Ever wonder why metalheads are such teddy bears on the inside, despite how callused they look with their black shirts and battle vests? According to a new study by Southern Methodist University, neurological researchers have found a direct correlation between higher levels of empathy and greater pleasure in listening to familiar music.

Congratulations, empaths! Although you certainly suffer at higher levels when absorbing sad news affecting human beings and animals, your enhanced emotional spectrum has gifted you an impassioned relationship with music. Though high-empathy and low-empathy people share a lot in common when listening to music, SMU scientists found one very distinct difference.

“Highly empathic people process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain’s social circuitry, such as the areas activated when feeling empathy for others,” the study reads. “They also seem to experience a greater degree of pleasure in listening, as indicated by increased activation of the reward system.”

“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,” says SMU MuSci Lab director Zachary Wallmark. “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.”

SMU collaborated with UCLA on the study, selecting 20 participants to undergo brain scans while listening to familiar and unfamiliar music, along with music they liked or disliked. The familiar music was selected by participants prior to the scan and they were later given a questionnaire to assess individual differences in empathy.

“The study shows, on one hand, the power of empathy in modulating music perception, a phenomenon that reminds us of the original roots of the concept of empathy — ‘feeling into’ a piece of art,” says senior author Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “On the other hand, the study shows the power of music in triggering the same complex social processes at work in the brain that are at play during human social interactions.”

Check out the video above to watch footage of participants’ brain scans and click here for the full article on the SMU/UCLA study.

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