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Empathy, Music Listening, and Mirror Neurons Are Intertwined

Marco Iacoboni shares personal insights on his “mirroring” research.

This post is in response to
Empathic People Use Social Brain Circuitry to Process Music
Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

Last week, I reported on a pioneering new fMRI-based study conceived and directed by musicologist Zachary Wallmark which found that high-empathy people use their social cognitive circuitry to process music. Wallmark is currently an assistant professor in the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU and serves as the director of their MuSci Lab, which is an interdisciplinary research collective and laboratory dedicated to the empirical study of music.

Wallmark received his PhD from UCLA in 2014. As a graduate student in the Herb Albert School of Music, Zach worked in the Marco Iacoboni Lab at UCLA on a collaborative brain research project that used fMRI to investigate the role of motor embodiment via the mirror neuron system during the experience of music-mediated empathy. The latest 2018 paper by Wallmark, Deblieck, and Iacoboni, "Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening,” is the offspring of Zach's graduate work at UCLA and was published April 6 in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

 SMU, UCLA (Wallmark et al.)
Areas of the brain that uniquely activate in people with higher empathy when they listen to familiar music.
Source: SMU, UCLA (Wallmark et al.)

During a lengthy conversation with Zach about his recently published SMU-UCLA research, he encouraged me to reach out to the senior author of this study — legendary neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni — for some fresh insights about how the latest fMRI findings on the "music-empathy connection" fit into Marco's ongoing research at UCLA on "mirroring" and mirror neurons.

Marco Iacoboni is the author of Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. (Picador, 2009). He's a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, director of the Kresher Family Neuromodulation Lab of the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute. In his first-person bio on the homepage of his lab, Iacoboni candidly says:

"To be honest, I really don’t give a damn about the brain. I care about the human soul. However, I happen to believe that the soul is in the mind, and that the mind is a functional process instantiated by the brain with its interactions with the body and the environment. Hence, I study the human brain. I have always been interested in how we put together perception and action. Why? Because we do it all the time, because I can’t think of a functioning life without the ability to integrate our percepts with our actions."

At the end of an email response to some of my neuroscience-based questions, Marco asked me, "What I want to know from you is how you managed to swim for 7.2-miles, then bike for 336-miles(!), and then run for 78.6-miles nonstop, for some 38 hours. That’s beyond my comprehension. And I am pretty fit!"

Courtesy of Viking Adult
Source: Courtesy of Viking Adult

In response, I said, "I’d love to discuss the 'transcendent' and nitty-gritty aspects of getting to a point where I could run, bike, and swim nonstop for 38 hours plus. There’s a lot to unpack! Also, I just read what you wrote about 'being more interested in the soul than the brain.' My late father, Richard Bergland (1932-2007), was a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon who wrote a book called “The Fabric of Mind” (Viking Adult, 1985). He was also much more interested in the soul than the brain. If he were alive today, I'd love to be a fly on the wall eavesdropping on a discussion between you and my dad."

In lieu of ever being able to overhear that conversation, a few days ago, I had the good fortune to have an in-depth one-on-one phone call with Marco Iacoboni. Following is a recap of our Q-and-A:

CB: Marco, over the past two decades, you’ve been a pioneer of fMRI neuroimaging research on mirror neurons. In your landmark paper, “Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons,” (Iacoboni. Annual Review of Psychology, 2009) you write:

“Neuroscience investigations have demonstrated physiological mechanisms of mirroring at single-cell and neural-system levels that support the cognitive and social psychology constructs. Why were these neural mechanisms selected, and what is their adaptive advantage? Neural mirroring solves the “problem of other minds” (how we can access and understand the minds of others) and makes intersubjectivity possible, thus facilitating social behavior.”

Are there any notable ways that your latest fMRI study with Zach Wallmark and Choi Deblieck, “Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening,” helps to advance our understanding of how and why mirror neurons may have evolved as an adaptive advantage?

