Empathy is like music to the ears

empathy

Previous studies suggest that people learn by imitating through “mirror neurons”. The new study shows that prosody—the music of speech—works on a similar mirror-like system. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of USC says the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain. So increased empathic ability is linked to the ability to perceive prosody as well as activity in these motor regions.

USC (US)—People who can change intonation when they speak—like those who use upspeak to make a statement sound like a question—may have superior empathy, according to a new study.

Researchers have found that people use the same brain regions to produce and understand intonation in speech. Details of the study appear in PLos One.

Previous studies suggest that people learn by imitating through “mirror neurons”. The new study shows that prosody—the music of speech—works on a similar mirror-like system.

“Prosody is one of the main ways we communicate with each other” says study author Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor of occupational sciences at the University of Southern California.

Aziz-Zadeh says the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain.

So increased empathic ability is linked to the ability to perceive prosody as well as activity in these motor regions. In some cases, humans can’t do without prosody, as in the case of a stroke victim who garbles words but can express emotion.

Or when talking to a pet: “If you have a pet, they basically are understanding your prosody,” Aziz-Zadeh says.

She and colleagues imaged the brains of 20 volunteers as they heard and produced prosody through happy, sad and other intonations of the nonsensical phrase “da da da da da.”

The same part of the brain lit up when the volunteers heard the phrase as when they repeated it. It is called Broca’s Area and sits about two inches above and forward of each ear.

The volunteers with the most activity in Broca’s Area tended to score high on empathy measures. They also used prosody more frequently in daily speech.

It is not clear whether empathy brings about prosodic activity or whether frequent use of prosody can somehow help to develop empathy, or even if there is a cause and effect relationship either way.

USC news: http://uscnews.usc.edu/

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  2. DLeigh

    Empathy and prosody linked…I was just criticized the other day for caring about someone in a story told by a friend. I definitely do change my intonation often. I wonder if women are more inclined to have both empathy and prosody than men?

  3. Elisabeth Waugaman

    This is fascinating in consideration of the fact that archaeologists know prehistoric cave sites in China (Song Mountain) and France (Lescaux) were picked for their resonance, indicating that chanting/singing was a key element for these sacred sites and considering that mankind’s earliest written literature was also sung–the epics. According

  4. Elisabeth Waugaman

    This is fascinating considering that ancient cave sites in China (Song Mountain) and France (Lescaux) were picked for their resonance: chanting and singing–tonality– were important for spiritual rituals, even for prehistoric mankind. The epics–our oldest literature–were sung, as were the Greek tragedies. Recent studies indicate that women have a greater rang of tonality (ups and downs) in speech than men– which anyone will notice listening to conversations in a restaurant or an office. Many of the worlds languages are tonal, which leads one to wonder if song was mankind’s first form of communication. All of this to say that music–tonality– has been key to mankind’s earliest spiritual and literary expression, so it is not surprising that it survives in varying degrees in our speech and can be a marker for empathy. Does this mean that women are more empathic than men? That has been the stereotype for centuries; but that stereotype has also been changing for centuries – at least since the Romantic era. Also, love poetry, as old as mankind, expresses deep emotions and seeks empathy, which suggests that men are as empathic as women but that society has forced them to hide their empathy for purposes of “manliness”–warfare, etc.) This study also prompts one to wonder if speakers of tonal languages are more empathetic than those of non-tonal languages?

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