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How do you respond to unfamiliar music?

Music seems to be a social glue. Think of how love songs enhance our roman­tic feel­ings, how march­ing bands inten­si­fy our affin­i­ty for the home team, or how huge rock con­certs make us feel one with a crowd of thou­sands. Music has some spe­cial pow­er to increase our sense of con­nec­tion and help us affil­i­ate with oth­ers.

But why? What’s hap­pen­ing in our brains that makes an iso­lat­ed set of sounds res­onate in these ways? A new neu­ro­science study aimed to find out.

In the study, researchers scanned twen­ty col­lege stu­dents’ brains using fMRI tech­nol­o­gy while they lis­tened to very short clips of music—some famil­iar and some unfa­mil­iar to them, and some they might like or dis­like, accord­ing to what the researchers could gath­er about their musi­cal tastes. The idea was to see how people’s brains respond­ed to these dif­fer­ent kinds of music and then to com­pare those neur­al pat­terns.

After­ward, peo­ple rat­ed the music they heard and report­ed on how empath­ic they were in every­day life—meaning, how much they tend­ed to feel sym­pa­thy for oth­ers in dis­tress and were able to take some­one else’s per­spec­tive . The researchers sus­pect­ed that empathy—an impor­tant fac­tor in devel­op­ing social rela­tion­ships, which cre­ates a dis­tinct pat­tern in the brain when peo­ple are expe­ri­enc­ing it—might influ­ence how we process music.

Ana­lyz­ing the brain scans revealed some inter­est­ing pat­terns. High­ly empath­ic peo­ple tend­ed to have sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er acti­va­tion in their brains over­all and, specif­i­cal­ly, in the reward cen­ters of the brain when lis­ten­ing to famil­iar music they liked—meaning, they seemed to find music lis­ten­ing more plea­sur­able than peo­ple low in empa­thy. They also had high­er acti­va­tion in the parts of the brain impli­cat­ed in pro­cess­ing social information—like when you try to under­stand anoth­er person’s per­spec­tive or what they might be feel­ing.

Accord­ing to lead researcher Zach­ery Wall­mark of South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­si­ty, this find­ing is huge. It sug­gests that music is processed using the same neur­al archi­tec­ture used for empa­thy and oth­er social tasks, and that music like­ly “pig­gy­backed” (in an evo­lu­tion­ary sense) upon the neur­al sys­tems that evolved to help us nav­i­gate our social world.

When we lis­ten to music or engage in music, it’s essen­tial­ly social engage­ment,” he says. “High­er-empa­thy peo­ple, who are more sen­si­tive to social stim­u­lus, hear music as if in the vir­tu­al pres­ence of anoth­er per­son.”

Inter­est­ing­ly, high­ly empath­ic peo­ple also seemed to appre­ci­ate unfa­mil­iar music more than less empath­ic people—at least when they rat­ed the music after lis­ten­ing. That’s par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing, as peo­ple tend to get less reward and enjoy­ment out of unfa­mil­iar music. Yet even though empath­ic peo­ple said they liked the music more, their brains told a dif­fer­ent sto­ry, with no increased acti­va­tion in their plea­sure cen­ters as you might expect.

Why is that? Wall­mark doesn’t know for sure; he says that it’s pos­si­ble high­ly empath­ic peo­ple want to appear more agree­able to researchers, so they eval­u­ate music they don’t like more pos­i­tive­ly, even though they don’t tru­ly enjoy it.

But it’s also pos­si­ble they are more will­ing to give the music a chance. He and his col­leagues noticed a dis­tinct pat­tern when high­ly empath­ic peo­ple lis­tened to music they didn’t like, famil­iar or not: They had increased activ­i­ty in the dor­so­lat­er­al pre­frontal cor­tex of the brain, an area respon­si­ble for decreas­ing intense feel­ings, Wall­mark says.

Our inter­pre­ta­tion is that when high-empa­thy peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to music that they don’t like, they’re putting the brakes on their neg­a­tive emo­tions and try­ing to give the music the ben­e­fit of the doubt in a way that peo­ple who are low­er in empa­thy don’t,” he says.

Does that mean that lis­ten­ing to music could help us be more empath­ic toward oth­ers, to give them the ben­e­fit of the doubt? Wall­mark would like to test that idea in future stud­ies. He points to pri­or research show­ing that music seems to boost our empath­ic reac­tions, and he’s opti­mistic that this is true.

Wallmark’s study adds to the grow­ing evi­dence that music plays a spe­cial role in social bond­ing. Though peo­ple in West­ern cul­ture often enjoy music pas­sive­ly on the radio or on our smart­phones, says Wall­mark, it prob­a­bly has a deep­er val­ue for humans beyond aes­thet­ic plea­sure.

[Music] may be this cru­cial ingre­di­ent that evolved over many years to help us nav­i­gate our social envi­ron­ment, increase social bond­ing, and coor­di­nate with oth­ers,” he says.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good

The Study:

Neu­ro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal Effects of Trait Empa­thy in Music Lis­ten­ing (Fron­tiers in Behav­ioral Neu­ro­science).

From the 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.

The Study in Context:

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