Marco: I see the work with Zach as part of a larger work my lab has been doing recently to expand our research on mirroring. The quote you cite is centered in what was our initial framing of mirroring, the face to face situation between two human beings and the fact that through mirroring these interactions become easy, effortless, smooth. That initial work, incidentally, has connections with the work we just did with Zach. Back in 2004, we published this brain imaging study showing that when you listen to me talking, your speech motor areas activate, as if you would internally mimic my voice, what I am saying (Wilson et al, Nature Neuroscience, 2004).

One crucial question is: “Is this motor speech activation when you listen to someone else talking essential for your ability to process speech?” In a subsequent study we tested this hypothesis using brain stimulation. With non invasive brain stimulation you can either excite or inhibit a brain region and observe how behavior changes. These studies give you information regarding the causal relationships between brain and behavior. The answer is yes. Targeting the motor speech area that was also active during speech listening, and transiently disrupting its activity, induced transient speech perception deficits (Meister et al, Current Biology, 2007).

Speech mirroring is a great example of what we call ‘embodied simulation’, that is, the use of bodily representations in our brain to simulate what others are doing, and by doing so, understand it. But with your mouth and your voice you can also sing, and even imitate the sound of an instrument. So, an obvious question is, do we mirror internally with our vocal brain centers the musical sounds we listen to? A recent study with Zach (Wallmark et al, Music Perception, 2018) supports this hypothesis, showing activity in the mouth motor area when participants are simply listening to tones. This tells us that mirroring goes well beyond ‘face to face’ scenarios, and that we may use mirroring and its interactions with other brain processes for all sorts of complex perceptions and decisions.

The way we are expanding our work on mirroring now is by investigating more complex forms of social decision making and test whether mirroring is relevant to those. We have shown recently with a study combining brain imaging and an economic game that mirroring predicts generosity, that is, the more you mirror, the more generous you are (Christov-Moore and Iacoboni, Human Brain Mapping, 2016). This makes sense, if you think that mirroring makes you feel as if you are the other person. We have also shown that we can modulate this generosity with brain stimulation, making people more generous (Christov-Moore et al, Social Neuroscience, 2017).

Incidentally, in a previous study with brain stimulation, targeting the same brain area we have also shown that we can make people less prejudiced toward other people that do not belong to their own social group (Holbrook et al, SCAN 2016). And in one of our latest efforts, we even show that mirroring predicts decisions at very thorny moral dilemmas (Christov-Moore et al, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 2017). So, our recent studies show that the adaptive advantage of mirror neurons I was referring to in my paper of almost ten years ago, seems to encompass very complex forms of human behavior and decision making.

CB: The section subtitled "Music and Empathy" of your latest paper with Wallmark et al. begins, "Theories of empathy have long resonated with the arts. The father of the modern concept of empathy, philosopher Theodor Lipps (1907), originally devised the notion of Einfühlung (“feeling into”) in order to explain aesthetic experience. Contemporary psychological accounts have invoked mirror neurons as a possible substrate supporting Lipps’s “inner imitation” theory of the visual and performing arts (Molnar-Szakacs and Overy, 2006; Freedberg and Gallese, 2007). However, the incorporation of psychological models of empathy in empirical music research is still in its early stages." How does your latest study on the music-empathy connection advance Lipps’ notion of Einfühlung and “feeling into” a piece of art or music through the lens of 21st-century neurophysiology?

Marco: It seems to me that Lipps ‘feeling into’ a piece of art isn’t too dissimilar to the ‘face to face’ situation I was referring to earlier, except that now it’s no longer two human beings facing each other, but a human being and a piece of art. Obviously, your level of empathy will modulate your ability to connect with someone you are facing. However, empathy takes more complex forms, and can let you understand the predicament of entire groups of people. Think about the Mexican families separated recently at the border with the U.S. Empathy allows us to feel their sorrow and understand their situation even though we are not even looking at them and it’s a multitude of people. We are basically moving from the emotional to the conceptual level.

