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Empathetic People Experience Music Differently, SMU Study Finds

Courtesty SMU, UCLA
Highly empathetic people tend to show greater activation in the regions of the brain that are associated with social and emotional processing, a new study has found.

A new study from Southern Methodist University shows that empathetic people — those who are generally more sensitive to the feelings of others — receive more pleasure from listening to music, and their brains show increased activity in areas associated with social interactions.

Researchers interviewed participants about their taste in music — songs they loved and others they hated. Then, participants were put into an MRI scanner and played different selections, including unfamiliar tunes, and researchers studied how their brain reacted to them.

All participants experienced positive activity in the brain when listening to music they loved, says Zachary Wallmark, an assistant professor of musicology at SMU, who led the study. This activity increased for empathetic people.

When played unfamiliar music they didn’t like, empathetic participants still showed activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with executive control and regulation of emotional reactions, Wallmark says.

“What this suggested to us is that these empathic people are hearing new music...and they tell us they dislike it after the fact...but they might be deliberately trying to ratchet down their negative reaction, maybe give more of the benefit of the doubt to this new music, even though they find it highly aversive,” Wallmark said.

Interview Highlights: Zachary Wallmark

On what led to the study

When you navigate your social environment, you're always trying to attune yourself to the intentions and the desires and the emotions of other people. As we all know, some people are much better at this than other people; empathy isn't distributed evenly across the population.

To be clear, when I say empathy, I mean the tendency to project one's self into the lived experience of other people — seeing things from their point of view, feeling what they're feeling. We know that these individual differences in empathy are correlated with brain function. Highly empathetic people tend to show greater activation in the regions of the brain that are associated with social and emotional processing when they encounter socially relevant experiences — for example, observing facial expressions.

On how you can tell if someone is more empathetic

Social psychologists have a number of tests we use to evaluate individual differences in empathy. What we use is called the" interpersonal reactivity index." It's a survey of questions designed to tap into a person's tendency, as a feature of their personality, to try to get into the minds of others — if you identify with characters in films, for instance, if you tend to experience really intense sympathy for others who are in distress. And this test tries to parse different aspects of how people both cognitively relate to others (me trying to imagine what you're thinking right now) and affectively connect with others (me trying to figure what you're feeling right now).

On how the study was conducted

We wanted to look particularly at the subjective situational elements of musical preference and exposure. What that means is we needed to actually interview every individual who participated beforehand and get them to hand over a list of music that they say they love. We also collected songs from them that they said they cannot stand, oftentimes to the point of really having an almost nausea-type disgust response to these songs they brought in.

What we then did was we worked with the participants of the study to find chunks of these songs, little excerpts that to them exemplified what they loved and what they hated about these songs. Once we had all this stuff gathered, we then put them into an MRI scanner and we scanned their brains while they were listening to these excerpts of different music in these conditions — stuff that they brought in that they love and they hate and also some unfamiliar music that we chose for them based upon their original selections.

Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.