Category Archives: Epigenetics

Music and Empathy are psychological neighbours. Empathetic people process music differently – Stephen Johnson * Music, Empathy, and Cultural Understanding – Eric Clarke, Tia DeNora, Jonna Vuoskoski * Current Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Debates on Empathy – Eva-Maria Engelen, Birgitt Röttger-Rössler * Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening – Zachary Wallmark, Choi Deblieck, Marco Iacaboni. * Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).

“The ‘other’ need not be a person: it can be music.” Clifton (1983)

There are two pathways when it comes to understanding each other: thinking or mind reading and feeling or empathy.

Empirical investigations have shown that people who have a tendency to be more empathic experience more intense emotions in response to music.

Listening to sounds, even outside of a musical context, significantly activates empathy circuits in the brains of high empathy people. In particular, sounds trigger parts of the brain linked to emotional contagion, a phenomenon that occurs when one takes on the emotions of another.

Musical engagement can function as a mediated form of social encounter, even when listening by ourselves. Recent research has shown that trait empathy is linked to musical preferences and listening style. If we consider music through a social psychological lens, it is plausible that individuals with a greater dispositional capacity to empathize with others might also respond to music’s social stimulus differently on a neurophysiological level by preferentially engaging brain networks previously found to be involved in trait empathy.

Music can be conceived as a Virtual Social Agent… listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships. In short, musical experience and empathy are psychological neighbors.

Esenherg et al (1991) define empathy as, “an emotional response that stems from another’s emotional state or condition and is congruent with the other’s emotional state or condition.”

Who or what do we empathize with when listening to music?

For some people music is able to represent a virtual person with whom to empathize, and whom they can experience as empathizing with their felt emotions. Studies that have investigated people’s reasons for listening to sad music when they already feel sad have found that some listeners can experience the music itself as providing empathy and understanding for the feelings that they are going through, functioning as a surrogate for an empathic friend.

Mirror neurons may be as much a consequence of a culture of inter-subjective engagement as they are a foundation for it.

It is quite conceivable that people who are inclined to imagine themselves from others’ perspectives also tend to take up the physical actions implied by others’ musical sounds, whether a smooth and gentle voice, a growled saxophone, or any other musical sound reflecting human actions.

It’s no surprise our level or empathy impacts how we process social interactions with other people. But how might empathy affect the way we process music?

That’s the question addressed in a first of-its-kind study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The results showed that high empathy people not only got more pleasure from listening to music, but also experienced more activity in brain regions associated with social interactions and rewards.

The implication is that empathy can make you interact with music as if it were a person, or a “virtual persona,” as described in a 2007 study:

“Music can be conceived as a virtual social agent… listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships.”

The researchers conducted two experiments to examine how empathy impacts the way we perceive music. In the first, 15 UCLA students listened to various sounds made by musical instruments, like a saxophone, while undergoing an fMRI scan.

Activation sites correlating with trait empathy (IRI subscales) in selected contrasts.

Some of the instrument sounds were distorted and noisy. The idea was that the brain might interpret these sounds as similar to the “signs of distress, pain, or aggression” that humans and animals emit in stressful scenarios, and these “cues may elicit heightened responses” among high-empathy people. Participants also completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a selfreported survey commonly used by scientists to measure one’s level of empathy.

The results confirmed what the team had hypothesized: listening to the sounds, even outside of a musical context, significantly activated empathy circuits in the brains of high-empathy people. In particular, the sounds triggered parts of the brain linked to emotional contagion, a phenomenon that occurs when one takes on the emotions of another.

But how does empathy affect the way we listen to a complete piece of music?

To find out, the researchers asked students to listen to music that they either liked or disliked, and which was either familiar or unfamiliar to them. They found that listening to familiar music triggered more activity in the dorsal striatum, a reward center in the brain, among high-empathy people, even when they listened to songs they said they hated.

Familiar music also activated parts of the lingual gyrus and occipital lobe, regions associated with visual processing, prompting the team to suggest that “empathic listeners may be more prone to visual imagery while listening to familiar music.”

In general, high-empathy people experienced more activity in brain regions associated with rewards and social interactions while listening to music than did low-empathy participants.

“This may indicate that music is being perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence,” said study author Zachary Wallmark, a professor at SiViU Meadows School of the Arts. “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.”

We often conceptualize music as an abstract object for aesthetic contemplation, Wallmark said, but the new findings could help us reframe music as a way to connect others, and to our evolutionary past.

“If music can function something like a virtual “other,” then it might be capable of altering listeners’ views of real others, thus enabling it to play an ethically complex mediating role in the social discourse of music,” the team wrote.

Music, Empathy, and Cultural Understanding

Eric Clarke, Tia DeNora, and Jonna Vuoskoski

In the age of the internet and with the dramatic proliferation of mobile listening technologies, music has unprecedented global distribution and embeddedness in people’s lives. It is a source of intense experiences of both the most individual (personal stereos) and massively communal (large-scale live events, and global simulcasts) kind; and it increasingly brings together or exploits a huge range of cultures and histories, through developments in world music, sampling, the re-issue of historical recordings, and the explosion of informal and ‘bedroom’ music making that circulates via YouTube. For many people, involvement with music can be among the most powerful and potentially transforming experiences in their lives.

To what extent do these developments in music’s mediated and mediating presence facilitate contact and understanding, or perhaps division and distrust, between people? This project has pursued the idea that music affords insights into other consciousnesses and subjectivities, and that in doing so may have important potential for cultural understanding.

The project:

1) brings together and critically reviews a considerable body of research and scholarship, across disciplines ranging from the neuroscience and psychology of music to the sociology and anthropology of music, and cultural musicology, that has proposed or presented evidence for music’s power to promote empathy and social/cultural understanding through powerful affective, cognitive and social factors, and to explore ways in which to connect and make sense of this disparate evidence (and counter-evidence);

2) reports the outcome of an empirical study that tests one aspect of those claims demonstrating that ‘passive’ listening to the music of an unfamiliar culture can significantly change the cultural attitudes of listeners with high dispositional empathy.

Researchers and Project Partners

Eric Clarke, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford

Tia DeNora, Sociology, Philosophy & Anthropology, Exeter University

Jonna Vuoskoski, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford


Music is a source of intense experiences of both the most individual (personal stereos, headphone listening) and massively communal (large-scale live events, and global simulcasts) kind; and it increasingly brings together or exploits an exceptional range of cultures and histories, through developments in ‘world music’, sampling, historical recording and hybridization. At a time when musicology, the social and cultural study of music, have become far more circumspect about essentializing and romanticizing claims, it is still not uncommon to find claims being made for music as a ‘universal language’ that can overcome (or even transcend) cultural difference, break down barriers of ethnicity, age, social class, ability/disability, and physical and psychological wellbeing.

There are widespread symptoms of this belief or claim, including the activities of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, to bring together Israeli and Palestinian musicians); and the appointment by UNICEF of classical musicians to act as ‘goodwill ambassadors’, bringing their music to people in deprived, war-torn, or disaster-hit parts of the world so as to offer emotional support, solidarity, and a kind of communion.

An extract from the violinist Maxim Vengerov, who in 1997 was the first classical musician to be appointed a goodwill ambassador, reads: “1997, September: For Maxim Vengerov’s first official undertaking with UNICEF, he organized a musical exchange with children from Opus 118 a violin group from East Harlem, New York. The children of Opus 118, aged 6 to 13, came from three different elementary schools in this inner-city neighbourhood. This innovative programme has spurred a whole generation to learn ‘violin culture’. Along with the youths, Mr. Vengerov not only played Bach but also southern blues and tunes such as ‘Summertime’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’.”

And from the same webpage, beneath a picture showing the violinist in jeans and T-shirt playing as he leads a line of children in the manner of a latter-day Pied Piper is the caption: “In the remote village of Baan Nong Mon Tha, children from the Karen hill tribe ethnic group follow Maxim Vengerov, in a human chain, to a school run by a UNICEF-assisted NGO. Thailand, 2000.”

Similarly, the 1985 Live Aid, and 2005 Live 8, events were global pop music events intended not only to raise money (in the case of Live Aid) and popular pressure on politicians (in the case of Live 8) for the relief of famine and poverty, but also to galvanize a global consciousness and a united ‘voice’: as Bob Geldof, the prime mover of Live 8 put it: “These concerts are the start point for The Long Walk To Justice, the one way we can all make our voices heard in unison.”

And finally, the popular UK television series ‘The Choir’ (which has run to six series so far) documents the powerful ‘identity work’ and intense emotional experiences that accompany the formation of choirs in schools, workplaces, and military establishments out of groups of people who have had little or no previous formal musical experience, and who come from very varied walks of life (from bank executives to fire officers and military wives).

In all these very public examples of a much wider if less visible phenomenon, we see a complex mixture of implicit musical values, discourses about music’s ‘powers’, folk psychology and its sociological equivalent, and (in some cases) more or less grounded or unsupported claims about the impact of music on the brain (cf. Tame, 1984; Levitin, 2006). It would be easy to be hastily dismissive of some of these claims, but a considerable volume of research by highly regarded scientists and scholars, coming from disciplines that range from neuroscience and philosophy through psychology and sociology to anthropology and cultural studies has also made a significant case for the capacity of music and musicking (Small, 1998) to effect personal and social change (e.g. Becker 2004; DeNora 2013; Gabrielsson 2011; Herbert 2011). If music can effect change, and speak across barriers, it can also offer a means of intercultural understanding and identity work.

As Cook (1998: 129) puts it:

“If both music and musicology are ways of creating meaning rather than just of representing it, then we can see music as a means of gaining insight into the cultural or historical other. If music can communicate across gender differences, it can do so across other barriers as well. One example is music therapy… But the most obvious example is the way we listen to the music of other cultures (or, perhaps even more significantly, the music of subcultures within our own broader culture). We do this not just for the good sounds, though there is that, but in order to gain some insight into those (sub)cultures. And if we use music as a means of insight into other cultures, then equally we can see it as a means of negotiating cultural identity.”

In different ways, these (and other) claims seem to make use of a generalized notion of empathy. Empathy has recently seemed to gain considerable attention/currency in musicology, psychology of music, sociology of music and ethnomusicology as a way to conceptualize a whole range of affiliative, identity-forming, and ‘self-fashioning’ capacities in relation to music. But what is brought together or meant by the term ‘empathy’, and is it a useful and coherent way to think about music in relation to its individual and social effects?

Our project, and this report, arise from the disparate nature of the evidence for the claims about music’s transformative power, individually and socially, and the ‘scattering’ of the case across theories and findings in a huge disciplinary range: from research on music and mirror neurons (Overy and Molnar-Szakacs 2009) to the ethnomusicology of affect (Stokes 2010), the history of musical subjectivity (Butt 2010) and sociological studies of music and collective action (Eyerman and Jamieson 1998), the case has been made for different perspectives on music’s capacity to afford compassionate and empathetic insight and affiliation, and its consequent power to change social behaviour.

These diverse research strands all point to the crucial role that musicking plays in people’s lives, to its transformational capacity, and to the insights that it can afford. There is no single window onto ‘what it is like to be human’, but musicking seems to offer as rich, diverse, and globally distributed a perspective as any and one that engages people in a vast array of experiences located along dimensions of public and private, solitary and social, frenzied and reflective, technological and bodily, conceptual and immediate, calculated and improvised, instantaneous and timeless. The fact that music can be heard and experienced by large numbers of people simultaneously and in synchrony (orchestral concerts, stadium gigs, live simulcasts) means that the embodied experience of music can also be shared fostering entrainment and a sense of cosubjectivity. Indeed, some theories of the evolutionary significance of music highlight the importance of music’s empathy promoting aspects, suggesting that a fundamental adaptive characteristic of music is its capacity to promote group cohesion and affiliation (Cross & Morley, 2008).

While a whole range of studies has suggested that empathic interaction with other human beings is facilitated by musical engagement, the direct empirical evidence for this important possibility is scattered and disciplinarily disconnected. The aim of the project summarised in this report was to examine critically a substantial body of research evidence that relates to claims for music’s capacity to engender cultural understanding, primarily through the mediating construct of empathy; examine its consequences and significance, and provide a framework within which to connect its disparate elements and highlight points of interdisciplinary convergence and divergence; and carry out a focused empirical study that was designed to investigate a specific aspect of that complex case.

The report follows the general disciplinary outlines of the initial literature search, which revealed in excess of 300 items relating to the broad theme (‘Music, Empathy and Cultural Understanding’) of the project.


The word empathy has had currency in English for little more than 100 years, listed by the Oxford English Dictionary as being first used by the psychologist Edward Titchener in 1909, and defined by the OED as:

“a. Psychol. and Aesthetics. The quality or power of projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, and so fully understanding or appreciating it.

b. orig. Psychol. The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

Titchener’s ‘empathy’ was his attempt to translate the term Einfühlung, coined by the philosopher Robert Vischer (1873) in a book on visual aesthetics. But it was Theodor Lipps (1903) who really championed the concept of empathy, developing it from an essentially aesthetic category (the ability to ‘feel into’ an artwork) into a much more general psychological/philosophical concept to account for the human capacity to recognize one another as having minds. Laurence (2007) gives an important account of the origin and development of the idea of empathy, tracing a line back to Adam Smith’s (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Smith’s appeal to a notion of sympathy and ‘fellow feeling’ as the basis for understanding and living a moral life that is based on imagining how we would feel in the circumstances of others. The distinction between imagining how we would feel and simply identifying with how another feels is crucial, since it places Smith’s notion of sympathy in the domain of imaginative reason rather than blind contagion, and makes clear the role of cultural artefacts (paintings, literature, drama, music) as a means of socially learning that sympathetic attitude.

Laurence also draws significantly on the work of Edith Stein (1917) a doctoral student of Edmund Husserl whose On the Problem of Empathy also engages with the problem of how it is that we can know or experience the mental states of others, whether this knowledge or experience is given in some direct and primordial sense, and Stein’s conclusion that empathy is dependent on the mediating role of similarity with the person (or even animal) with whom/which we attempt to empathize. Laurence ends up with definition of empathy that emphasizes empathy as both a process, and as a social and educable achievement:

“In empathizing, we, while retaining fully the sense of our own distinct consciousness, enter actively and imaginatively into others’ inner states to understand how they experience their world and how they are feeling, reaching out to what we perceive as similar while accepting difference, and experiencing upon reflection our own resulting feelings, appropriate to our own situation as empathic observer, which may be virtually the same feelings or different but sympathetic to theirs, within a context in which we care to respect and acknowledge their human dignity and our shared humanity.” (Laurence 2007: 24)

Finally, and in significant contrast to Laurence, Baron Cohen (2011) provides a wide ranging account of empathy that explicitly presents it as a psychometrically measurable trait, with a genetic and environmental basis, distributed in a particular network of brain regions, and manifested in seven ‘degrees’ ranging from the zero degrees of empathy of the psychopath or autistic person, to the six degrees of empathy of some ‘hyper empathic‘ individuals. Baron Cohen regards empathy as critically valuable human resource, and sees the erosion or loss of empathy as an issue of global importance that has the most serious consequences for social health at scales ranging from the family to international relations.