The fact that the study with Zach demonstrates that empathy modulates our neurophysiological responses to music suggests to me that Lipps ‘feeling into’ should be expanded too. To reword a beautiful sentence from David Foster Wallace, it’s ‘a feeling that is also a thought’. The radical implication of the work with Zach is that even our most intellectual understanding and appreciation of art and music is bootstrapped from that initial mirroring our brains need to compute to ‘feel into’ the art and music we are perceiving.

CB: As an ultra-endurance athlete, I've always used specific songs to create a target mindset and to "dial-up" an ideal level of arousal and emotional valence that fits the circumstance or race conditions. Sometimes, I purposely want to "catch" the aura that a performer exhibits in a song and channel that into optimal athletic performance. Other times, I will purposely put myself in the shoes of characters in a song, even if the character represents someone I purposely do not want to emulate or become.

For example, when I first started running competitively in the late 1980s, the Howard Jones song, “No One Is to Blame” was in heavy rotation on Top 40 radio and became a counterintuitive running anthem that pushed me to run faster, longer, and harder.

In this downtrodden and seemingly hopeless song about being 'shut-out' and giving up, Jones sings, “You can dip your foot in the pool, but you can't have a swim. You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin. You can build a mansion, but you can't live in it. You're the fastest runner, but you're not allowed to win. The insecurity is the thing that won't get lost. You can see the summit, but you can't reach it. It's the last piece of the puzzle, but you just can't make it fit. Doctor says you're cured, but you still feel the pain. Aspirations in the clouds, but your hopes go down the drain.

Although this song is low arousal and “sad” on the emotional valence scale, it lit a fire in my belly and gave me the oomph I needed to achieve lofty athletic goals. I empathized with the downward spiral of the protagonist on a visceral level and would regularly put myself in his shoes. The good news is that visualizing his despair and inability to prevail over life circumstances gave me a sense of conviction to avoid ever becoming “that guy” in the song.

The protagonist in "No One Is to Blame" became a powerful anti-hero role model for me. Everyday throughout the mid- to late-1980s, I worked twice as hard while running, biking, or swimming to avoid ever turning into the lead character in the song. By doing the opposite of imitating him, I became more bold, started to win races, and pushed myself to reach various “summits” that seemed out of reach to most onlookers and myself.

Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851
Christopher Bergland "mirroring" the thoughts and feelings held in Bruce Springsteen's Grapes of Wrath, dust-bowl era inspired anthem "The Promised Land" while running 135-miles nonstop through Death Valley in July.
Source: Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851

As another example, when I was training for the Badwater Ultramarathon, 135-mile run through Death Valley in July, my go-to anthem was Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.” The following Springsteen lyrics resonated deeply and seemed to trigger a neurophysiological response in my brain, “Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man. And I believe in a promised land. I've done my best to live the right way, I get up every morning and go to work each day. Sometimes I feel so weak, I just want to explode. . .Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart. Well, there's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor. I've packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm. Gonna be a twister to blow everything down, that ain't got the faith to stand its ground.”

In advance of what some call "The World's Toughest Footrace," I would visualize myself having a meltdown due to heat exhaustion at some point during the race, and prepare myself in advance to cope with this adversity by romanticizing the hardship and taking a gritty “bring it on” attitude that mirrored the protagonist in "The Promised Land" song. Putting myself in various situations I pictured throughout this song gave me the guts to face the inevitable physical pain of running five marathons back-to-back through Death Valley in 120-degree temperatures with a life-affirming, optimistic spirit of adventure.

That said, it's tough to differentiate exactly “who” or “what” my mirror neurons might be imitating or empathizing with when I listen to these personal anthems and other familiar songs that inspire me.

Do any of your recent fMRI neuroimages illuminate specific brain areas or neural correlates that are activated during different types of "embodied cognition" while listening to music?

