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Are Empathy & Musical Appreciation Related to Social Skills – Brenda Kelley Kim

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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.

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