As this necessarily brief review has revealed, there is a significant range of perspectives on empathy, from which two in particular might be drawn. The first is the distinction between empathy as a skill or social achievement acquired, educable, and in some sense fundamentally collective; and empathy as a trait relatively fixed, individual, and with a genetic component. The second concerns the extent to which different perspectives emphasize the involuntary and inter subjective character of empathy (sometimes expressed through the metaphor of contagion), involving identification with the other and a loss of self; as opposed to a more cognitive and deliberate view in which empathy depends upon an imaginative projection into the circumstances of the other (closer to what Smith called sympathy).

These differences in perspective affect the scope and reach of the term empathy, and are an issue to which we return towards the end of this report in the specific context of music.

Music and Empathy across Different Fields

This section critically reviews the existing literature on music and empathy under a number of different conceptual and disciplinary headings.

1. Neuroscience

An increasing body of neuroscientific evidence indicates the very close coupling of perceptual and motor functions in the central nervous system, strongly suggesting that one way to account for the human capacity to adopt the perspective of another (sometimes referred to as ‘theory of mind’ or even ‘mind reading’) is on the basis of the way in which a person’s experience of their own actions is entangled with their perception of the actions of others. At the level of brain anatomy, it has long been recognized that there are suggestive parallels between the organization of sensory and motor cortices of the human brain and this might provide at least superficial evidence for the close relationship between perception and action.

More recently, however, and particularly in the wake of the discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s (e.g. Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese, and Rizzolatti G., 1992), there has been a surge of interest in the ways in which perception action relationships at the level of the central nervous system might provide a powerful way to explain a variety of intersubjective and empathic phenomena. Freedberg and Gallese (2007: 197) have argued that the activation of a variety of embodied neural mechanisms underlie a range of aesthetic responses, proposing that “a crucial element of esthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal.” Freedberg and Gallese are primarily concerned with the embodied and empathic qualities of visual art, but Overy and co-authors (Molnar Szakacs & Overy 2006; Overy & Molnar Szakacs 2009; McGuiness & Overy 2011) have developed a persuasive model of how the embodied, emotive and empathic effects of music might be understood from a mirror neuron perspective.

(A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.
Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species. Birds have been shown to have imitative resonance behaviors and neurological evidence suggests the presence of some form of mirroring system.
In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area (SMA), the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.)

In simple terms, mirror neurons (or mirror systems as they are often called) are neurons in a motor area of the brain that become active when an individual merely observes an action of the kind that these neurons are usually responsible for controlling.

These ‘as if body loops’, as Damasio (1999) has called them, provide a direct identification with the actions of another, and constitute the fundamental building blocks of what Gallese (2001; 2003) has termed the ‘shared manifold’. The shared manifold is understood as a three-leveled mechanism for inter-subjective identification: i) a phenomenological level that is responsible for our sense of similarity with others which Gallese equates with an expanded notion of empathy; ii) a functional level characterized by models of self other interaction; and iii) a subpersonal level, instantiated by the activity of mirror matching neural circuits (Mirror Neuron Systems). The aim of the shared manifold hypothesis is to ground a sense of empathy and self other identity without suggesting that human experience and neuroscience can simply be collapsed into one another: hence the distinction between phenomenological, functional and subpersonal levels.

Gallese is also at pains to point out that self other identity is not all that there is to inter subjectivity: mirror systems do not allow us to experience others exactly as we experience ourselves, since to do so would (ironically) preclude the possibility of experiencing others as such at all. Our capacity to experience an external reality with content and behaviours that we can understand is made possible by “the presence of other subjects that are intelligible, while preserving their alterity character.” (Gallese 2003: 177)

At times the mirror neuron idea has been presented as if it were a hardwired feature of the brain that acted rather like a magic bullet. But as Heyes (2010) has argued, while one way to see mirror neurons is as an evolutionary adaptation (and therefore present at the species level), an alternative is to see the development of mirror systems as acquired through the operation of associative processes through the lifetime of individuals. From this perspective, mirror processes originate in sensorimotor experience, much of which is obtained through interaction with others. Thus, the mirror neuron system is a product of social interaction, as well as a process that enables and sustains social interaction. One rather specific example of this kind of plasticity is the finding by Bangert et al. (2006) that trained pianists listening to the sound of piano music showed significantly more neural activity in the motor areas of their brains than did a matched group of non-musicians.

2. Perception-action coupling, Empathy and Embodiment

Mirror systems are one way to understand inter-subjective interaction and identity, with direct relevance to music, at a neural level.

At the behavioural level there is another extensive literature that has revealed the significance of mimicry and synchronization in mediating human relationships in general, and music in particular. In a review of the extensive literature Chartrand and Dalton (2008; see also Chartrand & Bargh 1999) make the case for the importance of mimicry in social life, ranging from postural and facial to vocal and syntactic mimicry (people unconsciously mimicking one another’s accents and sentence structures) as both manifestations of existing social bonds and affiliations as well as the means by which such social bonds may be established (e.g. Inzlicht, Gutsell & Legault, 2012). As Heyes (2011) has argued such imitative behaviours may be automatic and insuppressible, and constitute a fundamental embodied basis for a critically important domain of human social interaction.

At a similarly general level, a number of authors (e.g. Valdesolo and DeSteno 2011) have demonstrated the power of synchronization in inducing altruistic and compassionate behaviours, this synchronization in many cases serving to entrain people’s behaviours upon one another.

With this general psychological literature in mind, it is easy to see that music powerfully affords these kinds of cooperative and affiliative engagements. Music has long been associated with socially coordinated work, worship and celebration, where its rhythmically entraining attributes and opportunities for controlled mimicry and complementation (such as in the ‘call and response’ character of many vernacular musical cultures) play a central role (e.g. Clayton, Sager and Will 2005).

Hove and Risen (2009) demonstrated with a tapping task that the degree of synchrony between individuals tapping together predicted how affiliated those individuals rated one another, and in a more directly musical context both Kirschner and Tomasello (2009) and Rabinowitch, Cross & Burnard (2012) have shown that over both shorter and longer timescales children involved in rhythmically synchronized music activities subsequently behaved more cooperatively and empathically than did children who were involved in an equivalent but not synchronized activity. Music is a powerfully multi-sensory, and particularly kinaesthetic (see Stuart 2012) phenomenon whose embodied character draws people into fluid and powerful social groups at a range of scales and degrees of (im)permanence, and in doing so helps to enact a kind of empathy.

3. Dispositional empathy and music

As discussed above, some authors (e.g. Baron-Cohen 2011) have understood empathy as a trait, arguing that since some people have a tendency to experience empathy more readily than others, being more or less empathic can be understood as a personality trait or a disposition.

In its broadest sense, dispositional empathy can be defined as an individual’s general responsiveness to the observed experiences of others, involving both perspective-taking capabilities or tendencies, and emotional reactivity (e.g., Davis, 1980).

Davis (1980) has suggested that dispositional empathy is a multidimensional construct comprising at least four components:

Perspective-taking (PT) can be understood as the ability as well as the tendency to shift perspectives (i.e., to see and understand things from another’s point of view)

Fantasy can be described as the tendency to identify oneself with fictional characters in books and films, for example. By contrast,

Empathic Concern (EC) taps into the tendency to experience feelings of compassion and concern for observed individuals, whereas

Personal Distress is associated with the individual’s own feelings of fear, apprehension and discomfort in response to the negative experiences of others.

Empathic Concern (EC) and Personal Distress are associated with the more emotional side of empathy.

Theories of music-induced emotions suggest that some form of empathy may be involved in the emotional responses induced by music (e.g., Scherer & Zentner, 2001; Juslin & vastfjall, 2008; Livingstone & Thompson, 2009). The proposed mechanisms range from pre-conscious ‘motor resonance’ with musical features that resemble vocal and motor expression of emotion (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006; Livingstone & Thompson, 2009) and emotional contagion (Juslin & Vastfjal, 2008) to empathizing with emotions and notions that are construed in the listener’s imagination (e.g., Scherer & Zentner, 2001). Indeed, empirical investigations have shown that people who have a tendency to be more empathic experience more intense emotions in response to music (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012; Ladinig & Schellenberg, 2011), providing indirect evidence for the role of empathy in music-induced emotions.

As people with high dispositional empathy are more susceptible to emotional contagion in general (Doherty, 1997), it may be that highly empathic people also experience emotional contagion from music more readily (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012). A complementary explanation is that empathic people may be more likely to engage in some form of reflective empathy during music listening, involving visual or narrative imagery, for example (e.g., Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012; 2013).

Dispositional empathy has been associated with music-induced sadness in particular, as highly empathic people have been found to experience more intense sadness after listening to sad instrumental music (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012).

Interestingly, empathic individuals also tend to enjoy sad music more than non-empathic individuals, suggesting that empathically experienced negative emotions such as sadness can be enjoyable in the context of music (Vuoskoski et al., 2012; Garrido & Schubert, 2011).

Similar findings have been made in the context of films, where the experience of empathic distress while watching a tragic film has been associated with greater enjoyment of the film (De Wied et al., 1994).

It is not yet known what the mechanisms behind such enjoyment are, although the portrayal of more positive themes such as friendship, love, and human perseverance often present in tragic films have been proposed as one potential source (De Wied et al., 1994). However, it is not clear whether this explanation could also apply in the context of music. Nevertheless, these findings do suggest that there is something inherently enjoyable in empathic engagement in an aesthetic context even when the experienced emotions could be nominally characterized as negative.

4. Music as a virtual person, music and subjectivity

People tend to describe music in terms of attributes commonly used to describe psychological attributes of people (Watt & Ash, 1998). Indeed, it has been suggested that music is capable of creating a ‘virtual person’ of sorts (Watt & Ash, 1998; Livingstone & Thompson, 2009). The musical expression of emotion bears a close resemblance to human vocal and motor expression of emotion, involving similar auditory and gestural cues (for a review, see Juslin & Laukka, 2003), and it has been proposed that listeners may respond to music as they would to the perceived emotional state of a conspecific (e.g., Livingstone & Thompson, 2009). However, music’s capacity to represent a virtual person seems to go beyond acoustic and gestural cues that resemble vocal and motor expression of emotion.

An example is provided by studies that have investigated people’s reasons for listening to sad music when they already feel sad. These studies have found that some listeners can experience the music itself as providing empathy and understanding for the feelings that they are going through, functioning as a surrogate for an empathic friend (Lee, Andrade & Palmer, 2013; Van den Tol & Edwards, 2013).

The participants in Van den Tol and Edwards’s study felt that:

“The music was empathizing with their circumstances and feelings, supporting them, making them feel understood, or making them feel less alone in the way they were feeling” (Van den Tol & Edwards, 2013, p. 14).

Thus, it appears at least for some people that music is able to represent a virtual person with whom to empathize, and whom they can experience as empathizing with their felt emotions.

There has been considerable interest in the musicological literature in the relationship between music and human subjectivity (e.g. Cumming, 2000; McCIary, 2004), pursuing the idea that music has attributes either of an idealized person, or of an idealized collection or community of people. Lawrence Kramer (e.g. 2001; 2003) has written extensively about music as the instantiation of a kind of imagined subjectivity not associated specifically with the composer, performers, or anyone else explicitly and literally engaged with the making of the music, nor simply as the mirror of a listener’s own subjectivity, but in a more abstracted and generic manner. Likewise, the philosopher and violinist Naomi Cumming, in a paper that focuses on the violin introduction to the aria ‘Erbarme Dich’ from J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, writes of how the listener does not just find her or his own subjectivity passively reflected back, but reconfigured:

“The pathos of Bach’s introduction, and its elevated style, are quite unmistakable, and recognition promotes empathy. Once involved with the unfolding of the phrase’s subjectivity, the listener does not, however, find a simple reflection of his or her own expectancies. The music forms the listener’s experience, and in its unique negotiation of the tension between striving and grief, it creates a knowledge of something that has been formerly unknown, something that asks to be integrated in the mind of the hearer.” (Cumming, 1997: 17)

And in a still more explicitly psychological manner, DeNora (2000; 2003; 2013) has written of the ways in which music acts as a technology that affords a listener the opportunity to structure and organize their identity in long-term ways, and as a way of managing their immediate emotional states and sense of identity. Writing of one of her informants, ‘Lucy’, DeNora points out how she (Lucy) uses music as a medium in which she can draw a connection between the musical material, her own identity, and a kind of social ideal. As Lucy herself expresses it, she ‘finds herself’, the ‘me in life’ within musical materials, in a manner that allows her to reflect on who she is and how she would like to be, a process that DeNora points out is not just private and individual:

“Viewed from the perspective of how music is used to regulate and constitute the self, ‘solitary and individualistic’ practices may be re-viewed as part of a fundamentally social process of self-structuration, the constitution and maintenance of self. In this sense then, the ostensibly private sphere of music use is part and parcel of the cultural constitution of subjectivity, part of how individuals are involved in constituting themselves as social agents.” (DeNora, 2000: 47-8)

Music and musicking, then, can be viewed as a rich environment in which more or less active participants (listeners and makers) can engage with the real and virtual subjectivities of other real and virtual participants, and in doing so come to experience (and perhaps increasingly understand) the cultural perspective that those others (real or virtual) inhabit. Music is in this way both a medium for empathic (and antagonistic) engagement with others, and an environment in which to explore and experiment with a range of more or less projected, fantasized and genuinely discovered subject positions.

5. Sociological Perspectives

Turning from the rather individualistic accounts that have dominated the previous sections, towards understandings of music and empathy that take an explicitly social stance, sociological perspectives that enhance understanding of empathic processes derive from what may be termed the ‘new sociology of art’ (de la Fuente 2007). This sub-disciplinary paradigm investigates aesthetic materials for the ways that they may be seen to frame, shape or otherwise have an impact in social life. It is linked in turn to perspectives within sociology that cluster around the so-called, ‘strong’ program of cultural sociology (Alexander 2008) in which cultural materials are understood as active mediators of psycho-social and subjective processes and in which arts are not understood to be ‘about’ society or shaped ‘by’ society but rather ‘in’ society and constitutive of social relations (Hennion 2007).

These ‘new’ sociologies of art and culture are in turn linked to a ‘meso’ perspective in sociology devoted to groups of actors understood as networks of people, practices (conventions, operations, activities with histories of use) and things (Fine 2010). They focus on interaction orders (Fine 2012), or local actions that produce forms of ordering. The interaction order is the place where meanings are created, validated and reproduced in ways that travel to other networks.

Within this meso perspective there is no macro-micro divide since both macro and micro are mutually produced within scenes and settings of activity. The focus on this concerted activity in turn offers considerable scope for examining the question of just how cultural forms, including musical forms, actually enter into action and experience (DeNora 2003).

