, whether they liked the music or not. Interestingly higher empathy people also recorded greater activity in areas responsible for processing the social world, as well as the areas critical to analysing and understanding the behaviour and intentions of others. This could indicate that listening to music for these people functions in a similar way to a genuine human interaction.
“This study contributes to a growing body of evidence,” said Wallmark, “that music processing may piggyback upon cognitive mechanisms that originally evolved to facilitate social interaction”.