Being Passionate About Music Says Something Interesting About Your Brain

Anthony Braxton in Brockport, New York, in 1976. Tom Marcello/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

If you spend your days with headphones buried in your ears, it could say something very interesting about your brain circuitry and even your personality.

New research has shown that people with higher levels of empathy appear to find music more pleasurable. Compared to people with lower empathy, people with higher empathy tended to experience far more activity in the reward system of their brains when listening to music, as well as greater activity in the corners of the brain responsible for social awareness. 

This, the researchers argue, shows that music and the arts create deeply social experiences. It even suggests that the pleasure some people feel when they listen to music is similar to that which they feel when interacting with fellow humans.

"This may indicate that music is being perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence," explained lead author Zachary Wallmark, an assistant professor at the SMU Meadows School of the Arts.

"If music was not related to how we process the social world, then we likely would have seen no significant difference in the brain activation between high-empathy and low-empathy people,” he added.

As reported in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, researchers from Southern Methodist University, Dallas and UCLA reached their conclusion by using fMRI brain imaging on 20 different people while they were listening to music. Before being asked to rate the music, the participants filled out a questionnaire to assess their levels of empathy.

The team's key finding was that high empathizers experienced more activity in the dorsal striatum, the brain's reward system, when listening to familiar music, whether they liked the tune or not. They also discovered that highly empathic people were more passionate in their musical likes and dislikes, such as showing a stronger preference for unfamiliar music.

Their findings confirmed the long-standing theory that social empathy is associated with an appreciation of the arts. Not only is this link a curious insight into art and psychology, it could provide some clues as to how humans started to play music. However, it's important to note that the study only used a small number of participants, so more research is needed to back it up. 

“This study contributes to a growing body of evidence that music processing may piggyback upon cognitive mechanisms that originally evolved to facilitate social interaction,” Wallmark added.

"In our culture, we have a whole elaborate system of music education and music thinking that treats music as a sort of disembodied object of aesthetic contemplation," he said. "In contrast, the results of our study help explain how music connects us to others. This could have implications for how we understand the function of music in our world, and possibly in our evolutionary past."

A similar study in 2016 found that your music taste is affected by how empathetic you are. What does your music taste say about your personality? Find out here.

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