The impetus for these perspectives comes from various distinct but complementary developments in sociology since the middle 1980s that describe the ways that aesthetic and symbolic materials ‘anchor’ action (Swidler 2002) by presenting actors with orientational materials that can inform, focus and specify styles and trajectories of action in real time. The concern with how aesthetic materials ‘get into’ action (Acord and DeNora 2012) is one that has been associated with other developments in sociology, most notably the turn from a focus on the cognitive components of action, and models of social actors as calculating beings, to a focus on embodiment and feeling (Witkin 1994). These developments resonate well with, and are further illuminated by, developments in the philosophy of consciousness that begin with notions of the ‘extended mind’ (Clark and Chalmers 1998) and draw out that concept to embrace ‘the feeling body’ (Colombetti 2013) in which embodied conditions and sensations are understood both to take shape in relation to things outside of individuals and to inform cognitive appraisal.

Insofar as feeling and embodiment can be understood to take shape through encounters with aesthetic materials and can be understood to cultivate sensibilities or predispositions in favour of some social scenarios (and thus, contrarily, away from others), aesthetic materials have been highlighted within sociology as sources of social order. In this respect, the ‘new’ sociology of art harks back to Adam Smith’s ideas of sympathy and the capacity for fellow feeling discussed above, in which Smith suggests that the capacity for fellow feeling and being able to imagine the other is a lynchpin of mutual orientation and, thus, social stability. While Smith makes it clear that sympathy (the capacity to imagine the other) is not empathy (the capacity to feel what the other is feeling, literally to share their experience), Smith’s focus on the prerequisites for achieving sympathy highlight the importance of bodily processes. Specifically, Smith describes how, if sympathy is to be achieved, it is necessary for actors to moderate their passions (tamp down, raise up levels of intensity or ‘pitch’ as Smith calls it) so as to encourage mutual engagement through shared modalities of feeling (Smith 1759: I. I. 36-39). In this respect, Smith’s interest in mutual emotional calibration, understood as a prerequisite of mutual understanding, resonates with Alfred Schutz’s concept of attunement, understood as the prerequisite for ‘making music together’ (his example is the performance of a string quartet used as a case in point of social action writ large and the need for mutual orientation, entrainment, calibration and the gestalt to which they give rise, namely, shared feeling forms.

Classical sociology can, in short, be read as offering important leads for the study of empathy, understood as emotional and embodied mutual orientation, predisposition and preference, and in this sense it can also be read as offering an excellent basis for appreciating ‘art in action’ and the role of the arts in underwriting communicative action or how we bind ourselves together in time, whether in conversation, with its prosodic and timing patterns (Scollon 1982), or more generally, as Trevarthen puts it, as the dynamic sympathetic state of a human person that allows co-ordinated companionship to arise’ (cited in Ansdell et al 2010). As such the arts, and in the case of this project, music, can be conceptualised as offering materials for shaping up the feeling body from infancy to old age, in a wide range of roles and guises.

But if the arts and music more specifically ‘get into’ action, the question, as stated earlier, remains: how does this happen and can we trace that process? And in relation to empathy, this question can be posed in terms of how shared feeling states, sensibilities and predispositions come about, and how they can be cultivated and thus also how they may be more problematically controlled (Hesmondhalgh 2013; Born 2012; DeNora 2003). Within sociology the most fruitful paradigms have focused upon learning, mostly informal situated learning, among which the classic work on this topic is Howard S. Becker’s ‘Becoming a Marijuana User’ (1953).

Becker’s piece has been used by subsequent scholars to develop new (grounded) theories of how culture gets into action from comparisons of how one learns to respond to musical ‘highs’ (Gomart and Hennion 1999) to how one learns to feel and respond sexually (Jackson and Scott 2007; DeNora 1997) and how one learns to respond in various workplaces and forms of occupation (Pieslack 2009; DeNora 2013) and how one manages and modifies emotions and energy levels as part of everyday self-care (DeNora 2000; Batt-Rawden, DeNora and Ruud 2005; Skanland 2010) or in scene-specific settings such as retail outlets (DeNora 2000). Specifically these studies have followed the ways that individuals and groups engage in processes of modelling, adjustment, tutoring and directing and attempted alignment with musical materials in ways that draw out emotional and embodied sensation and experience in musically guided ways. This work helps to highlight just how deeply culture can come to penetrate embodied processes and experiences, and thus dovetails with more recent work on the culturally mediated experience of health and wellbeing.

6. Music Therapeutic and Wellbeing Perspectives

The focus on music, health and wellbeing is a growing area (Koen et al 2008; MacDonald et al 2012; MacDonald 2013). It encompasses music therapeutic perspectives, community music, psychotherapeutic perspectives and more overtly medical applications as well as the history of medicine and healing. At the level of the individual, and in overtly medical contexts, research in these areas has documented music’s potential for the management of pain (Edwards 2005; Hanser 2009), anxiety (Drahota et al 2012), palliative care (Aasgaard 2002; Archie et al 2013; DeNora 2012), and immunology (Fancourt et al 2013; Chandra and Levitin 2013) all of which emphasise mind-bodyculture interaction. At the broader level at which music connects with and can be seen to contribute to wellbeing, music has been described ecologically as part of salutogenic (health-promoting) space (DeNora 2013).

In all of this work, there are excellent resources for the study of empathy, in particular for investigating empathy understood as sensibility, perception and orientation as musically mediated. Specifically, the focus on the malleability of consciousness and selfperception (Clarke and Clarke 2011) points to a human capacity for entering into different modes of awareness, ones that are simultaneously sensitising (aesthetic) and desensitising (anaesthetic), and in so doing indicates the importance and power of the cultural technologies through which altered states can be achieved. The case of music and pain management illustrates many aspects of this theme.

As Hanser has described it, recent theoretical understandings of pain have moved toward a multi-dimensional conception of pain perception, one in which pain is not unmediated but rather comes to be experienced in relation to cultural and situated interventions, including music. In part, musical stimuli simply compete with neural pain messages. But more interestingly, music stimulates both oxytocin and embodied sympathetic responses (Grape 2002; Hurlemann et al 2010). Recent interdisciplinary perspectives highlight how the music, in tandem with other biographical and contextual factors, may lead a person in pain into alternative situations, ones in which she/he becomes sensitised to musically inspired associations and desensitised to the former situation of being in pain. Thus, music cannot necessarily address the cause of the pain but it can redirect the sensation of pain by capturing consciousness in ways that recalibrate it (DeNora 2013). So too, in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (Bonde 2012) music may provide a grid or template against which knowledge-production (memory, self-and mutual understanding, historical accounts) can be elaborated and scaffolded in ways that can be used to diminish ‘negative’ emotions and associations, effectively recalibrating perception and, in this case, the self-perception of pain.

Methodologically, the music therapy index (Nordoff & Robbins 2007), a highly detailed real-time log of musical and para-musical action, can be used to display key or pivotal moments of musically instigated or musically guided action (movement, shifts in comportment, utterances). So too, the ‘musical event’ scheme can be used to track with some precision the ways in which the musical permeates the paramusical and vice versa across time and in keeping with the meso focus described earlier networks (DeNora 2003; Stige and Aara 2012).

More generally, and in ways that draw music therapy and music and conflict resolution into dialogue, musical engagement may be used to transform psycho-social situations, again leading the actor or actors away from the perception of distressing features of body/environment and toward more positive features and scenarios, and in ways that may also contribute to hope, patience and general mental wellbeing (Ansdell et al 2010; Ansdell 2014) as well as broader forms of cross-cultural and interactional accord, linked to music and guided imagery (Jordanger 2007). Community Music Therapy has perhaps most notably described music’s role in the production of communitas, through joint improvisation and as a means of generating proto-social capital (Procter 2012).

Within the growing field of music and conflict transformation studies (Laurence 2007), a key theme has focused on the importance of shared practice and actual grass-roots (bottomup) musicking as a prerequisite for enduring forms of change (Bergh 2011; 2010; Robertson 2010). In particular, as Bergh has described, if music is to contribute to enduringly altered practice, or altered consciousness of the other, that endurance requires continued and repeated practice, continued and repeated participation in musical activity. And as we have already indicated, music is by no means an unmitigated ‘good’ within the conflict transformation literature: as Bergh has observed (Bergh 2011), music can be and has been used to inculcate feelings of animosity, or for purposes of oppression and torture (Cusick 2008); and historically has been incorporated into military culture through drill, march music and, more recently, through psych-op motivational techniques (Gittoes 2004; Pieslack 2009). Indeed Laurence (2007: 33), even while writing of the potential for music in conflict resolution, argues that inculcating peaceful values is one of music’s rarest uses, and that “of music’s purposes, many and probably most, serve the ongoing ends of power relationships one way or another.”

7. Cross-cultural perspectives

The final category of literature that we consider in this report touches on the potentially vast question of cultural and cross-cultural understanding. Within the psychology of music there has been an interest in the relationship between possibly ‘universal’ and culturally specific aspects of musical communication dating back to the very beginnings of both the psychology of music and ethnomusicology in the work of Carl Stumpf (Stumpf & Trippett 1911/2012).

Among other more recent empirical studies, Balkwiil, Thompson, & Matsunaga (2004) have shown that music can successfully communicate emotional meanings across different cultures, but ethnomusicologists, perhaps rightly suspicious of simplistic notions of inter-cultural communication, have pointed to issues of representation, and of the incommensurability of concepts (or in this case emotional meanings) across cultural contexts as factors that might undermine the validity of a naively empirical approach (Stock 2014). A number of authors have recently proposed the value of a ‘relational musicology’ that might tackle issues of inter-cultural understanding, including Cook (2012: 196) who argues for relational musicology as “a means of addressing key personal, social and cultural work that is accomplished by music in today’s world.”

One specific kind of ‘cultural work’ that has recently been addressed in ethnomusicology that is of direct relevance to this project is the affective and social work that is accomplished by/within modern ‘sentimental’ cultures. Martin Stokes (2007; 2010) has provided vivid accounts of the emotional, intimate and affiliative character of contemporary sentimental musical cultures in Egypt and Turkey, and Butterworth (2014) in relation to Peruvian huayno music, in which something very much like empathy (though Stokes relates it more directly to a ‘Smithian’ as in Adam Smith notion of sympathy) is understood as a cultural construct or condition. In Stokes’s words (2010: 193), one might view “sentimentalism as a kind of civic project, a way of imagining affable relations of dependence on strangers in modern society.” This is a very different perspective on empathy one that sees it as a social achievement, rather than personality trait; a collective skill, rather than the expression of a circuit of ten interconnected brain regions (cf. Baron-Cohen 2011). As Cook (2012) argues in relation to the relational understanding of musical methods from one domain applied to another (Schenkerian analysis and Chinese music; Nineteenth century Western transcriptions of Indian melodies that were presented as ‘authentic Hindostannie airs’), such encounters conceived within an appropriate relational conceptual framework offer a domain of shared experience and cross-cuitural understanding.

Figure 1. Mean IAT scores (D-values) ±standard error of the mean, grouped by condition. Positive D-values indicate an unconscious preference for West African (relative to Indian) people, and negative values indicate an unconscious preference for Indian (relative to West African) people.

To investigate the effect of listening to Indian vs. West African music on participants’ Dvalues as well as the hypothesized moderating effect of dispositional empathy on the effects of music we conducted an ANCOVA with the Type of Music (Indian or West African) as a factor, and Dispositional Empathy (global IRI scores) as a covariate. We also included an interaction term of Type of Music and Dispositional Empathy in the model. There was no significant main effect of Type of Music; F(1,54) = 2.59, p = .11, although the trend was in the anticipated direction with participants exposed to Indian music displaying a slight preference for Indian (relative to West African) people, and participants exposed to West African music displaying no apparent preference.

The mean D-values of the two groups are displayed in Figure 1. As might have been expected, Dispositional Empathy was not significantly related to IAT scores when examined across the two conditions; F(1,54) = 0.20, p = .89. However, there was a significant interaction between Type of Music and Dispositional Empathy; F(1,54) = 5.51, p = .023, n(2/p) = .09, suggesting that dispositional empathy indeed moderated participants’ susceptibility to the musical manipulations. The relationship between dispositional empathy and D-values in the two groups is displayed in Figure 2. We also investigated the potential contributions of musical training, sex, and subjective responses to the music (ratings of liking and felt emotional impact) to the D-values, but no statistically significant relationships were found.

Figure 2. The relationship between dispositional empathy and IAT scores (D value), grouped by condition. Positive D values indicate an unconscious preference for West African (relative to Indian) people, and negative values indicate an unconscious preference for Indian (relative to West African) people.

2 Conclusions

The empirical study has provided preliminary evidence for the hypothesis that listening to music without any explicit semantic content (such as comprehensible lyrics) can evoke empathy and affiliation in listeners with high dispositional empathy. This interpretation is supported by the significant interaction between Type of Music and Dispositional Empathy, which revealed that people with high dispositional empathy scores were more likely to display an unconscious preference for the ethnic group to whose music they were exposed than those with low dispositional empathy scores. The fact that high dispositional empathy made participants more susceptible to the musical manipulations suggests that the observed findings cannot be explained in terms of priming or knowledge activation effects, such as those observed in the case of background music and purchasing decisions (e.g. North, Hargreaves & McKendrick, 1999). The lack of a statistically significant relationship between the IAT scores and liking ratings also indicates that our findings cannot be accounted for by a simple preference effect (cf., Nantais & Schellenberg, 1999).

Instead, we propose that the more empathic participants may have been more open to the music, and more likely to entrain with the music involving internal mimicry and emotional contagion; and may also have been more likely to engage in reflective empathy, in the form of visual and/or narrative imagery, and/or semantic elaboration. In the context of music, entrainment comprises both temporal as well as affective components (see e.g., Phillips-Silver & Keller, 2012), and in general imitation and entrainment have been found to both reflect and elicit affiliation (Chartrand & Bargh 1999; Hove & Risen 2009). Since people with high dispositional empathy have been found to exhibit stronger motor and sensory resonance to observed actions, and the pain of others (Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh 8i Keysers, 2006; Avenanti et al., 2008), it is possible that empathic people are also more likely to resonate with the acoustic and gestural features of music. This stronger resonance could explain why empathic individuals are more susceptible to emotional contagion from music (cf. Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012), and why they also appear to be more sensitive to the affiliation-inducing effects of music listening.

However, further investigation is required in order to better understand the phenomenon, and to distinguish between the potential contributions of pre-reflective motor and affective resonance, and the more reflective empathy involving imagery, perspective-taking, and other extra-musical associations. As dispositional empathy comprises both emotional reactivity and cognitive perspective-taking attributes, either or both of these components may contribute to the observed affiliation-inducing effects of music listening. A possible way to investigate this would be to implement a nondemanding distractor task during the music listening, which would limit participants’ capacity to conjure up imagery and other extra-musical associations. Furthermore, the failure to find a statistically significant main effect of Type of Music on participants’ implicit associations could either be due to the fact that the variation in participants’ pre-existing preferences for Indian vs. West African people was too great in relation to our sample size, or that the participants with low dispositional empathy were simply not affected by the music.

