Culture Magazine

Empathy and Music

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Original Research
Wallmark Z, Deblieck C, and Iacoboni M
Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening
Front. Behav. Neurosci., 06 April 2018
Abstract   The social cognitive basis of music processing has long been noted, and recent research has shown that trait empathy is linked to musical preferences and listening style. Does empathy modulate neural responses to musical sounds? We designed two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments to address this question. In Experiment 1, subjects listened to brief isolated musical timbres while being scanned. In Experiment 2, subjects listened to excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked (FL)/disliked and unfamiliar liked (UL)/disliked). For both types of musical stimuli, emotional and cognitive forms of trait empathy modulated activity in sensorimotor and cognitive areas: in the first experiment, empathy was primarily correlated with activity in supplementary motor area (SMA), inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and insula; in Experiment 2, empathy was mainly correlated with activity in prefrontal, temporo-parietal and reward areas. Taken together, these findings reveal the interactions between bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of empathy in response to musical sounds, in line with recent findings from other cognitive domains.

Introduction Music is a portal into the interior lives of others. By disclosing the affective and cognitive states of actual or imagined human actors, musical engagement can function as a mediated form of social encounter, even when listening by ourselves. It is commonplace for us to imagine music as a kind of virtual “persona,” with intentions and emotions of its own (Watt and Ash, 1998; Levinson, 2006): we resonate with certain songs just as we would with other people, while we struggle to identify with other music. Arguing from an evolutionary perspective, it has been proposed that the efficacy of music as a technology of social affiliation and bonding may have contributed to its adaptive value (Cross, 2001; Huron, 2001). As Leman (2007) indicates: “Music can be conceived as a virtual social agent … listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships.” In short, musical experience and empathy are psychological neighbors.
The concept of empathy has generated sustained interest in recent years among researchers seeking to better account for the social and affective valence of musical experience (for recent reviews see Clarke et al., 2015; Miu and Vuoskoski, 2017); it is also a popular topic of research in social neuroscience (Decety and Ickes, 2009; Coplan and Goldie, 2011). However, the precise neurophysiological relationship between music processing and empathy remains unexplored. Individual differences in trait empathy modulate how we process social stimuli—does empathy modulate music processing as well? If we consider music through a social-psychological lens (North and Hargreaves, 2008; Livingstone and Thompson, 2009; Aucouturier and Canonne, 2017), it is plausible that individuals with a greater dispositional capacity to empathize with others might also respond to music-as-social-stimulus differently on a neurophysiological level by preferentially engaging brain networks previously found to be involved in trait empathy (Preston and de Waal, 2002; Decety and Lamm, 2006; Singer and Lamm, 2009). In this article, we test this hypothesis in two experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In Experiment 1, we explore the neural correlates of trait empathy (as measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) as participants listened to isolated instrument and vocal tones. In Experiment 2, excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked/disliked, unfamiliar liked/disliked) were used as stimuli, allowing us to examine correlations of neural activity with trait empathy in naturalistic listening contexts.
News Article Reporting the Research
Milla Bengtsson, People With Higher Empathy Process Music Differently In The Brain, Reliaware, June 12, 2018. From the article:
Individuals who deeply grasp the pain or happiness of others also differ from others in the way their brains process music, a new study by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and UCLA suggests.
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.

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