Marco: I think here we are actually moving into the reverse computation from what we discussed earlier. The original phrase of David Foster Wallace was “It’s a thought that is also a feeling.” He was talking about tennis practice! The idea that by repetition over repetition of the same shot or pattern of shots/movements, you develop the ability to do by ‘feel’ what can’t be accomplished with regular conscious thought. By mirroring those songs you projected yourself into having a mental state that allowed you to feel what it is like to be in that situation. Feeling it (although imaginatively) made it less scary, more approachable, made you realize you can go through it and survive.

The interplay between feelings and thoughts is exactly what we are trying to figure out with our recent work on mirroring in the more complex scenarios I described earlier. The ultimate goal is to make this distinction between what is rational and what is emotional completely disappear. To figure out the flowing architecture of the interplay between sensory input and the internal processing that eventually generates perception.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me my thinking has been changing recently. I used to think of mirroring as a bottom up process and classical cognition (what are traditionally called executive functions) as a top down process. We used this terminology even in recent papers. And now we have both data (yet unpublished) and a sketch of a theory that suggest that mirroring is already a top down phenomenon, not so much reflecting what we perceive but rather anticipating, predicting it. I am also thinking that when we finally get to understand it well enough, I should write a book about it, and call it “A Thought That Is Also a Feeling”!

To go back to your question on neural correlates, we now know that multiple brain areas contain mirror cells. This includes, and surprisingly so, medial temporal lobe structures that we know are important for memory and higher level perception. This is from our paper on single cell recordings in humans of some years ago (Mukamel et al, Current Biology, 2010). Which means that memory mechanisms get also into the process of mirroring.

When I see you grasping a cup of coffee, my mirror mechanisms in my medial temporal lobe retrieve the memory of myself grasping a cup of coffee. From the same Mukamel paper we also know that the SMA, a motor area important for movement sequences, contains mirror cells. If memories and complex sequences can be mirrored/retrieved, then you realize the functional possibilities are vast. The long term plan of the lab is to map them out and be able to intervene on those, so that we can modulate these powerful processes in health and disease.

Marco, huge thanks for taking time to correspond with me on the phone and via email over the past few days and for sharing all of these insights with Psychology Today readers. Much appreciated!


Zachary Wallmark, Choi Deblieck, Marco Iacoboni. "Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (First published: April 6, 2018) DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00066

Zachary Wallmark, Marco Iacoboni, Choi Deblieck, Roger A. Kendall. "Embodied Listening and Timbre: Perceptual, Acoustical, and Neural Correlates." Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal (First published: February 2, 2018) DOI: 10.1525/mp.2018.35.3.332

Marco Iacoboni. "Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons." Annual Review of Psychology (2009) DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163604

Stephen M. Wilson, Ayşe Pinar Saygin, Martin I. Sereno, and Marco Iacoboni. "Listening to speech activates motor areas involved in speech production." Nature Neuroscience (2004) DOI: 10.1038/nn1263

Ingo G. Meister, Stephen M. Wilson, Choi Deblieck, Allan D. Wu, and Marco Iacoboni. "The essential role of premotor cortex in speech perception." Current Biology (2007) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.064

Mukamel, Roy, Arne D. Ekstrom, Jonas Kaplan, Marco Iacoboni, and Itzhak Fried. "Single-neuron responses in humans during execution and observation of actions." Current Biology (2010) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.045

Istvan Molnar-Szakacs and Katie Overy. "Music and mirror neurons: from motion to’e’motion." Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2006) DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsl029

David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese. "Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience." Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2007) DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2007.02.003

Leonardo Christov-Moore, Taisei Sugiyama, Kristina Grigaityte, and Marco Iacoboni. "Increasing generosity by disrupting prefrontal cortex." Social Neuroscience (2017) DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1154105

Leonardo Christov-Moore, Paul Conway, and Marco Iacoboni. "Deontological Dilemma Response Tendencies and Sensorimotor Representations of Harm to Others." Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience (2017) DOI: 10.3389/fnint.2017.00034

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