Future studies could attempt to investigate this issue by implementing pre as well as post-manipulation measures of implicit associations, although there may be other, more problematic issues associated with exposing participants to Indian and West African images prior to the musical manipulations.

5. General Discussion, Implications, Prospects

The result of our empirical study provides some evidence for the capacity of music even when encountered in arguably the most passive circumstances (solitary headphone listening in a ‘Iaboratory’ setting) to positively influence people’s unconscious attitudes towards cultural others. Specifically, people with higher dispositional empathy scores show more differentiated positive associations with images of people from two different cultural groups after listening to music explicitly belonging to that cultural group than do people with lower dispositional empathy scores.

This is a striking result, and provides what might be characterized as narrow but ‘hard-nosed’ evidence for music’s positive inter-cultural potential, and we have speculated on the broad psychological mechanisms (including entrainment, mimicry, emotional contagion, and semantic elaboration) that may be responsible.

But a number of notes of caution also need to be sounded. We have no evidence for the robustness or duration of the effects that we have observed: it may be that this is a very temporary shift that is easily disrupted, casting doubt on the practical efficacy of music as an agent of change in cultural understanding. And in the light of the interaction with dispositional empathy, the result suggests that any practical efficacy might be confined to those individuals who are already predisposed to be empathic towards others arguably those people who are (to put it simplistically) the least urgent cases.

Are we then forced to conclude that music has little or no power to change attitudes among those people who are most resistant? Perhaps more seriously, music as we have already indicated is arguably as capable of distinguishing (Bourdieu 1984/1979), dividing and alienating people as it is of bringing them together. Hesmondhalgh (2013: 85) points out that “Music can reinforce defensive and even aggressive forms of identity that narrow down opportunities for flourishing in the lives of those individuals who adhere to such forms of identification”, and provides a vivid anecdotal example of just such a defensive/aggressive encounter with or through music. He describes a Friday night out with friends at a pub where an Elvis impersonator is performing. Having at first dreaded the performance, Hesmondhalgh and his friends, along with a large number of strangers who are also in the pub for a night out, are quickly won over and join with one another, and the performer, with increasing intensity. The chorus of the final song “elicits an ecstasy of collective singing, women and men, all at the top of our voices. There are smiles and laughter, but there’s melancholy too. It seems that bittersweet lines from the Elvis repertory are invoking thoughts about relationships, past and present… [We] stagger out of the pub feeling we’ve had a great night, and that the working week has been obliterated by laughter and bittersweet emotion. Unwittingly, I brush against a man’s drink as I’m leaving, and he follows me out demanding an apology for his spilt beer… The power of Elvis’s music, it seems, has brought strangers and acquaintances together, and with a formidable intensity. But my pursuer has reminded me unpleasantly that there are those who feel excluded from such collective pleasures. If music-based gatherings answer to our need for sociality and attachment, and combat loneliness, might they also evoke envy when others miss out?” (Hesmondhalgh 2013: 103-4)

Are we to regard music’s affiliative and divisive attributes as two sides of the same coin, or as a more fundamental incompatibility between emancipatory and oppressive qualities? Indeed, rather than considering how music might help to make a bridge between apparently pre-existent cultural ghettos, should we not be asking in what ways music is already implicated in the establishment and maintenance of those very ghettos in the first place? These are significant challenges to the potentially starry-eyed representation of music that an uncritical attitude might project; but as Hesmondhalgh, again, puts it: “Music’s ability to enrich people’s lives [and expand their empathic understanding] is fragile, but I believe it can be defended better if we understand that fragility, and do not pretend it floats free of the profound problems we face in our inner lives, and in our attempts to live together.” (Hesmondhalgh 2013: 171)

Part of understanding that ‘fragility’ is considering what, if anything, is special about music as a force for (compromised) cultural benefit. Why not football, or food, both of which can lay claim to mass engagement and global reach? Is there anything about music that affords either particular, or particularly powerful or efficacious kinds of intercultural engagement? One way to tackle these questions is consider what the mechanisms for empathy and cultural understanding might be, and in what ways those mechanisms are engaged by different cultural manifestations whether those are music, food or football. As our critical review of the literature reveals, this is a fascinating but considerable challenge, and one that turns in part on how broad or narrow a conception of empathy is entertained.

One approach might be to admit a considerable range of inter-subjective engagements as occupying different positions on an empathy spectrum, from conditions of seIf-other identity in the context of what might be called ‘deep intersubjectivity’ (perhaps emblematically represented by that pre-Oedipal oneness between mother and infant); through powerful experiences of compassionate fellow-feeling; to the operation of much more controlled and deliberate rational, imaginative projection into the circumstances of others. Some (such as Adam Smith, Felicity Laurence and Colwyn Trevarthen) would want to make firm distinctions between, say, empathy and sympathy. But an alternative might be to agree on an umbrella term (and empathy might do), and then focus on what distinguishes different positions under the umbrella, and what the implications (practical, functional, conceptual) of those differences might be.

A common thread that runs through most of these positions is the central role of embodiment in empathy. From the most neuroscientifically reductionist approach (e.g. a ‘fundamentalist’ mirror neuron perspective) to the position of Smith or Stokes, a capacity to feel the situation of another underpins the inter-subjective character of empathy/feIlow-feeling/sympathy. And arguably it is in this respect that music has ‘special properties’ properties of enactment, of synchronization and entrainment in situations ranging from a single individual alone with their music (the solitary headphone listener ‘Lost in music’ (Clarke 2014) to massively social contexts (pop festivals, simulcasts) where enormous numbers of peopie can participate in collective, synchronized, embodied engagement.

As others have pointed out (e.g. Cross 2012), music is a uniquely widespread, emotionally and physically engaging, social, participatory and fluidly communicative cultural achievement, a powerful (cultural) ecological niche that affords extraordinary possibilities for participants, and which both complements and in certain respects surpasses those other global cultural achievements in which human beings participate (language, religion, visual culture, craft). There is little, perhaps, to be gained by attempting to set any one of these up on a uniquely high pedestal but equally it is important not to flatten the terrain by failing to recognize music’s particular combination of affordances in this rich cultural mix: cognitive and emotional complexity, from solitary to mass-social engagement, compelling embodiment, floating intentionality (Cross 2012), synchronization/entrainment, flexible mimicry, temporal and ambient character, and digitaI-analog mix.

As our critical review of the literature has revealed, the empathy-affording character of this mix of affordances has been explored and theorized across an astonishing range of disciplines invoking mechanisms that range from mirror neurons to semiotics and the cultural history of sentimentalism. Are these kinds of explanation in any way compatible with one another, and is there a way to avoid a simplistic and potentially reductionist ‘layers of an onion’ approach in which supposedly ‘fundamental’ biological attributes (whether those are genetic in the case of a narrowly ‘trait’ perspective on empathy; or neurological in the case of sensorimotor contingency theory) underpin progressively more ramified and arbitrary cultural constructs? We have already seen (e.g. Heyes 2010) that from within the scientific literature itself, as well as from outside it, there is ample evidence for the plasticity of so-called fundamental properties, and for the reciprocal relationship between biology and culture. Mirror neurons may be as much a consequence of a culture of inter-subjective engagement as they are a foundation for it. But it clearly remains a considerable challenge to develop in detail the more flexible and relational approach that we point towards in this report.

Finally, there is the question of the utility of the concept or term ‘empathy’ itself. Perhaps rather like the word ‘meaning’, it both enables and suffers from the capacity to bring together a wide range of phenomena, which critics may find unhelpful in its heterogeneity. We share the concern not to confuse chalk with cheese, but against a drive to compart-mentalize (sic) we are persuaded of the long-term value of sticking with a word and its associated conceptual field which, although still just a century old, offers a rich and powerful way to try to understand a central element of human sociality. The debates about whether to understand empathy as a genetic predisposition, a personality trait, an emergent attribute of perception-action coupling, a skill, or a social achievement are symptomatic of the conceptual reach of the term.

Engelen and Rottger-Rossler (2012), in a brief overview of a speciai issue of the journal Emotion Review devoted to empathy, declare in their first sentence that “there is no accepted standard definition of empathy, either among the sciences and humanities or in the specific disciplines”, but nonetheless emphatically endorse the importance of continuing to develop better understandings of that fundamentally social capacity to “feel one’s way into others, to take part in the other’s affective situation, and adopt the other’s perspective“ to grasp the other’s intentions and thus to engage in meaningful social interaction.”

We, too, are committed to the value of that enterprise, and to the specific role that music may play in understanding empathy, and as itself a ‘medium’ for empathy. In addressing the complex network of relationships between neighbouring terms (sympathy, compassion, contagion, entrainment, ‘theory of mind‘, attunement…) we see the prospect of a more nuanced and differentiated understanding of what Baron Cohen (2011: 107) has characterized as “the most valuable resource in our world” and “an important global issue related to the health of our communities.”

Current Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Debates on Empathy

Eva-Maria Engelen, Birgitt Röttger-Rössler, University of Konstanz, Department of Philosophy & Freie Universitat Berlin, Social and Cultural Anthropology

Almost anybody writing in the field would declare that there is no accepted standard definition of empathy, either among the sciences and humanities or in the specific disciplines. However, even when accepting that there can be no all time and universally valid definition, one can still try to clarify some aspects and establish a few landmarks that will help to ensure that the phenomenon with which various researchers are dealing is the same or has at least important features in common.

Although there is no established concept, several topics and discussions have proved to be crucial for the phenomenon that was once given this specially made up label empathy by Edward Titchner who introduced this word into English at the beginning of the 20th century in order to translate the German term Einfühlung.

The idea behind this special issue on empathy is to present a range of the currently most lively topics and discussions to be found not only within several disciplines but also across several disciplinary boundaries. This makes it interdisciplinary. Authors from different disciplines were asked to contribute to the field in a style that would be accessible for a broader range of interested readers. These contributions come from the following disciplines in which empathy is either an ongoing or an upcoming topic of academic interest: neuropsychology, developmental psychology, philosophy, literary studies, and anthropology. The commentators giving their views on the articles are sometimes experts on empathy from the same discipline as the authors and sometimes from adjoining ones. We tried as far as possible to introduce crossovers, but these did not always fit.

Points of Discussion and Open Questions

Roughly speaking, there are two pathways when it comes to understanding each other: thinking or mind reading and feeling or empathy. Nonetheless, one of the ongoing debates in psychology and philosophy concerns the question whether these two abilities, namely, understanding what the other is thinking and “understanding“ what the other is feeling, are separate or not.

Other debates refer to the best theoretical model for empathy and ask whether it makes sense to assume just one kind of empathy or whether one should differentiate between at least two kinds: cognitive and affective.

Further questions are: Does a living being have to be able to make a self-other distinction in order to be empathic? How far do emotional contagion or sympathy and pity differ from empathy? Is empathy necessarily an affective ability and does it have to be conscious? Does it occur in face to face relationships between two persons or more? And can it also occur between a reader and a fictive character in a novel (Coplan 2004)?

These are just some of the questions currently being discussed. But before addressing them in detail in the following six articles and twelve commentaries, we shall survey the different definitions of empathy presented and defended in this special issue.

A Starting Point for the Discussions

We start off with the concept of empathy in the social cognitive neurosciences. The major growth of interest in empathy is largely due to a recent debate in this field. Previously, in the late nineteenth and first half to middle of the twentieth century, it was an important term in psychology, hermeneutics, and phenomenology. Later on, interest in the concept spread to developmental psychology as well. But the currently ongoing debate received its initial impetus from the question how far mind reading and empathizing are different faculties and how far they may not be completely separable (Singer 2006).

Basically speaking, both faculties are about understanding the other, either cognitively or emotionally. What are the intentions of the other? What are his or her wishes, beliefs, or deductions? These questions belong to the mind reading side, whereas understanding the other‘s emotional state belongs to the other side: the capacity of empathy.

Nonetheless, despite these clear cut definitions, there are also concepts such as the affective theory of mind that is also called cognitive empathy. The rationale for this distinction is that empathy is based on understanding the affective states of others.

Another question that one might consider before reading the assembled articles on empathy is whether empathy has to be a process leading to a conscious state. We advise the reader to bring to mind the definition of empathy in his or her own research perspective before reading the articles presented here. Whether one agrees or disagrees with many of the arguments exchanged and discussed in the following articles and commentaries will depend on which definition of empathy one already has in mind. Hence, a reflection on one’s own implicit or explicit definition might lead one to reconsider one’s initial assumptions. Whatever the case, it will certainly help one to understand how different disciplines take divergent approaches to the subject.

One might also bear in mind that the notions of understanding and empathy to be found in the long lasting philosophical hermeneutic tradition have been used to differentiate between the sciences and the humanities. Explaining was considered to be the method of the sciences, whereas understanding and empathy were the methods of the humanities. This involves the assumption of a deep dualism, and one should be cautious about claiming a particular term for one or the other discipline and tradition without thoughtful reflection if one wishes to avoid stepping into the footprints of such dualisms.

Empathy as Embodied Capacity for Social Orientation

Coming from the humanities, we propose the following definition for empathy:

Empathy is a social feeling that consists in feelingly grasping or retracing the present, future, or past emotional state of the other; thus empathy is also called a vicarious emotion. (Vicarious: experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.)

As a social feeling empathy is always shaped through cultural codes, which differently emphasize, modulate and train the capacity to “feel into“ another person’s emotions. The main function of this feelingly grasping is, we assume. orientation in social contexts. This can mean taking part in the precise emotional state that the other is in at a certain moment, namely: being happy when she is happy, scared when she is scared. and so forth.

But this does not have to be the case. Grasping the other’s emotional state, that is. adopting the other‘s emotional perspective, could also produce a different feeling or emotion in me than the one currently being experienced in the other. And even when the empathic adoption of the other’s perspective produces in me the same emotion as the other is having (or is fictively experiencing) at that very moment, it would not be the same emotion, because the self-other differentiation has not been overcome.

We want to make sure that we do not take empathy to mean the same as sympathy or pity. Both are, in our opinion, special forms of empathy that cover only a certain aspect of empathic processes. Whereas pity is the mode of feeling sorry for the other, sympathy is the mode of being in favor of the other. Both these feelings are ways of adopting an emotional perspective (as empathy is), but they cover only a special form of emotional perspective taking that is structured by the social bond or relation between the persons involved. Thus in social life, pity and sympathy are most likely to occur toward persons one is related to or who belong to one’s own ingroup, but less often toward outgroup members who are mostly perceived as being totally different, strange, or even malevolent, in short, as persons one can scarcely identify with.

Pity and compassion as particular kinds of empathy are deeply connected to social attachment. Frans de Waal (2009) conceives empathy as an evolved concern for others that is triggered through identification with these others. “Empathy’s chief portal is identification,” he argues, meaning that close social bonds increase, in a quasi-automatic way, the emotional responsiveness to others and thus the readiness to help and support fellow beings (de Waal. 2009, 2l3).

