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Psychology Today: Empathic People Use Social Brain Circuitry to Process Music

Psychology Today: Empathic People Use Social Brain Circuitry to Process Music

High-empathy people process music using their social cognitive circuitry.

Christopher Bergland for Psychology Today covered the research of Zachary Wallmark, an assistant professor in the SMU Meadows School of the Arts. Wallmark’s study with researchers at UCLA found that people with higher empathy differ from others in the way their brains process music.

The SMU-UCLA study is the first to find evidence supporting a neural account of the music-empathy connection. Also, it is among the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how empathy affects the way we perceive music.

The researchers found that compared to low empathy people, those with higher empathy process familiar music with greater involvement of the reward system of the brain, as well as in areas responsible for processing social information.

“This may indicate that music is being perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence,” Wallmark has said. He is director of the MuSci Lab at SMU, an interdisciplinary research collective that studies — among other things — how music affects the brain.

The Psychology Today article published June 18, 2018.

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By Christopher Bergland
Psychology Today

Those who deeply grasp the pain or joy of other people and display “higher empathic concern” process music differently in their brains, according to a new study by researchers at Southern Methodist University and UCLA. Their paper, “Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening,” was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

As you can see by looking at the images at the top of the page and to the left, the SMU-UCLA researchers used fMRI neuroimaging to pinpoint specific brain areas that light up when people with varying degrees of trait empathy listen to music. Notably, the researchers found that higher empathy people process music as if it’s a pleasurable proxy for real-world human encounters and show greater involvement of brain regions associated with reward systems and social cognitive circuitry.

In the field of music psychology, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that varying degrees of trait empathy are linked to how intensely someone responds emotionally to music, his or her listening style, and overall musical preferences.

For example, recent studies have found that high-empathy people are more likely to enjoy “beautiful but sad” music. Additionally, high empathizers seem to get more intense pleasure from listening to music in general, as indicated by robust activation of their reward system in the fMRI.

The latest research on the empathy-music connection was conceived, designed, and led by Zachary Wallmark, who is a musicologist and assistant professor in the SMU Meadows School of the Arts. In 2014, Wallmark received his PhD from UCLA. He currently serves as director of the MuSci Lab, which is an interdisciplinary research collective and lab facility dedicated to the empirical study of music. Below is a YouTube clip of Wallmark describing his latest research:

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By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs