How empathic you are may change how you perceive music.
Seeing something from someone else’s point of view is something that many people struggle with.
But according to a study published in the journal Brain and Behavior, around 20 percent of the population is genetically predisposed to empathy.
This trait allows people to react to stimuli and others’ emotions in a more sensitive and heightened way.
Empathy is routinely divided into two. Emotional empathy is when a person is inclined to share the emotional burden of others, while cognitive empathy describes the potential to recognize and understand the feelings of others without having to ask out loud.
Experts propose links between empathy and music, solidifying the theory that empathic people will opt for stimuli that produce relatable emotions rather than something more neutral.
While the neurological origins of empathy have been well researched, a new study has become the first to show how the brains of highly empathic people process music in a similar way to social situations.
Empathy and music
A study led by researchers at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found a marked neurological difference between low-empathy and high-empathy people when listening to music.
Fifteen UCLA students were asked to undergo an MRI scan while listening to brief musical tones. A second experiment — this time using 20 students — carried out the same MRI scan but played music that was either familiar or completely new to them, as well as music that they liked or disliked.
Each participant was subsequently asked to look at 28 questions that gave them various empathy-based scenarios, ranging from sympathy toward the misfortune of others to the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
They answered each statement using a five-point scale that went from “describes me very well” to “does not describe me at all.”
After this, the scientists conducted a controlled comparison to establish the brain areas that were associated with empathy during music listening.
Music can activate the brain’s reward system
Analysis of the MRI scans found commonalities between the two empathy levels. Those possessing high and low empathy both activated areas of the brain linked to auditory and sensory processing.
But, highly empathic people showed an increase in activity in the dorsal striatum when a familiar song was played.
This is a part of the brain’s reward system, suggesting that listening to recognizable music is more pleasurable for those who have more empathy.
The research — which was published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience — also found that high-empathy people showed more activity in regions of the brain that are used to deal with social activities and understanding the behavior of others.
What do these findings mean for society?
The authors believe that these findings suggest that music is seen as more than a creative form to those with high empathy levels. Instead, the process of listening to songs could be viewed almost like an encounter with another person — one that relies on interaction and communication.
“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.”
Lead study author Zachary Wallmark
In the study, Wallmark and authors Choi Deblieck and Marco Iacoboni note that their results could help to explain the connecting power of music and how even simple sounds could affect how we feel about people in real life.
“If music can function something like a virtual ‘other,'” they write, “then it might be capable of altering listeners’ views of real others.”
Where most studies have focused on stimuli such as photos and videos, this is one of the first to examine the relationship between sound and empathy.
However, it must be noted that the results were purely correlational and there is no firm link to prove that they would not occur with anything other than music. Further studies using a larger sample size will need to be carried out to make any conclusive statements.
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