Continuing his line of argument, he stresses that empathy also needs a “turn off switch,” a mechanism to override and regulate automatic empathic responses. He considers that what constitutes this turn off switch of empathic processes is a lack of identification. What becomes evident here is that de Waal is implicitly equating pity and compassion with empathy, or he is conceiving them as the evolutionary basis of empathy. lf fellow beings harm or violate each other, as it is often the case in social reality, they must, according to de Waal’s model, have switched off their empathic capacity.

We deliberately take another position here: We conceive empathy as an evolutionarily grounded capacity to adopt an emotional perspective, to implicitly “feel into” the other regardless of the behavioral outcome. This may be directed toward ingroup members and be prosocial and supporting, or toward outgroup members and be destructive and harming.

We make a point of affectively grasping the emotional state of another, but that does not mean to draw a definite line between cognitive understanding and emotional grasping. There are good reasons to stick to a narrower notion when it comes to defining empathy as a “feelingly grasping” if one wants to make sense of notions such as vicarious emotion or of the history of the notion that started with Einfühlung (feeling into). However, the specific conceptual perspective one takes depends very strongly on one’s research traditions and research interest.

When it comes to the relation between empathic perspective taking and the cognitive perspective taking that is related to theory of mind (TOM), we cannot judge the discussions amongst neuropsychologists regarding whether or not these are completely different kinds of perspective taking, and whether or not these processes take place in different brain areas. However, defining the term according to an established tradition, we take empathy to be the emotional perspective taking; and mind reading (in TOM), to be the cognitive perspective taking. Nonetheless, on a purely conceptual level, one might have to admit that the two faculties cannot be separated altogether, because in cognitive perspective taking, the subject who is taking the perspective of another being has to be at least interested in the other being, and that means to care for the other in some way. First, you have to consider the other as an equal in a certain way, as a fellow human being, for instance, or at least as a creature able to feel. Second. you have to consider the other and the other‘s actions as relevant to yourself. You have to be somehow interested in order to be either emotionally involved or curious about the other’s intentions. Therefore, both cases, empathy and Tom, start with the same precondition:

You have to consider the other as being the same as you and of being your counterpart in a particular situation; there has to be a tacit analogy between the subject adopting the other‘s perspective and the other whose perspective is being taken, be it emotional or cognitive.

When specifying what we meant by empathy, we wrote of feelingly grasping or feelingly retracing something; this already suggests that the processes of feeling and of comprehending cannot always be separated clearly. And this makes empathic acts particularly interesting, because they resist the artificial dualisms in the philosophy of mind that still emboss philosophical, scientific, and everyday speech.

To recap briefly, empathy, as the embodied (or bodily grounded) capacity to feel one‘s way into others, to take part in the other’s affective situation, and adopt the other‘s perspective, is a fundamentally social capacity. It allows one to grasp the other’s intentions and thus to engage in meaningful social interaction. Empathy is a crucial means of social communication. It is not just an emotional contagiousness: in which one remains concentrated on oneself.

However, this definition of empathy fails to specify whether this comprehension involves a kind of simulation or imitation of the minds of others. In many of the following contributions, we shall see what important role simulation plays in the debates on a theoretical model of empathy.

Outline of the Contributions

The following six articles are written by distinguished scholars on empathy who come from five different disciplines. Each contribution presents recent research findings and theoretical reflections about the phenomenon of empathy within the respective discipline and simultaneously gives an insight into some currently ongoing debates on the subject within as well as across disciplinary boundaries. The following outline might already give a first impression about this.

Social Cognitive Neuroscience: Cognitive and Affective Empathy

The neuropsychologist Henrik Walter (2012) places his accent on understanding the emotional or affective states of another human being. Furthermore, he views understanding as a purely cognitive concept in this context that suggests making deductions and reasoning. Because Walter concentrates on this approach to understanding the affective states of others, conceptions such as affective theory of mind or cognitive empathy are also highly relevant for his ideas on the capacities for understanding other human beings. Whether this empathy is due to a cognitive faculty or an affective one is not the focus of this distinction. Empathy is, in this case, defined only by the understanding of the emotional state of the other and not by whether the process of understanding is either an affective one or a cognitive one. If it is a cognitive one, it is called cognitive empathy or affective theory of mind; if it is an affective one, it is called affective empathy.

Walter presents this conceptual analysis before linking it both to findings in empirical research investigating the neural basis of empathy and to data on the possible neurogenetic basis of empathy. The tradition followed by Walter when differentiating between TOM, cognitive empathy, and affective empathy is one developed in psychology since the late 1950s. It defined empathy as an emotional or affective phenomenon, and introduced the notion of cognitive empathy as a cognitive faculty or “intellectual or imaginative apprehension of another‘s condition or state of mind” (Hogan, 1969, 308). The main topic within this research tradition is the accuracy of our ability to conceive the other’s condition. Cognitive empathy is not defined in terms of shared emotions but in terms of knowing another’s state of mind by inferential processing (Ickes, 1997).

Social Cognitive Neuroscience again: Neural Overlap and Self-Other Overlap Stephanie Preston and Alicia Hofelich’s contribution (2012) comes from one of the most rapidly growing research fields on empathy, namely, the social neuroscience of empathy. Preston and Frans de Waal (2002) are well known in this field for having developed the perception-aclion model of empathy. This proposes that observing an emotion in someone else generates that emotion in the observer. Preston and Hofelich use this model to argue in favor of a neural overlap in the early stages of processing all cases of social understanding such as cognitive empathy, empathic accuracy, emolion contagion, sympathy. and helping behavior. The self-other overlap in empathy occurs only at a later state of processing. They offer some criteria for differentiating between neural overlap. subjeclive resonance, and personal distress. Because the self-other overlap is crucial for the definition of empathy. this represents an important attempt to seek empirical support for a theoretical differentiation. In addition, it offers a taxonomy of the different cases of social understanding that are supposed to be highlighted by a biological view of empathy.

The academic challenge of this undertaking lies not least in the attempt to show that there is some such thing as a self-other overlap on the neural level, and that it is not just to be found on the subjective level on which the conceptual capacities of a human being are already“at work.”

In order to engage in an empathic process, the empathic subject has to be able to differentiate between his or her own affective states and those of the being he or she is being empathic with, be this a conscious process, as is quite often the case on the subjective level, or a subconscious process on the neural level. This is also a necessary precondition for cognitive empathy and sympathy, but not for emotional contagion. Scientific research on the subjective overlap, that is, the sharing of an emotion, is the task of psychology. But in order to grasp this point on a biological level one has to avoid the subjective perspective. This is done by defining the self-other overlap via the notion of the activation of a personal representation in order to experience an observed state or action, and not via the notion of the activation of a personal representation when acting oneself or being in the state oneself. The overlap in representation on the neural level has to be reflected by a spatial overlap of brain activation between imitation and observation of facial emotional expression (on the subjective level, one is speaking about “sharing another’s emotional or intentional state”).

The process of observing or imagining someone else in a situation might therefore be crucial for determining whether a neural representation of an emotion is the representation of the emotion in somebody else, and therefore an empathic reaction, or whether it is the neural representation of one‘s own emotional process.

Developmental Psychology: The Self-Other Distinction

The developmental psychologist Doris Bischof Kohler (20l2) concentrates on the subjective level of empathy. She defines empathy as understanding and sharing the emotional state of another person. This definition implies not only that an empathic capacity is linked strongly to cognitive capacities, but also that the self-other distinction is crucial for the notion of empathy.

Bischof Kohler’s investigations on empathy are therefore related to her research on the symbolic representation of the self in imagination (self recognition). Her findings reveal that only children who are able to recognize themselves exhibit empathic behavior. This does not imply that self recognition leads to empathic behavior, but that it is a necessary precondition for empathy. And as her data show, this mode of self recognition does not have to be a kind of metarepresentation or conscious self reflection that the theory of mind predicts to first emerge only in 4 year olds. This can explain not only why empathy is already observable in 2 year old children but also why the mere recognition of a mark on one’s cheek while looking in a mirror is a transitional state to self recognition that is not linked to empathy. Her conclusion from these results is that “the capacity to empathize is an effect of maturation rather than socialization.”

Philosophy: Empathy and Simulation Theory

The philosopher Karsten Stueber (20l2) presents a model of the cognitive and afective understanding and knowledge of another human being’s mind, and demonstrates the importance of empathy for social cognition. He is well known as a representative of simulation Iheory-an approach that fits quite well with empirically based theories on empathy. In this article, he extends this basic approach by replying to some narrativist criticism. His main focus is on the cognitive mechanisms that allow us to gain knowledge of other minds and therefore on social cognition and on our understanding of individual agency. One challenge for such an approach is to give a theoretical account of resonance phenomena and projection mechanisms that does not presuppose some kind of Canesian subject who remains in a solitary state of skepticism about the existence of other minds. While insisting on the imponance of our sensitivity to differences between ourselves and other human beings, he introduces the importance of the other on the two levels distinguished in the simulation approach. The first level is the basic level of neuronal resonance phenomena. It is activated automatically by observation of the bodily activities and the accompanying bodily and facial expressions of other beings (basic empathy). The second level is the more developed stage, namely, the re enactment of the thoughts and reasonings of another human being as a rational agent (re enactive empathy). On this level, Stueber admits that in order to understand the actions of another person, we do not necessarily have to appeal to his or her beliefs and desires, but that the knowledge of the other‘s character traits or the other’s role in various social contexts could be equally important. By accepting this possibility, he opens up his model not only to some narrativist proposals for understanding the actions of others but also to the social, historical, or cultural contexts that one might have to consider in order to understand the actions of another human being. He insists, however, that this information would make neither the re enactment nor the simulation superfluous, because pretend beliefs and pretend desires are at the core of the imaginative perspective taking that is necessary for empathy.

Anthropology: The Cultural Embedednass of Empathy

The opening up of simulation theory toward an integration of personal, historical, and cultural information makes a philosophical approach like Stueber‘s attractive for a cultural and social anthropologist such as Douglas Hollan (2012). He takes up the distinction between basic empathy and re enactive empathy, although calling the latter complex empathy instead. This allows him not only to accept embodied forms of imitation and attunement as biologically evolved capacities, but also to concentrate on the more language bound evaluations and adjustments that have evolved culturally and historically. Hollan emphasizes that one has to be acquainted with the latter and with the personal background of a person in order to understand why he or she is in a certain emotional state. And, as he points out, this is necessary in order to be able to be empathic, because one has to understand not only that a person is in a certain emotional state but also why. In other words, one needs to have a cenain amount of knowledge about the normative and moral standards of a culture or society before one can evaluate the meaning of social situations and forms of behavior and comprehend another’s feeling state within the context of social circumstances. In short, empathic processes cannot be detached from the social and cultural contexts in which they are embedded. One way to narrow down the range of the meaning of the definition of empathy is to delete the need to understand why the person is in the state from the definition, leaving only the understanding that a person is in a certain emotional state.

The heuristic differentiation between basic empathy and complex empathy is in line with the ability to determine that another person is in a cenain emotional state and to understand the experience of the other. By reporting important research results on empathy in social anthropology, Douglas Hollan demonstrates not only how far some of the main features of empathy seem to be, by some means, universal, but also how far the studies on empathy need to be refined in light of some findings from anthropological research.

Intercultural findings on empathy reveal that the blending of feelingly perspective taking and cognitive perspective taking is one of the constant features of empathy. whereas the differentiation into “me” and “the other“ seems to be less distinct in empathic like responses in many non Western societies. Another finding of Hollan‘s research is that in the Pacific region, empathy is not a neutral engagement in the understanding of the emotional state of the other, but more like a sympathy that is linked very frequently to a positive attunement with that other person. And this positive attunement is expressed as an active doing rather than a passive experience.

Alongside these research results, he has noticed another, rather opposite tendency: a widespread fear that an empathic like knowledge could be used to harm others. This is why in many parts of the world-from the lndo Pacific to Latin America or Nonhem Canadapeople try to mask their faces. that is, to not express their inner feelings and thoughts but always show a “bright” face and not disclose their vulnerabilities. This phenomenon points to the fact discussed above that empathy is not linked automatically to compassion and helping attitudes, but might also be used by enemies or individual psychopaths as a way to find out how to harm the other.

Among the most challenging research desiderata that result from anthropological findings is the call for more studies on the complex interrelationship between the culture specific moral and situational contexts mediating the expression of empathy on the one side and the dispositions (or traits) that individuals develop to experience and display empathy on the other. Put succinctly, all cultures have some people who are likely to empathize more and others who are likely to empathize less. Hollan considers one of the most demanding tasks facing future research is to investigate how far personality traits interact with the culturally different modes of conceptualizing empathy.

Literary Studies: A Three-Step Model of Human Empathy

The findings on empathy filters introduced by the ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal might well have been one of the starting points for the theory on empathy proposed by Fritz Breithaupt (2012), a scholar of German studies. As already mentioned. de Waal (2009, 213) has argued that “empathy needs both a filter that makes us select what we react to, and a turn off switch.” Breithaupt shares the hidden agenda for this approach, namely, that human beings are hyperempalhic, without equating pity and compassion with empathy. He has developed a three step model of human empathy that should account for the individual and cultural variety in empathy that also interests Douglas Hollan. According to Breithaupt’s theory, individual and cultural diferences are due to the control functions of blocking and channeling empathy.

These blucking mechanisms are important for a hyperempathic being (Step I) because of the costs accompanying such a social hyperactivity. As well as requiring energy, the danger of self loss might be another cost of empathy in this approach. This possibly ongoing activity therefore needs to be blocked (Step 2). Neurobiologists such as Marco lacobini (2008) have therefore proposed some kind of “super mirror neurons“ that control the mirror neurons. But, because Breithaupt is dealing with more conscious processes, he is hinting at cultural techniques and learning without excluding the possible existence of evolutionarily evolved mechanisms as well. Once the blocking mechanisms are in action, a third step is needed in order to be able to experience empathy at all (Step 3). This step consists in the techniques to circumvent the blocking mechanisms.

The technique to unblock the empathy inhibition on which Breithaupt is concentrating is side raking in a three person setting of empathy. The reason why he turns to a three person instead of a two person model is linked to the observation that hyperempathy in human beings goes hand in hand with hypersociabiliry, and a two person model might be too narrow to encompass this. The side taking process is deliberate: A person decides who’s side to take. After making this decision, empathy emerges (or returns), and it maintains and strengthens the initial choice, because empathy allows emotions to be released that confirm the decision. Breithaupt points out explicitly that the side taking is not involved in empathy itself (as it is in sympathy), but that it is rather “external” to it. The advantage of this model lies in the ability to combine cognitive elements in perspective taking with a caring attitude that might evolve when the side taking decision is followed by empathy.

The ambition of this special issue with its six articles from several disciplines is to give an overview on recent research on empathy. The twelve commentaries not only contribute greatly to achieving this aim but also help significantly to identify the hotspots in ongoing disciplinary and interdisciplinary debates.

Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening

Zachary Wallmark, Choi Deblieck and Marco Iacaboni.

The social cognitive basis of music processing has long been noted, and recent research has shown that trait empathy is linked to musical preferences and listening style.

Does empathy modulate neural responses to musical sounds?

We designed two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments to address this question. In Experiment 1, subjects listened to brief isolated musical timbres while being scanned. In Experiment 2, subjects listened to excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked (FL)/disliked (FD) and unfamiliar liked (UL)/disliked (UD).

For both types of musical stimuli, emotional and cognitive forms of trait empathy modulated activity in sensorimotor and cognitive areas: in the first experiment, empathy was primarily correlated with activity in Supplementary motor area (SMA),

Inferior frontal gyrus (IFG)

and Insula;

In Experiment 2, empathy was mainly correlated wth activity in prefrontal,


and reward areas, Taken together. these findings reveal the interactions between bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of empathy in response to musical sounds, in line with recent findings from other cognitive domains.


Music is a portal into the interior lives of others. By disclosing the affective and cognitive states of actual or imagined human actors, musical engagement can function as a mediated form of social encounter, even when listening by ourselves. It is commonplace for us to imagine music as a kind of virtual “persona,” with intentions and emotions of its own: we resonate with certain songs just as we would with other people, while we struggle to identify with other music.

Arguing from an evolutionary perspective, it has been proposed that the efficacy of music as a technology of social affiliation and bonding may have contributed to its adaptive value, As Leman indicates: “Music can be conceived as a Virtual social agent… listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships.” In short, musical experience and empathy are psychological neighbors.

The concept of empathy has generated sustained interest in recent years among researchers seeking to better account for the social and affective valence of musical experience; it is also a popular topic of research in social neuroscience. However, the precise neurophysiological relationship between music processing and empathy remains unexplored. Individual differences in trait empathy modulate how we process social stimuli, does empathy modulate music processing as well?

(Valence, as used in psychology, especially in discussing emotions, means the intrinsic attractiveness/”good”-ness (positive valence) or averseness/”bad”-ness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation. The term also characterizes and categorize specific emotions. For example, emotions popularly referred to as “negative”, such as anger and fear, have negative valence. Joy has positive valence. Positively valenced emotions are evoked by positively valenced events, objects, or situations. The term is also used to describe the hedonic tone of feelings, affect, certain behaviors (for example, approach and avoidance), goal attainment or nonattainment, and conformity with or violation of norms. Ambivalence can be viewed as conflict between positive and negative valence carriers.)

If we consider music through a social psychological lens, it is plausible that individuals with a greater dispositional capacity to empathize with others might also respond to music’s social stimulus differently on a neurophysiological level by preferentially engaging brain networks previously found to be involved in trait empathy.

In this article, we test this hypothesis in two experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In Experiment 1, we explore the neural correlates of trait empathy (as measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) as participants listened to isolated instrument and vocal tones. In Experiment 2. excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked/disliked. unfamiliar liked/disliked) were used as stimuli. allowmg us to examine correlations of neural activity with trait empathy in naturalistic listening contexts.

Measuring Trait Empathy

Trait empathy refers to the capacity for empathic reactions as a stable feature of personality. Individual differences in trait empathy have been shown to correlate with prosocial behavior and situational “state” empathic reactions to others.

Trait empathy is commonly divided into two components: emotional empathy is the often unconscious tendency to share the emotions of others, while cognitive empathy is the ability to consciously detect and understand the internal states of others.

There are a number of scales to measure individual differences in trait empathy currently in use. including the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ). Balanced Emotional Empathy Scale (BEES). Empathy Quotient (EQ). Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE) and Interpersonal Reactivity INDEX (IRI). Here we use the IRI, which is the oldest and most widely validated of these scales and frequently used in neurophysiological studies of empathy.

The IRI consists of 28 statements evaluated on a 5 point Likert scale (from “does not describe me well” to “describes me very well”). It is subdivided into four subscales meant to tap different dimensions of self reported emotional and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is represented by two subscales: the empathic concern scale (hereafter EC) assesses trait level “other oriented” sympathy towards misfortunate others. and the personal distress scale (PD) measures “self oriented” anxiety and distress towards misfortunate others. The two cognitive empathy subscales «most of perspedive taking (PT). or the tendency to see oneself from another’s perspective, and fantasy (PS). the tendency to imaginatively project oneself into the situations of fictional characters.

Music and Empathy

Theories of empathy have long resonated with the arts. The father of the modern concept of empathy, philosopher Theodor Lipps originally devised the notion of Emfühlung (“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. However. the incorporation of psychological models of empathy in empirical music research is still in its early stages, Empathy remains an ambiguous concept in general. but applications to music can appear doubly vexed in an influential formulation.

Esenherg et al (1991) define empathy as. “an emotional response that stems from another’s emotional state or condition and is congruent with the other’s emotional state or condition.” Aspects of this definition. though. might seem incongruous when applied to music. which is inanimate and not capable of possessing an emotional “state”. To connect music processing to trait empathy. therefore. it is first necessary to determine the extent to which music comprises a social stimulus, who or what do we empathize with when listening to music?

Scherer and Lentner proposed that empathy toward music is often achieved via identification and sympathy with the lived experiences and expressive intentions of composers and performers. Corroborating this view, in a large web based experiment Egermann and McAdams found that “empathy for the musician” moderated between recognized and induced emotions in music: the greater the empathy. the more likely an individual was to exhibit a strong affective response when listening.

In a related study Wollner presented participants with video of a string quartet performance in three conditions audio/visual, visual only. and audio only and reported a significant correlation between trait empathy measures and perceived expressiveness in both visual conditions (music only condition was non significant), leading him to conclude: “since music is the audible outcome of actions, empathic responses to the performer‘s movements may enhance the enjoyment of music.“ Similarly, Taruiti et al found correlations between the EC and FS scales of the IRI and accuracy in emotion recognition relative to musicians’ self reported expressive encodings in an audio only task.

A music specific manifestation of trait empathy was proposed by Kreutz et al, who defined “music empathizmg“ as a cognitive style of processmg music that privileges emotional recognition and experience over the tendency to analyze and predict the rules of musical structure (or. “music systematizing”). Garrido and Schubert compared this “music empathy” scale alongside the IRI EC subscale in a study exploring individual differences in preference for sad music. They found that people who tend towards music empathizing are more likely to enjoy sad music; however. high trait empathy was not significantly correlated with enjoyment of sad music. This would seem to suggest that the music empathizing cognitive style differs from general trait empathy,

A number of other studies have investigated the relationship between trait empathy and enjoyment of sad music using the IRI. In a series of experiments. Vuoskoski and Eerola reported statistically significant correlations between EC and FS subscales and self reported liking for sad and tender music. Similarly, Kawakami and Katahora found that FS and PT were associated with preference for and intensity of emotional reactions to sad music among children.

There is evidence that musical affect is often achieved through mechanisms of emotional empathy. According to this theory, composers and performers encode affective gestures into the musical signal, and listeners decode that signal by way of mimetic, mirroring processes; musical expression is conveyed transparently as affective bodily motions are internally reenacted in the listening process. Shubert, in his Common Coding Model of Prosocial Behavior Processing, suggests that musical and social processing draw upon shared neural resources: music. in this account, is a social stimulus capable of recruiting empathy systems, including the core cingulate paracingulate supplementary motor area (SMA) insula network, along with possible sensorimotor, paralimbic and limbic representations. The cognitive empathy component, which can be minimal, is involved primarily in detecting the aesthetic context of listening, enabling the listener to consciously bracket the experience apart from the purely social. This model may help account for the perceived “visuality” of musical experience, whereby music is commonly heard as manifesting the presence of an imagined other.

In sum, trait empathy appears to modulate self reported affective reactions to music. There is also peripheral psychophysiological evidence that primed situational empathy may increase emotional reactivity to music. It is plausible that such a relationship is supported by shared social cognitive mechanisms that enable us to process music as a social stimulus; however, this hypothesis has not yet been explicitly tested at the neurophysiological level.

Neural Correlates of Trait Empathy

Corroborating the bipartite structure of trait empathy that appears in many behavioral models of empathy, two interrelated but distinct neural “routes” to empathy have been proposed, one associated with emotional contagion and the other with cognitive perspective taking. Emotional empathy is conceived as a bottom up process that enables “feeling with someone else” through perception action coupling of affective cues. Such simulation or “mirroring” models maintain that empathy is subserved by the activation of similar sensorimotor, paralimbic and limbic representations both when one observes another and experiences the same action and emotional state oneself. This proposed mechanism is generally considered to be pre reflective and phylogenetically ancient; it has also been linked behaviorally to emotional contagion, or the propensity to “catch” others’ feeling states and unconsciously co experience them. For example. several imaging studies have found evidence for shared representation of observed/experienced pain in anterior cingulate and anterior insula, as well as somatosensory cortex. Similarly, disgust for smells and tastes has been shown to recruit the insula during both perception and action, and insula has been proposed as a relay between a sensorimotor fronto parietal circuit with mirror properties and the amygdala in observation and imitation of emotional facial expressions. There is also evidence that insula functions similarly in music induced emotions, particularly involving negative valence.

In contrast to emotional empathy, trait cognitive empathy has been conceived as a deliberative tendency to engage in top down, imaginative transpositions of the self into the “other’s shoes,” with concomitant reliance upon areas of the brain associated with theory-of-mind, executive control, and contextual appraisal, including medial, ventral and orbital parts of the prefrontal cortex; somatomotor areas; temporoparietal junction; and precuneus/postenor cingulate. As implied in the functional overlap between certain emotional and cognitive empathy circuits, some have argued that the two routes are neither hierarchical nor mutually exclusive: cognitive perspective taking is premised upon emotional empathy, though it may, in turn, exert top down control over contagion circuits, modifying emotional reactivity in light of contextual cues and more complex social appraisals.

Brain studies have converged upon the importance of the human mirror neuron system in action understanding, imitation and empathy, and has been demonstrated in multiple sensorimotor domains, including the perception of action sounds. Mirror properties were initially reported in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the inferior parietal lobule (IPL); consistent with simulation theories of trait empathy. Moreover, activity in these and other sensorimotor mirror circuits has been found to correlate with IRI scales in a variety of experimental tasks, including viewing emotional facial expressions; and video of hands injected with a needle. That is, high empathy people tend to exhibit greater activation in mirror regions during the observation of others. Simulation mechanisms also appear to underpin prosocial decision making.

Implication of inferior frontal and inferior parietal mirror neuron areas is not a universal finding in the empathy literature, and some have suggested that it may reflect specific socially relevant tasks or stimulus types, not empathy in and of itself. However, evidence for mirror properties in single cells of the primate brain now exists in medial frontal and medial temporal cortex, dorsal premotor and primary motor cortex, lateral intraparietal area, and ventral intraparietal area. This means that in brain imaging data the activity of multiple brain areas may potentially be driven by cells with mirror properties.

In addition to studies using visual tasks, auditory studies have revealed correlations between mirror neuron activity and trait empathy. Gazzola et al, for instance, reported increased premotor and somatosensory activity associated with PT during a manual action sound listening task. A similar link was observed between IFG and PD scores while participants listened to emotional speech prosody. To date, however, no studies have investigated whether individual differences in empathy modulate processing of more socially complex auditory stimuli, such as music.

Study Aim

To investigate the neural substrates underlying the relationship between trait empathy and music. we carried out two experiments using fMRI.

In Experiment 1, we focused on a Single low level attribute of musical sound timbre, or “tone color”, to investigate the effects of empathy on how listeners process isolated vocal and instrumental sounds outside of musical context.

We tested two main hypotheses:

First, we anticipated that trait empathy (measured with the IRI) would be correlated with increased recruitment of empathy circuits even when listening to brief isolated sounds out of musical context (Gazzola et al).

Second, following an embodied cognitive view of timbre perception (Wallmark et al), we hypothesized that subjectively and acoustically ”noisy” timbral qualities would preferentially engage the emotional empathy system among higher empathy listeners. Abrasive. noisy acoustic features in human and many non human mammal vocalizations are often signs of distress, pain, or aggression (Isai et al): such state cues may elicit heighted responses among people with higher levels of trait EC.

To explore the relationship between trait empathy and music processing, in Experiment 2 participants passively listened to excerpts of self selected and experimenter selected “liked” and “disliked” music in familiar and unfamiliar conditions while being scanned. Musical preference and familiarity have been shown to modulate neural response. Extending previous research on the neural mechanisms of empathy, we predicted that music processing would involve circuitry shared with empathic response in non musical contexts (Schubert).

Unlike Experiment 1, we had no a priori hypotheses regarding modulatory effects of empathy specific to each of the four music conditions However, we predicted in both experiments that emotional empathy scales (EC and FD) would be associated with regions of the emotional empathy system in music listening, including sensorimotor. paralimbic and limbic areas, while cognitive empathy scales (PT and FS) would primarily be correlated With activity in prefrontal areas implicated in previous cognitive empathy studies (Singer and Lamm).


Experiment 1 demonstrated that trait empathy is correlated With Increased activation of circuitry often associated with emotional contagion, including sensorimotor areas and insula, in the perception of isolated musical timbres. FS and EC also appear to be sensitive to the affective connotations of the stimuli. Timbre is arguably the most basic and quickly processed building block of music. Though sufficient to recruit empathy areas, these brief stimuli do not, however, constitute “music” per sci

In Experiment 2, we turned our focus to more naturalistic stimuli including excerpts of music selected in advance by participants in order to explore the effect of trait empathy on the processing of music.


The present study demonstrates that trait empathy is correlated with neurophysiological differences in music processing. Music has long been conceived as a social stimulus. Supporting this view, our study offers novel evidence that neural circuitry involved in trait empathy is active to a greater degree in empathic individuals during perception of both simple musical tones and full musical excerpts. Individual variances in empathy are reflected in differential recruitment of core empathy networks during music listening; specifically. IRI subscales were found to correlate with activity in regions associated with both emotional (e.g.. sensorimotor regions, insular and cingulate cortex) and cognitive empathy (cg, PFC. TPI) during passive listening tasks

Our main hypotheses were continued, though with an unexpected twist regarding the two putative empathy types (at least as structured by the MU), Both experiments seem to suggest interactions between bottom up and top down processes (indexed in our study by both IRI scores and activity in neural systems) in empathy modulated music listening. This is in line with recent findings in prosocial decision making studies. Stimulus type, however, seems associated with different patterns of neural systems engagement.

In Experiment 1, sensorimotor areas were more frequently modulated by trait empathy in the processing of musical timbre: conversely. in Experiment 2, cognitive areas were more frequently modulated by trait empathy in the processmg of (famillar) music. Together this suggests that, contrary to our initial hypothesis for Experiment 2, modulation of neural activity by empathy was driven more by stimulus type than by empathy type; that is. the emotional empathy subscale (BC) was no more selective to emotional contagion circuitry than cognitive empathy scales (PT and FS), and vice versa (the PD scale did not reveal any significant correlations with brain activity. In what follows, we interpret these results and discuss their implications.

