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Reaction to music indicates empathy

September 22, 2016
by H. Steven Moffic
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On a recent trip to Serbia and Romania, I was fortunate to hear a performance by a bassist and singer who is a specialist in the adaptation of Yiddish songs. I sobbed during the saddest ones—songs about lost worlds and lost people.

Sadness and loss are, of course, endemic to mental illness. That got me wondering about whether my response was a professional one, a personal one or both. Was it good that I cried or was I just being an oversensitive, blubbering old fool?

In thinking about this, I recalled how the late and great neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks, MD, personally and professionally felt about music. One of the personal reflections he made in his well-known book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” (Vintage Press, 2007) was about the death of a close relative and how his own ensuing anhedonia came to an end: “Suddenly, as I listened, I found my eyes with tears.”

Well, reading about his experience made me feel that I was in good company.

Moved by music

Serendipitously, on the day after we returned home, I stumbled upon a more scientific answer, an answer that just might have relevance to hiring staff. It is from a research study that was published online in Frontiers of Psychology on September 15: “Being Moved by Unfamiliar Sad Music is Associated with High Empathy” by Tuomas Eerola and colleagues.

The paradox needing explanation was why some people enjoy sad music when such a feeling state is usually not desired or sought out. The researchers found that people who were moved to sadness by an unfamiliar instrumental piece of music, selected for evoking sadness, scored highly on an empathy scale. That sounds like a replica of the concert experience of Sacks, does it not? Not only that, but the key to enjoyment in the study was the ability to self-regulate and distance oneself from the process. This can be called “empathic concern.”

Isn't this empathy and empathic concern exactly what we want in our mental healthcare staff? Isn't this the ability to feel the pain but then to also be able to take a step back from that, be concerned, and put into play efficacious therapeutic processes? Yet, hasn't it always been a challenge to find that out before hiring someone?If this research is correct, it may work to ask potential new hires the following questions: Do you like sad music? If so, what are some examples of music that has made you sad?

Perhaps the same principle holds for watching movies. Another question to applicants might then be: If you go to movies, what movie recently made you cry, and why?

Listening to a candidate’s responses is probably as good a way to assess empathy and empathic concern. If you use something better, what is it? And let me know if you think that I am a fool or not!



H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...