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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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