Empathy-Modulated Sensorimotor Engagement in Timbre Processing

Using isolated 2-s instrument and vocal tones as stimuli, Experiment 1 found that the four IRI subscales modulated response to timbre. First, we found that cognitive perspective was correlated with activity in motor areas SMA for A0: and SI and anterior cingulate (ACC).

This finding is in line with numerous studies suggesting a role for ACC and SI in emotional empathy; it also replicates a result of Gazzola et al 2006. who reported a correlation of somatomotor activity and PT scores in an action sound listening task. Activity in these regions may suggest a sensorimotor simulation process whereby high PT individuals imitate internally some aspect of the production of these sounds, This result could be explained in light of Cox’s 2016 “mimetic hypothesis,” according to which music is understood by way of covert or overt motor reenactments of sound producing physical gestures. It is quite conceivable that people who are inclined to imagine themselves from others’ perspectives also tend to take up the physical actions implied by others’ musical sounds, whether a smooth and gentle voice, a growled saxophone, or any other musical sound reflecting human actions.

It is intriguing, however, that PT was not implicated in the processing of positive or negative valence. One might assume that perspective takers possess a neural preference for “good“ sounds: for example, one study reported activation of larynx control areas in the Rolandic operculum while subjects listened to pleasant music (but not unpleasant), suggesting subvocalization only to positively valenced music (K elsch et al) Our results, however. indicate that PT is not selective to valence in these sensorimotor areas.

FS also revealed motor involvement (SMA) in the task > baseline contrast. Unlike PT, FS appeared to be sensitive to both positive and negative valence of timbres: we found activity in left TH and Broca‘s area of the IFG associated with positively valenced timbres, and temporal, parietal and prefrontal activations associated with disliked timbres. TPI is an important structure for theory of mind. Together with Broca‘s area, a well studied language and voice specific motor region that has been implicated in emotional empathy. It is plausible to suggest that individuals who are prone to fantasizing may exhibit a greater tendency to attribute mental states to the virtual human agents responsible for making musical sounds, and that this attribution would be more pronounced for positively valenced stimuli.

As hypothesized. EC was correlated with activation in a range of areas previously implicated in empathy studies, including IPL, IPG and SMA, along With SI, STG. cerebellum and AIC. It was also sensitive to negative valence: noisy timbres were processed with greater involvement from SMA in individuals with higher EC. EC is an “other oriented” emotional scale measuring sympathy or compassion towards the misfortune of others. Since noisy, distorted qualities of vocal timbre are an index of generally high arousal, negatively valenced affective states, we theorize that individuals with higher trait EC exhibited greater motor attunement owing to the ecological urgency typically signaled by such sound events.

In short, we usually deploy harsh vocal timbres when distressed or endangered (e.g., screaming or shouting), not during affectively positive or neutral low arousal states, and high empathy people are more likely to pick up on and simulate the affective motor implications of others in distress. Though our sensitivity to the human voice is especially acute, researchers have hypothesized that instrumental timbre can similarly function as a “superexpressive voice” via acoustic similarities to emotional vocal expression. Our result would seem to support this theory, as motor response appears to encode the combined effects of noisy tones, both vocal and instrumental.

It is also worth noting, as might be expected given the above, that noisy voice produced a unique signature of activation among high FS and EC participants relative to the normal vocal stimuli: FS modulated processing of the noisy voice in SII and IPL, while EC was selective to noisy vocal sounds in the SMA and primary motor cortex. This result appears to be at odds with other studies of vocal affect sensitivity that report motor mimetic selectivity for pleasant vocalizations. It is likely that individual variances in empathy (plus other mediating factors) predispose listeners to differing orientations towards others’ affective vocalizations, with empathic listeners more likely to “catch” the motor affective implications of aversive sounds than low empathy people, who might only respond to sounds they find pleasant while tuning out negatively valenced vocalizations.

Cox (2016) theorizes that music can afford listeners an “invitation” for motor engagement, which they may choose to accept or decline, Seen from this perspective, it is likely that individual differences in empathy play an important role in determining how we choose to respond to music’s motor invitations.

Regarding motor engagement across IRI subscales it is apparent that SMA is the most prominent sensorimotor area involved in empathy modulated processing of timbre. SMA is a frequently reported yet undertheorized part of the core empathy network; it has also been implicated in internally generated movement and coordination of action sequences, and has been shown in a single neuron study to possess mirror properties. Most relevant to the present study, moreover, SMA contributes to the vividness of auditory imagery, including imagery for timbre. Halpern et al and Lima et al attributed SMA activity in an auditory imagery task in part to subvocalization of timbral attributes, and the present study would seem to partially corroborate this explanation. We interpret this result as a possible instance of sensorimotor integration: SMA activity could reflect a basic propensity to link sounds with their associated actions, which are internally mirrored while listening. In accordance with this view, we would argue that people do not just passively listen to different qualities of musical timbre, they enact some of the underlying physical determinants of sound production, whether through subvocalization, biography specific act sound associations.

To summarize, sensorimotor areas have been implicated in many previous studies of emotional empathy, including IFG and IPL; “pain circuit” areas in AIC and ACC; and somatomotor regions. Interestingly. these precise regions dominated results of the Experiment 1 timbre listening task. This is true, moreover, for both emotional and cognitive scales: PT and FS, though often implicated in cognitive tasks, were found in this experiment to modulate SMA, SI, primary motor cortex, IPL, MC and IFG, well documented motor affective AREAS. We theorize that the contextual impoverishment and short duration of the timbre listening task (2-s isolated tones) may have largely precluded any genuine perspective taking or fantasizing from occurring, it is much harder to put oneself in the “shoes” of an single isolated voice or instrument, of course, than it is an affectively rich piece of actual music. However, even in the absence of conscious cognitive empathizing, which presumably would have been reflected in engagement of the cognitive empathy system, individuals with high trait PT and FS still showed selective activations of sensorimotor and affective relay circuits typically associated with emotional empathy. This could be interpreted to suggest that the two “routes” to empathy are not dissociated in music listening: although conscious PT in response to abbreviated auditory cues is unlikely, people who frequently imagine themselves in the positions of others also exhibit a tendency toward motor resonance in this basic listening task, even when musical context is missing.

Prefrontal and Reward Activation During Music Listening

Experiment 2 used 16-s excerpts of self and experimenter selected music to explore the effect of dispositional empathy on the processing of music in four conditions. familiar liked (FL), familiar disliked (FD), unfamiliar liked (UL), and unfamiliar disliked (UD). Participants consisted of individuals who reported regularly experiencing intense emotional reactions while listening to music. Musical liking is associated at the group level (ie. no IRI covariates), with left basal ganglia reward areas, and disliking with activity in right AIC, primary auditory cortex and prefrontal areas (OFC and VLPFC). Musical familiarity is associated with activation across a broad region of the cortex, subcortical areas, and cerebellum, including IPL. premotor cortex and the core empathy network, while unfamiliarity recruits only the SFG.

This robust familiarity effect is even more acute among high empathy listeners: after adding empathy covariates to our analysis, there were no regions that demonstrated an affect specific response after controlling for familiarity. This result is consistent with the literature in showing a large neurophysiological effect of familiarity on musical liking; it appears that trait empathy, as well, modulates responses to familiar music to a greater degree than unfamiliar music.

Contrary to expectations, activation in regions primarily associated with emotional empathy (e.g., sensorimotor areas, ACC, AIC) was not a major component in empathy modulated music processing. Instead. the most prominent activation sites for PT and EC scales were prefrontal, including medial, lateral, and orbital portions of the cortex, as well as TPJ. These regions are involved in executive control, regulation of emotions, mentalizing, contextual appraisal, and “enactment imagination”, and have figured prominently in many studies on the neurophysiology of cognitive empathy. Additionally, FS and EC results were characterized by dorsal striatum when participants listened to familiar music. This basal ganglia structure has been frequently reported in empathy studies but not often discussed; it has also long been associated with musical pleasure.

basal ganglia

Replicating this association, our results suggest that empathic people experience a higher degree of reward and motivation when listening to familiar music compared to lower empathy people.

PT was associated with left TPI in the task > baseline contrast. Activation of this region among perspective takers is consistent with studies implicating TPI in theory of mind and the merging of self and other (Lawrence et a1, 2006). The TPI was joined by posterior cingulate, cerebellum and superior prefrontal areas when listening to familiar liked music (FL > FD), the former two of which were also identified in a study on the neural bases of perspective taking. Interestingly, these results differ substantially from the PT correlations in Experiment 1, which were entirely sensorimotor. In the context of isolated musical sounds, PT results were interpreted as a reflection of covert imitation (or, enactive perspective taking): in contrast. however, it appears here that PT may reflect a more cognitively mediated, mental form of perspective taking, which conceivably extends beyond action perception coupling of musicians‘ affective motor cues to encompass contextual appraisal, assessments of the affective intent embodied in the music, and other executive functions.

In contrast to the prominent TPI and prefrontal activation associated with PT, FS results revealed activation of dorsal striatum (caudaie and putamen) and limbic areas (thalamus, hippocampus and amygdala). Activation of reward and emotion centers may suggest that fantasizers also tend to exhibit heightened positive emotional reactions to familiar music. Indeed, we found a moderate correlation between FS and preference ratings for familiar liked music, which may tentatively corroborate this claim. Moreover, structural brain studies have found that FS is associated with increased gray matter volume in hippocampus, an important memory area, perhaps also indicating enhanced encoding of familiar liked music among fantasizers.

The contrast in activation between the two IRI cognitive empathy scales (PT and FS) is notable, and may be attributed to the different aspects of empathy they were designed to assess. PT taps the tendency to imagine oneself in other people’s shoes, whereas FS captures the tendency to imagine oneself from the perspective of fictional characters. With this distinction in mind, one could surmise that the two scales also tap different views regarding the ontology of the musical agent: in this reading, people with high trait PT are more likely to take music as a social stimulus, i.e., as if it was a real or virtual human presence (with theory of mind, goals, beliefs), while high FS listeners are more likely to hear it as “fictional” from a social perspective, i.e., as a rewarding sensory stimulus with an attenuated grip on actual social cognition. Further research is called for to explore possible explanations for the differences in cognitive scales as reflected in music listening.

Turning finally to emotional empathy, we found that EC recruits prefrontal, reward and sensorimotor affective areas in music listening, and is likewise quite sensitive to familiarity. In the Familiar > Unfamiliar contrast, we found activation of cerebellum, IPL, DLPFC, IFG, DMPFC, amygdala, anterior paracingulate, dorsal striatum, OFC and lingual gyrus, and a variation on this general pattern for the Familiar liked > Unfamiliar liked and interaction contrasts. Activation of bilateral IPL and IFG is consistent with mirror accounts of empathy. Furthermore, the ACC, paracingulate, and areas that extend dorsally (SMA, DMPFC) have been proposed as the core of the empathy network: our result would seem to extend support for the primacy of this region using an experimental task that is not explicitly social in the manner of most empathy studies. Lastly, DLPFC is an important executive control area in cognitive empathy, and has been implicated in emotional regulation. Activation of this region may reflect top down control over affective responses to familiar music, both in terms of up regulation to liked music and down regulation to disliked (or possibly up regulation to negative stimuli, as Open minded empathic listeners try to “see something positive” in the disliked music), In further research, connectivity analysis between DLPFC and limbic/reward areas may help to specify the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying empathy modulated emotional regulation during music listening.

In addition to motor, cingulate and prefrontal activity, we found the recruitment of emotion and reward processing areas as a function of EC and musical familiarity: dorsal striatum (the whole extent of the caudate nucleus, plus thalamus) may reflect increased pleasure in response to familiar music among empathic listeners. It is not surprising that the reward system would show preferential activation to familiar music, as confirmed in the basic group Liked > Disliked contrast.

Prevalence of basal ganglia for both EC and FS suggests that trait empathy may effectively sensitize people to the music they already know. This even appears to be the case for disliked music, which showed dorsal striatum activation (along with OFC) in the Familiar disliked > Unfamiliar disliked contrast. This could be interpreted to indicate that empathic people may experience heightened musical pleasure even when listening to the music they self select as “hating,” provided it is familiar. By way of contrast. no striatum activation was found for any of the unfamiliar music conditions.

In concert with limbic circuitry, then, it is apparent that musical familiarity recruits a broad region of the affect reward system in high EC listeners.

Activation of inferior parts of the lingual gyrus and occipital lobe was another novel finding, and may also be linked to musical affect. These areas are associated with visual processing, including perception and recognition of familiar sights and emotional facial expressions, as well as visual imagery. It is reasonable to think that empathic listeners may be more prone to visual imagery while listening to familiar music. Visual responses are an important mechanism of musical affect more generally, and are a fairly reliable index of musical engagement and attention.

If high EC people are more susceptible to musical affect, as suggested by our results, they may also show a greater tendency towards visual imagery in music listening.

To be clear, we did not explicitly operationalize visual imagery in this study: in the future, it would be interesting to follow up on this result by comparing visual imagery and music listening tasks using the EC scale as a covariate.

The behavioral data resonate in interesting and sometimes contradictory ways with these imaging findings. We found that EC is strongly associated with preference for liked music and unfamiliar music, and negative responses to familiar disliked music. Results suggest that high EC people are more responsive to the affective components of music, as reflected in polarity of preference responses. EC was also associated with open mindedness to new music (i,e.. higher ratings for unfamiliar music), though imaging results for this contrast did not reach significance, and might appear to be contradicted by the clear familiarity effect discussed previously.

We must be cautious in the interpretation of these findings owing to the small sample size, but this resonance between behavioral and imaging evidence is nonetheless suggestive in demonstrating a role for EC in affective responsiveness to familiar music. This conclusion is broadly consistent With previous behavioral studies, especially regarding pleasurable responses to sad music.

In sum, the present results provide complementary neural evidence that involvement of prefrontal areas and limbic/basal ganglia in music listening covaries with individual trait differences in empathy, with sensorimotor engagement playing a smaller role.

How do we account for the prominence of cognitive, prefrontal areas in music listening but not musical timbre in isolation? It must be noted that a broad swath of the emotional empathy system was involved in the basic task > baseline contrast (used to mask all IRI covariates): in other words, it is clear that music in aggregate is processed with some level of sensorimotor, paralimbic, and limbic involvement, regardless the empathy level of the listeners or the valence/familiarity of the music. However, our results seem to suggest that empathic people tend to be more attuned to the attribution of human agency and affective intention in the musical signal. as indicated by preferential engagement of cognitive empathy networks including PFC (MPF and DLPFC) and TP), as well as reward areas.

In other words, what seems to best characterize the high empathy response to musical stimuli is the tendency to take an extra cognitive step towards identification with some agentive quality of the music, over and above the work of emotional contagion mechanisms alone.

