The oldest known musical instruments to man are flutes made at least 43,000 years ago, so it’s safe to say that music, or anything with a musical influence has been hugely important to humans for a long time, no matter where you live, what culture you come from, your religious beliefs or even your background, every society on earth has some kind of musical tradition that it connects with. Many different theories have been put forward for years now – some even suggesting that we connect with music so much because we fill each song with some type of emotional and personal meaning, and in a sense, it’s own “protolanguage” that we would have used to communicate before we developed a language and that we use it to “let go” of ourselves or whatever mindset we may be trapped in at any given time, and that theory may not be as far-fetched as it may seem.
Scientists have now discovered that there’s actually an “empathy circuit” in the human brain, which allows people who are considered to be highly empathic towards their surroundings to be exceptionally sensitive to social stimuli and the moods and attitudes of other people around them. As a result, when it comes to those individuals listening to music, it seems to have a physical affect on their brains.
While research in the past have proven that introducing children to music from different cultures in at an early age has been shown to reduce the risk of racism and raise their empathy levels, it can now also be proven that your empathy levels can also affected by what kind of music you personally like listening to. A study by Cambridge scientists in 2015 found that highly empathic people tend to like music that involves emotion, like romantic R&B, while people who are more detail-oriented enjoy a genre like Jazz.
The study also looked at 20 UCLA undergraduates, who were given tests on their empathy based on how they could “read” different situations. Then, all of them had their brains scanned while they listened to various pieces of music, including familiar pieces that the chose themselves and unfamiliar pieces they had no previous attachment to. When the high-empathy undergrads were played music they knew and loved, their brains showed two radical differences from the brains of lower-empathy subjects. One, they showed more activity in the dorsal striatum, which is part of the brain’s “reward” system and gives us feelings of pleasure. Two, the parts of their brain associated with “social circuitry” lit up.
After the results of the study were looked over, Scientists found that the brain activity of highly empathic people, when they listen to a piece of music they know, looks a lot like it does when they’re meeting a friend or family member they have a relationship with. It feels (and looks) like a social experience. Scientists behind the study referred to the examination as appearing like a “proxy for a human encounter.” Scientists also explored the thought that empathy levels aren’t static, as previously thought. Now, thanks to the new research, scientists believe that empathy is like a muscle that can be “strengthened” through observing other peoples’ emotions and attempting to behave in an empathic way towards them or the situation. If your empathy levels are strengthened or generally change in either direction, you may also start to notice your taste in music and how often you find yourself listening to it change too.
The new study also indicated that among higher-empathy people, at least, music is not solely a form of artistic expression.
“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,” said Wallmark, director of the MuSci Lab at SMU.
“This tells us that over and above appreciating music as high art, music is about humans interacting with other humans and trying to understand and communicate with each other,” he added.
So what does all of this mean? To put it simply, there’s now, in a sense, scientific evidence showing that empathic people don’t need to step outside and participate in activities or find others to surround themselves with, in order to remove feelings of loneliness; they simply just need to listen to a song that they enjoy that would bring them positive emotions. Oh, and to some people, music technically isn’t just an art form.