• Robb G. Best

When Songs Are Your Friends

How do you listen to music?

I don’t mean “Are you a headphones person or more of a speaker fan?” I mean, what parts of your brain do you use?

“The same parts of the brain everyone else uses,” you may be tempted to say. But hold on: it’s a little more complicated than that.

It turns out that highly empathetic people experience music more deeply than the rest of the population, and there’s a neuroscience reason why.

About 20% of the population is considered highly empathetic. These folks are unusually attuned to the emotions of the people around them. They may be overwhelmed by crowds, loud noises, or unusually needy or talkative people. But there are benefits, it seems—and not just the benefits associated with being able to read situations more accurately.

In a study—the first of its kind—by Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and UCLA, 20 UCLA undergrad students climbed into an fMRI machine and listened to passages of music either familiar or unfamiliar to them while having their brains scanned. (The familiar music was chosen by each subject ahead of time.) Next, each student filled out a questionnaire designed to measure empathy levels, for instance, how frequently they felt bad for others.

While it is awfully hasty to draw a conclusion from such a small sample size, those early findings were interesting. The participants who tested as highly empathetic responded to music using the same brain regions as the low-empathy people—along with some additional ones. Beyond just the regions relating to audio, emotion, and sensory-motor processing, the brains of the empathetic students lit up in areas dealing with social interaction, and showed increased activity in the reward system.

In other words, to the highly empathetic crowd, the enjoyment of a song may be “perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence,” said lead author Zachary Wallmark. And the higher reward system activation creates a heightened incentive to keep chasing that “music high,” so to speak.

(Fittingly, those same students also reported enjoying the new, unfamiliar music more than their peers.)

Again, it’s a little soon to draw overarching conclusions from an experiment with a mere 20 subjects, but it does contribute to a growing theory that music enjoyment in general piggybacks off brain systems designed to facilitate social interaction. And you, too, are empathetic, it might help to explain why listening to your favorite song can feel like spending time with an old friend: it’s pinging the same parts of your brain.

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