JUN 19, 2018 6:07 AM PDT

Are Empathy and Musical Appreciation Related to Social Skills?

Are music, empathy, and social information processing in the brain related? A new study from researchers at Southern Methodist University-Dallas and UCLA suggests there is a connection.

The study looked at people who are "high empathy" meaning they are affected emotionally by the feelings of others and lower empathy people who are not as emotionally invested in the actions of others. The role of processing music in the brain is complicated, and many neuroscience research projects have looked at the relationship between how we encode music in the brain and our actions in social situations.

Zachary Wallmark is an assistant professor in the SMU Meadows School of the Arts as well as the lead author of the work. "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." They aren't exactly alike however and the areas where there are differences are relevant to social situations.

Wallmark and his colleagues used previous research that showed about 20% of the population is considered highly empathic. Their responses to social and emotional stimuli are much more pronounced than those who have typical levels of empathy. In the study, people who were more empathetic, processed music in an area of the brain where social stimuli are processed. In these individuals, music is treated in the mind liked a "pleasurable proxy for a human encounter" or, in other words, like spending time with other people and interacting.

The study cohort was a group of 20 UCLA undergrad students. They underwent fMRI scans while listening to music they liked or disliked as well as pieces of music with which they were familiar or unfamiliar. An fMRI is a functional scan, meaning it captures images of the brain and its activity while the patient is performing some cognitive task. The participants chose the pieces of familiar music before the study began.

While many neuroscientists and music professionals have always posited that a connection exists between music and empathy until now no studies could document the differences in the brain. In addition to the differences between empathy levels and the social aspect of music, there was also a difference in levels of reward activity in the brain. Listeners who were more empathetic showed more activity in the brains reward center than those who had lower levels of empathy. Highly empathic individuals seem to feel the music more intently than others.

Marco Iacoboni, a co-author of the work, is a Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center UCLA where the scans were carried out. He stated, "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. On the other hand, the study shows the power of music in triggering the same complex social processes at work in the brain that are at play during human social interactions." The research is published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The video included shows how some perceive music as a "social fix." Check it out.

Sources: Southern Methodist University   Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, UCLA

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
You May Also Like
JUL 06, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
Can Some Brain Plasticity Be Restored with Ketamine or Light?
JUL 06, 2021
Can Some Brain Plasticity Be Restored with Ketamine or Light?
The perineuronal net is known to play a crucial role in memory. This structure surrounds certain neurons, encasing their ...
JUL 27, 2021
Neuroscience
Proportion of Neurotransmitters in the Brain Predict Math Ability
JUL 27, 2021
Proportion of Neurotransmitters in the Brain Predict Math Ability
According to researchers at the University of Oxford in the UK, the proportion of two common neurotransmitters in the br ...
AUG 10, 2021
Health & Medicine
When Grandma's optimism bias gets in the way of perceiving COVID-19 risks
AUG 10, 2021
When Grandma's optimism bias gets in the way of perceiving COVID-19 risks
Researchers used Socioemotional Selective Theory to generate personalized interventions to heighten perceived risk
SEP 07, 2021
Health & Medicine
Think you can pay back your sleep debt this weekend? Think again.
SEP 07, 2021
Think you can pay back your sleep debt this weekend? Think again.
Researchers find that even one night of sleep loss results in impaired functioning and well being.
SEP 14, 2021
Health & Medicine
The New Social Darwinists: It's All About Survival at Any Cost
SEP 14, 2021
The New Social Darwinists: It's All About Survival at Any Cost
Researchers have found that people who perceive social relations in general Darwinian terms tend toward various personal ...
SEP 15, 2021
Neuroscience
Motor Cortex Involved in Vocabulary Learning
SEP 15, 2021
Motor Cortex Involved in Vocabulary Learning
The motor cortex, the part of the brain involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements, may pla ...
Loading Comments...