Highly Empathetic People Perceive Music Differently

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
“Divine Piano” by François Philipp is licensed under CC BY 2.0Zachary Wallmark, Ph.D
Assistant Professor of Musicology Directo
MuSci Lab SMU Meadows School of the Art
Music Division Dallas, TX 75275

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: Music making and listening is an intensely social behavior. Individual differences in trait empathy are associated with preferential engagement of social cognitive neural circuitry, including regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, cingulate, and insula, during the perception of socially relevant information.

In our study, we used fMRI to explore the degree to which differences in trait empathy modulate music processing in the brain.

We found that higher empathy people experience greater activation of social circuitry as well as the reward system while listening to familiar music, compared to lower empathy people. 

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Our results suggest that music is perceived by high empathy people through a more socially mediated lens, as a kind of virtual human encounter. This engagement is pleasurable, as reflected in preferential activation of reward areas. Taken together, this suggests that music, over and above an abstract system of acoustic encoding, may function as more of a social stimulus for people who are more attuned to the social world. 

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: Larger sample sizes will be needed in future word to reliably replicate our find. It will be interesting to explore how trait differences in empathy interact with situational empathic reactions to music (e.g., feeling bad for a pianist when they make an obvious mistake).

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: Music is a mysterious human behavior from a biological perspective, and thinkers have long speculated on its origins and purpose. Our study adds to a growing body of evidence that music may co-opted neural mechanisms that originally evolved for social processing.

No disclosures. 


Zachary Wallmark, Choi Deblieck, Marco Iacoboni. Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2018; 12 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00066

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