Perception of Music Reflects Human Empathy

The study proves the presence of a relationship between empathy levels and emotional response to music: more emphatic people appreciate more peaceful music.

A recent neurology study has revealed a relationship between human empathy and perception of music. Not unlikely, this can make it possible to tell a person’s ability to sympathize with others by the kind of music he or she prefers. The study has shown that listening to music activates brain cells in regions, which are responsible for the feeling of empathy.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University of Dallas and University of California, Los-Angeles (UCLA) have scanned the brains of a group of young people with different empathy levels (each participant had to pass an empathy test prior to the scan) with the help of a magnetic resonance imaging device. During the scanning, each participant was offered to listen to tunes and/or melodies, which they knew, did not know, enjoyed listening to or disliked (at a time). Then goal was to check neurons’ response to music in either category depending on the individuals’ perception.

They showed different degrees of brain activation. The research revealed a more pronounced response in the dorsal striatum and in the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex – the areas that are responsible for social awareness, in the high-empathy group. Also, there was a reaction in the temporoparietal junction, which is involved in understanding other people’s behavior. Finally, the music triggered a reaction in the reward area, which is responsible for aesthetic pleasure. These brain regions are activated at times when people interact with or think about others. Hypothetically, music can be used as an indicator of an individual’s empathy level.

On the one hand, the results indicate that empathy could modulate the music perception process and shed some light on how deeply high-empathy and low-empathy people mentally immerse into a tune or melody while listening. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that the process is complementary: music does trigger a reaction in respective brain regions and stimulates human empathy.

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