Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Music and Empathy

I've been reading the book Rat Girl, a memoir by musician Kristin Hersh, who started the band Throwing Muses in 1980, at the age of 14 (along with Tanya Donelly, Leslie Langston, and David Narcizo). The book recounts an eventful year in her life (1985-86) when, among other things, she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her band is signed to record label 4AD.

Below she describes the intense empathic connection between the band and their music and their audience, which struck me as a profound (and idealistic) way to live:
Our band was started on these two bullshit principles -- well, they're more like bullshit wishes, but here they are:

    1. That people should be able to touch one another and feel each other's pain. Physically, like you should be able to touch someone's cheek and feel their toothache; and emotionally, if you move someone, touch them deeply, you have to take responsibility for that depth of feeling and care about them.
    So it isn't just pain we should feel in each other -- happiness should seep out of pores, and clouds of jealousy and all the different kinds of love and disappointment should float around us. We could walk in and out of people's clouds and know what they're feeling. That'd be the kindest way to live on planet earth.

    2. That maybe our essential selves are drunk -- not wasted, just kinda buzzed enough to let go. If we were always a little tipsy, we'd be light, nonjudgmental, truthful. Our hang-up'd be shaken off, there'd be no second-skin barriers to honesty. Oh, and also no hangovers.

    We figure if those two things are true, then it'd be OK for a band to sound like we do: sorta painful and a little out of control. We'd play what the audience felt and feel it at the same time and they'd feel it reflected back to them in sound and we'd all care about each other's stories and clouds of feeling and ... good luck with that I think miserably through my stage fright, trudging past the knitters, hippies, junkies, drunks, painters and psychos.

-from Rat Girl, p. 42-43.

It's hard to maintain that level of emotional empathy without collapsing from the weight of pain and joy and exhaustion. One would need superpowers to hold up under such unguarded transparency and depth of feeling.

I'm wiped
I'm so tired

Carry me for a little while
Carry me for a little while
Carry me for a little while
Carry me for a little while

-Kristin Hersh, "Your Dirty Answer"

Music and Mirror Neurons
The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons".

by V.S. Ramachandran

Even the most ardent reductionists might be at a loss when contemplating how to reduce profound human experiences to a map of hemodynamic or electrical changes in the brain. But don't despair! Of course we should all know by now that music's ability to transmit emotion and elicit empathy is mediated by mirror neurons (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006):
It has recently been proposed that music is best understood as a form of communication in which acoustic patterns and their auditory representations elicit a variety of conscious experiences (Bharucha et al., 2006). Here we review some recent evidence on the neural basis of musical processing in relation to two other modes of communication, language and action, both of which have been described as supported by the human mirror neuron system. We hypothesize that the powerful affective responses that can be provoked by apparently abstract musical sounds are supported by this human mirror neuron system, which may subserve similar computations during the processing of music, action and linguistic information.

So the magical mirror neuron system is responsible for understanding very diverse types of stimuli (music, action, and language) and for evoking concomitant emotional responses to them. Such accounts always extrapolate from single unit recordings of mirror neurons in ventral premotor area F5 and inferior parietal lobule of monkeys to fMRI results in humans. In monkeys, a mirror neuron increases its firing rate when the animal performs an action, and when the animal watches someone else perform the action (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010). As far as I know, no one has recorded mirror neuron activity directly from inferior prefrontal or parietal regions in humans.1

This is not to say that mirror neurons do not exist in humans, just that the scope of the human "mirror neuron system" has expanded beyond recognition into an unfalsifiable theory: 2
"Now wait a minute," said Professor Patricia Churchland [as paraphrased by Prof. Greg Hickok in Talking Brains]. "If mirror neurons are all over the brain then don't they lose their explanatory power? Aren't we now just back to our old friend, the How Does the Brain Work Problem?"

A recent post at Brain Myths even suggests that mirror neurons might be The Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience. Despite the hyperbole from Ramachandran, the reality is more mundane. For instance, we can understand actions we cannot perform:
The ubiquitous idea that mirror neurons “cause” us to feel other people’s emotions can be traced back to the original context in which they were discovered – the motor cells in the monkey brain that responded to the sight of another person performing an action. This led to the suggestion that mirror neurons play a causal role in allowing us to understand the goals behind other people’s actions. By representing other people’s actions in the movement-pathways of our own brain, so the reasoning goes, these cells provide us with an instant simulation of their intentions – a highly effective foundation for empathy.

...The biggest and most obvious problem for anyone advocating the idea that mirror neurons play a central role in our ability to understand other people’s actions, is that we are quite clearly capable of understanding actions that we are unable to perform.3

In the case of music, Molnar-Szakacs and Overy (2006) suggest its traditional relationship to motion (drumming, singing, etc.) engages the mirror neuron system.  Indeed, a recent study has claimed that music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion. Nonetheless, we can appreciate an energetic drum solo without being able to play the drums.

But this general line of reasoning raises the following questions: (1) Are musicians more empathetic? and (2) Do they engage the mirror neuron system to a greater extent than those without musical training?

We'll examine these questions in a subsequent post...


1 "Mirror neuron-like" activity has been recorded from the human hippocampus (Mukamel et al., 2010), but that's another story...  Archives of mirror neuron criticism can be found at Talking Brains and The Neurocritic.

2 Or in the words of Dr. Greg Hickok:
I think the mirror neuron folks have a serious problem on their hands: there is apparently no empirical result that can falsify the theory. If a mirror neuron shows up in an unexpected place, it is a new part of the mirror system. If a mirror neuron's activity dissociates from action understanding, it was not coding understanding at that moment. If damage to the motor system doesn't disrupt understanding, it is because that part of the motor system isn't mirroring.

3 Some have even claimed that mirror neurons can account for "certain listeners' misattribution of anger in the music of avant garde jazz saxophonists" (Gridley & Hoff, 2006). Is this because these listeners cannot play avant garde jazz saxophone?


Molnar-Szakacs, I., & Overy, K. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: from motion to 'e'motion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1 (3), 235-241. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsl029

Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglia C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nat Rev Neurosci. 11:264-74.

I don't judge people
I just watch them 'til it's time to look away
I want to look away now
Somebody's coming
I don't want to live backwards
I don't want even to look backwards
It's not my fault...

-Kristin Hersh, "Your Dirty Answer"

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At December 28, 2012 6:03 AM, Blogger TheCellularScale said...

Love the Patricia Churchland quote.

At December 30, 2012 1:48 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

Throwing Muses are pretty good, although they have a lot of songs that sound exactly the same - but most bands do. "Serene" is their best song.

At December 30, 2012 9:00 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

The Cellular Scale - Yeah, that Churchland quote is great.

Neuroskeptic - I don't know about that (sounding exactly the same)... "Fish" "Hate My Way" and "Vicky's Box" each sound like nothing I've ever heard before. Some of the songs on Limbo might be more like each other than like their earlier work.

At December 30, 2012 2:30 PM, Blogger Edwin Rutsch said...

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

At December 25, 2013 8:03 AM, Blogger willimek said...

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek


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