The brains of people with high levels of empathy appear to process music differently than those of low-empathy people, according to a new study by researchers from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, finds that high-empathy individuals process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain’s reward system as well as in regions associated with processing social information.

Previous research suggests that around 20 percent of the population is highly empathic. These are people who are especially sensitive and respond strongly to social and emotional stimuli.

“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 lead author Zachary Wallmark, an assistant professor in the SMU Meadows School of the Arts.

But there is at least one major difference: Highly empathic individuals process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain’s social circuitry, such as the regions activated when feeling empathy for others. These individuals also seem to experience a greater degree of pleasure in listening, as indicated by a greater activation of the reward system.

“This may indicate that music is being perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence,” Wallmark said.

The SMU-UCLA study is the first to find evidence supporting a neural account of the music-empathy connection. The study is also one of the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how empathy affects the way humans perceive music.

The findings suggest that, among higher-empathy people at least, music is not solely a form of artistic expression.

“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,” said Wallmark, who is director of the MuSci Lab at SMU, an interdisciplinary research collective that investigates how music impacts the brain.

The study involved 20 UCLA undergraduate students. The participants underwent an MRI scan while listening to excerpts of music that were either familiar or unfamiliar to them, and that they either liked or disliked. The familiar music was chosen by participants before the scan.

After the scan, the participants completed a standard questionnaire to evaluate individual differences in empathy. The researchers then conducted controlled comparisons to determine which parts of the brain during music listening are correlated with empathy.

Their findings show that when high-empathy participants listened to familiar music, they experienced more activity in the dorsal striatum, part of the brain’s reward system — whether they liked the music or not. The reward system is associated with pleasure and other positive emotions. Dysfunction in this region can lead to addictive behaviors.

Furthermore, the brain scans of higher empathy participants also showed higher levels of activation in the medial and lateral areas of the prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for processing social situations, and in the temporoparietal junction, which is vital to analyzing and understanding others’ behaviors and intentions.

In general, these brain regions are activated when people are interacting with, or thinking about, other people. Observing their correlation with empathy during music listening might indicate that music to these listeners functions as a proxy for a human encounter.

The researchers also looked at behavioral data; answers to a survey asking the listeners to rate the music afterward. Their findings indicated that higher empathy people were more passionate in their musical likes and dislikes, such as showing a stronger preference for unfamiliar music.

Source: Southern Methodist University