When psychologist Jennifer O. Grimes went to a series of rock concerts and conducted interviews with the musicians backstage, what she found was surprising. Most of the musicians were highly sensitive people (HSPs). Despite their exuberant antics onstage, the bright lights and loud noise of the concert, these were largely introverted people who channeled their energy into a creative and highly expressive performance.
And it’s not only musicians who are highly sensitive. All types of creative people, including artists, writers, dancers, and actors, are HSPs and sensitive people are often very creative. High sensitivity gives individuals a deep appreciation and love of the arts. For HSPs, paintings, performances, and poetry are more than works of art—they are the doorway into a profound experience of another’s emotions, or what is commonly called empathy. And research has now shown that music triggers both a reward system and a social connection in people with high levels of empathy. In other words, music makes us feel good and helps our brain to understand others.
Are HSPs more empathic?
Empathy is understanding and experiencing the thoughts and emotions of other people. A study by Elaine and Arthur Aron found that areas of the brain associated with awareness, emotion, and empathic feelings were more active in highly sensitive people.
Elaine Aron also found that brain studies reveal more activity in the mirror neuron system of HSPs. For highly sensitive people, this group of neurons acts in the same way as the neurons of the person we’re watching. So we more than understand what someone else is feeling—we feel those emotions, too.
How does music make us more empathic?
In the study, the researchers found that when people with higher empathy listen to music, it triggers the brain’s reward system, making us feel good. It also creates greater stimulation in the prefrontal cortex, a region of social processing, so we experience music the same way we would if we were socializing with people. As highly sensitive people, this interaction makes us feel the emotions elicited by the music and gain a sense of connection.
People with high empathy in the study also showed greater activity in the temporoparietal area, which is critical to analyzing and understanding others' behaviors. These areas are typically stimulated when we interact with other people. But for HSPs, music may serve us the same way a social encounter would.
Why is empathy important?
According to Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, social connection is essential to health, well-being, and happiness. A lack of satisfying relationships is as bad for you as smoking or alcoholism. But it’s not the number of friends and family you have that matters. Just as you can feel lonely in a crowd or all alone in spite of a large circle of family and friends, the benefit of relationships is less about how many people you know and more about how you feel about those relationships. The more connected you feel, the happier you are, and to feel connected, you need empathy.
Being highly empathic means that HSPs can easily feel overwhelmed. They are constantly absorbing the feelings of others. When these feelings are positive, such as when they are listening to their favorite music, we feel good. But when the emotions are negative, such as a coworker’s stress or a neighbor’s anger, we can feel those emotions and become overwhelmed, irritated, depressed and need to withdraw.
Fortunately, HSPs don’t need to be around people as much as others do. Clearly, our natural empathy is a great benefit to our friends and family. But we need to look after ourselves as well. Many non-HSPs have a difficult time understanding why HSPs need so much time alone. We’re not unsocial. We just care deeply and that can wear us out. But with a little music, we can feel good and connected.