Music can give you goosebumps, but what happens when you listen to music as a highly empathetic person? According to some new research, it seems as though empathetic people treat music almost as if it were a person.
In short, the study says that instead of just hearing the music, they have a completely different neurophysiological connection to the tunes. They treat music as a social interaction instead of just a sound.
Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience reported on two different experiments on empathy as it relates to music.
In Experiment 1, we explore the neural correlates of trait empathy (as measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) as participants listened to isolated instrument and vocal tones. In Experiment 2, excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked/disliked, unfamiliar liked/disliked) were used as stimuli, allowing us to examine correlations of neural activity with trait empathy in naturalistic listening contexts.
Students were hooked up to an MRI machine and the results were tracked throughout the two experiments.
15 undergraduates were used in the study and listened to 12 musical stimuli including guitar, sax, shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and female vocals. The stimuli in the first experiment were made by instruments, but not specifically “music” as much as noise.
At the end of the study, they found that trait empathy is connected directly to the circuitry in their brains usually associated with emotional response.
20 undergraduates stated before coming into the study that they have “intense positive and negative emotions when listening to music.” In this experiment, they listened to 16 excerpts of recorded music, half of which they picked out themselves.
In this study, different parts of the brain “lit up.” If they didn’t know the music, the bilateral superior frontal gyrus lit up, most likely indicating that they were paying attention more. But, when they were familiar with the songs, the whole brain lit up!
The most interesting part of the second experiment is that it actually went against the initial hypothesis. It wasn’t the empathy type of the student as much as the stimulus type given that affected their brains.
There’s a massive neurological connection to music. And be it positive or negative, empathetic people have a much deeper connection to the sounds they hear. Highly empathetic people experienced more activity in the brain usually related to rewards and social interactions.
The study also mentioned another analysis by Clemens Wöllner that states there’s even more correlation with the visual aspect of music. In other words, live music affects empathetic people even more than just listening. In that study, they gave subjects three conditions, audio and visual, visual only, and audio only. When subjects could see the performer’s movements while listening to music their enjoyment levels were raised.
There’s always been a strong connection with music and the brain. Those of us lucky enough to be more empathetic have an almost personal relationship with music. We hear it as if it was a friend and our brain literally rewards us for listening. With the addition of the third study by Wöllner, seeing live music could be compared to seeing an old friend.
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