Thus while patterns of neural resonance consistent with emotional contagion appear to be common to most experiences of music and were also found among high empathy participants in Experiment 1, activation of prefrontal cognitive empathy systems for the PT and EC scales may indicate the tendency of empathic listeners to try to “get into the heads” of composers, performers, and/or the virtual persona of the music. This top down process is effortful, imaginative, and self aware, in contrast to the automatic and pre reflective mechanisms undergirding emotional contagion. Accordingly, as suggested by Schubert, the involvement of cognitive systems may not strictly speaking be required for affective musical response, which can largely be accounted for by emotional contagion circuitry alone.

A number of studies have shown that mental imagery may be supported by sensorimotor and affective components without the contribution of prefrontal areas. Nevertheless, they could betoken a more social cognitive mode of listening, a deliberative attempt on the part of listeners to project themselves into the lived experience of the musical agent. This imaginative projection is more intense, understandably, for music that empathic people already know, and also appears to interact with musical preference.

General Implications

The present study has a number of implications for social and affective neuroscience, music psychology, and musicology. For neuroscientific empathy research, we demonstrate the involvement of the core empathy network and mirror neuron system outside of tasks that are explicitly social cognitive. Most studies use transparently social experimental tasks and stimuli to assess neural correlates of state and trait empathy; for example, viewing pictures or videos of other people.

This study demonstrates that musical sound. which is perhaps not an obvious social stimulus, can elicit neural responses consistent with theories of empathy. By domg so, this study highlights the potential value of operationalizing artistic and aesthetic experience as a window into social cognitive and affective processing, a perspective that is arguably the historical progenitor of contemporary empathy research.

For music psychology, this research has at least three main implications.

First, this study demonstrates that trait empathy may modulate the neurophysiology of music listening. Although there is mounting behavioral and psychophysiological evidence pointing to this conclusion, this is the first study to investigate the effects of empathy on the musical brain.

Second, this study confirms and extends empirical claims that music cognition is inextricably linked to social cognition. Our results suggest that aspects of affective music processing can be viewed as a specialized subprocess of general social affective perception and cognition. This may begin to explain the neural bases for how music can function as a “virtual social agent”.

Third, in demonstrating neural differences in music processing as a function of empathy, we highlight the possible significance of looking at other trait features when assessing the functional neural correlates of musical tasks and stimuli. Many neurophysiological music studies take only a few trait features into account in sampling procedures and analysis, most notably sex, age, and musical training: the latter has been well explored, but other factors such as personality factors and mood are not frequently addressed. Individual differences in music processing may relate to dispositional characteristics that can be captured by psychosocial questionnaires, indirect observational techniques, or other methods. Exploring the role of such trait variables in musical behaviors and brain processing could provide a more detailed and granular account of music cognition,

Finally, these results enrich the humanistic study of music in providing a plausible psychobiological account for the social valence of musical experience observed in diverse cultural and historical settings. As music theorist Clifton claims, “the ‘other’ need not be a person: it can be music.”

In a very rough sense, this study provides empirical support for this statement: areas implicated in trait empathy and social cognition also appear to be involved in music processing, and to a significantly greater degree for individuals with high trait empathy.

If music can function something like a virtual ”other,” then it might be capable of altering listeners‘ views of real others, thus enabling it to play an ethically complex mediating role in the social discourse of music. Indeed, musicologists have historically documented moments of tense cultural encounter wherein music played an instrumental role in helping one group to realize the other’s shared humanity.

Recent research would seem to provide behavioral ballast for this view: using an implicit association task,Vuoskoski et a showed that listening to the music of another culture could positively modulate attitudes towards members of that culture among empathic listeners. Though we do not in this study explicitly address whether music can alter empathic brain circuits, it is suggestive that certain attitudes toward musical sound may have behavioral and neural bases in individual differences in trait empathy.


A few important limitations must be considered in interpreting these results, First, this study was correlational: no causative links can thus be determined in the relationship between music and trait empathy. In the future, it would be interesting to use an empathy priming paradigm in an MRI context to compare neurophysiological correlates of trait empathy with primed “state” empathy in music listening; this could provide a powerful method for disentangling possible differences in processing between dispositional attributes of empathy and contextual factors (e.g., socially conditioned attitudes about a performer, mood when listening).

As a corollary to the above, moreover, this study does not address whether our results are specific to music listening: perhaps high empathy people utilize more of these areas when performing other non musical yet not explicitly social tasks as well (eg. viewing abstract art). Additionally. we do not explore whether there could be other mediating trait factors in music processing besides empathy and sex: personality and temperament, for instance, have been shown to modulate responses to music.

Finally, this study will need to be replicated with a larger sample size, and with participants who do not self select based on strong emotional reactions to music, in order to strengthen the statistical power and generalizability of the results.


In two experiments using fMRI, this article demonstrates that trait empathy modulates music processing. Replicating previous findings in the social neuroscience literature, isolated musical timbres are related to sensorimotor and paralimbic activation; in actual MUSIC listening, however, empathy is primarily associated with activity in prefrontal and reward areas. Empathic participants were found to be particularly sensitive to abrasive, “noisy” qualities of musical timbre, showing preferential activation of the SMA, possibly reflecting heightened motor mimetic susceptibility to sounds signaling high arousal, low valence affective states.

In the music listening task. empathic subjects demonstrated enhanced responsiveness to familiar music, with musical preference playing a mediating role. Taken together, these results confirm and extend recent research on the link between music and empathy, and may help bring us closer to understanding the social cognitive basis for music perception and cognition.



Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.

Description of Measure:

Defines empathy as the “reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another (Davis, 1983).”

28 items answered on a 5 point Likert scale ranging from “Does not describe me well” to “Describes me very well”. The measure has 4 subscales, each made up of 7 different items. These subscales are (taken directly from Davis, 1983):

Perspective Taking, the tendency to spontaneously adopt the psychological point of view of others.

Fantasy taps respondents‘ tendencies to transpose themselves imaginatively into the feelings and actions of fictitious characters in books, movies, and plays

Empathic Concern assesses “other-oriented” feelings of sympathy and concern for unfortunate others

Personal Distress measures “self oriented” feelings of personal anxiety and unease in tense interpersonal settings

Abstracts of Selected Related Articles:

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113126.

The past decade has seen growing movement toward a view of empathy as a multidimensional construct. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1980), which taps four separate aspects of empathy, is described, and its relationships with measures of social functioning, self esteem, emotionality, and sensitivity to others is assessed. As expected, each of the four subscales displays a distinctive and predictable pattern of relationships with these measures, as well as with previous unidimensional empathy measures. These findings, coupled with the theoretically important relationships existing among the four subscales themselves, provide considerable evidence for a multidimensional approach to empathy in general and for the use of the IRI in particular.

Pulos, S., Elison, J ,, & Lennon, R. (2004). Hierarchical structure of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Social Behavior and Personality, 32, 355 360.

The hierarchical factor structure of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) (Davis, 1980) inventory was investigated with the Schmid Leiman orthogonalization procedure (Schmid & Leiman, 1957). The sample consisted of 409 college students. The analysis found that the IRI could be factored into four first order factors, corresponding to the four scales of the IRI. and two second order orthogonal factors, a general empathy factor and an emotional control factor.


The following statements inquire about your thoughts and feelings in a variety of situations. For each item, indicate how well it describes you by choosing the appropriate letter on the scale at the top of the page: A, B, C, D, or E.

When you have decided on your answer, fill in the letter next to the item number.

READ EACH ITEM CAREFULLY BEFORE RESPONDING. Answer as honestly as you can. Thank you.







1. I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might happen to me. (FS)

2. I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me. (EC)

3. I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the “other guy’s” point of View. (PT) (-)

4. Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems. (EC) (-)

5. I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel. (FS)

6. In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill at ease. (PD)

7. I am usually objective when I watch a movie or play, and I don’t often get completely caught up in it. (FS) (-)

8. I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision. (PT)

9. When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them. (EC)

10. I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of a very emotional situation. (PD)

11. I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective. (PT)

12. Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me. (FS) (-)

13. When I see someone get hurt, I tend to remain calm. (PD) (-)

14. Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal. (EC) (-)

15. If I‘m sure I’m right about something, I don’t waste much time listening to other people’s arguments. (PT) (-)

16. After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the characters. (FS)

17. Being in a tense emotional situation scares me. (PD)

18. When I see someone being treated unfairly, I sometimes don’t feel very much pity for them. (EC) (-)

19. I am usually pretty effective in dealing with emergencies. (PD) (-)

20. I am often quite touched by things that I see happen. (EC)

21. I believe that there are two sides to every question and try to look at them both. (PT)

22. I would describe myself as a pretty soft hearted person. (EC)

23. When I watch a good movie, I can very easily put myself in the place of a leading character. (FS)

24. I tend to lose control during emergencies. (PD)

25. When I’m upset at someone, I usually try to “put myself in his shoes” for a while. (PT)

26. When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening to me. (FS)

27. When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces. (PD)

28. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place. (PT)

See also:

Music and the Mind

by Anthony Storr

Life after Severe Childhood Trauma. I Think I’ll Make It. A True Story of Lost and Found – Kat Hurley.

Had I known I should have been squirreling away memories as precious keepsakes, I would have scavenged for more smiles, clung to each note of contagious laughter and lingered steadfast in every embrace.

Memory is funny like that: futile facts and infinitesimal details are fixed in time, yet things you miss, things you wish you paid fuller attention to, you may never see again.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

To write this book, I relied heavily on archived emails and journals, researched facts when I thought necessary, consulted with some of the people who appear in the book, and called upon my own memory, which has a habitual tendency to embellish, but as it turns out, there wasn’t much need for that here. Events in this book may be out of sequence, a handful of locations were changed to protect privacy, many conversations and emails were re-created, and a few names and identifying characteristics have been changed.

It was hardly a secret growing up that psychologists predicted I would never lead a truly happy and normal life. Whether those words were intended for my ears or not seemed of little concern, given the lack of disclaimer to follow. There was no telling what exceedingly honest bits of information would slip through the cracks of our family’s filtration system of poor Roman Catholic communication. I mean, we spoke all the time but rarely talked. On the issues at least, silence seemed to suit us best, yet surprising morsels of un-sugarcoated facts would either fly straight out of the horse’s mouth or trickle their way down through the boys until they hit me, the baby.

I was five when I went to therapy. Twice. On the second visit, the dumb lady asked me to draw what I felt on a piece of plain construction paper. I stared at the few crayons next to the page when I told her politely that I’d rather not. We made small talk instead, until the end of the hour when she finally stood up, walked to the door and invited my grandma in. They whispered some before she smiled at me and waved. I smiled back, even if she was still dumb. I’m sure it had been suggested that I go see her anyway, because truth be known, psychologists were a “bunch of quacks,” according to my grandma. When I said I didn’t want to go back, nobody so much as batted an eye.

And that was the end of that.

When I draw up some of my earliest most vivid memories, what I see reminds me of an old slide projector, screening crooked, fuzzy images at random. in the earliest scenes, I am lopsidedly pigtailed, grass stained, clothes painfully clashing. In one frame I am ready for my first day of preschool in my bright red, pill-bottomed bathing suit, standing at the bottom of the stairs where my mom has met me to explain, through her contained laughter, that a carpool isn’t anything near as fun as it sounds. In another, I am in the living room, turning down the volume on my mom’s Richard Simmons tape so I can show her that, all on my own yet only with a side-puckered face, I’d learned how to snap. In one scene, I’m crouched down in the closet playing hide-and-seek, recycling my own hot Cheerio breath, patiently waiting to be found, picking my toes. Soon Mom would come home and together we’d realize that the boys weren’t seeking (babysitting) me at all, they’d simply gone down the street to play with friends.

I replay footage of the boys, Ben and Jack, pushing me in the driveway, albeit unintentionally, toward the busy road on my first day with no training wheels, and (don’t worry, I tattled) intentionally using me as the crash-test dummy when they sent me flying down the stairs in a laundry basket. I have the scene of us playing ice hockey in the driveway after a big ice storm hit, me proudly dropping the puck while my brothers Stanley Cup serious faced off.

I call up the image of me cross-legged on my parents’ bed, and my mom’s horrified face when she found me scissors in hand thrilled with what she referred to as my new “hacked” do. That same bed, in another scene, gets hauled into my room when it was no longer my parents’, and my mom, I presume, couldn’t stand to look at it any longer. I can still see the worry on her face in those days and the disgust on his. I see the aftermaths of the few fights they couldn’t help but have us witness.

Most of the scenes are of our house at the top of the hill on McClintock Drive, but a few are of Dad’s townhouse in Rockville, near the roller rink. I remember his girlfriend, Amy, and how stupid I thought she was. I remember our Atari set and all our cool new stuff over there. And, of course, I remember Dad’s really annoying crack-of-dawn routine of “Rise and Shine!”

I was my daddy’s darling, and my mommy’s little angel.

Then without warning I wasn’t.

Had I known I should have been squirreling away memories as precious keepsakes, I would have scavenged for more smiles, clung to each note of contagious laughter and lingered steadfast in every embrace. Memory is funny like that: futile facts and infinitesimal details are fixed in time, yet things you miss, things you wish you paid fuller attention to, you may never see again.

I was just a regular kid before I was ever really asked to “remember.” Up until then, I’d been safe in my own little world: every boo-boo kissed, every bogeyman chased away. And for a small voice that had never been cool enough, clever enough, or captivating enough, it was finally my turn. There was no other choice; I was the only witness.

“Tell us everything you know, Katie. It is very important that you try to remember everything you saw.”

August 11, 1983

I am five. I’ll be in kindergarten this year, Ben is going to third grade, Jack will be in seventh. I’m not sure where the boys are today; all I know is that I’m glad it’s just me and Mom. We’re in the car, driving in our Ford wagon, me bouncing unbuckled in the way back. We sing over the radio like we always do. We’re on our way to my dad’s office, for the fivehundredth time. Not sure why, again, except that “they have to talk.” They always have to talk. Ever since Dad left and got his new townhouse with his new girlfriend, all they do is talk.

Mom pulls into a space in front of the office. The parking lot for some reason is practically empty. His cleaning business is all the way in the back of this long, lonely stretch of warehouse offices, all boring beige and ugly brown, with big garage doors and small window fronts.

“You can stay here, sweetie pie I won’t be long.”

I have some of my favorite coloring books and a giant box of crayons; I’ll be fine.

Time passes in terms of works of art. Goofy, Mickey, and Donald are all colored to perfection be fore I even think to look up. I am very fond of my artistic abilities; my paint by numbers are exquisite, and my papier-maché, as far as I’m concerned, has real promise for five. All of my works are fridge-worthy; even my mom thinks so. My special notes and handmade cards litter her nightstand, dresser, and bathroom counter.

I hear a scream. Like one I’d never heard before, except on TV. Was that her? I sit still for a second, wait for another clue. That wasn’t her. But something tells me to check anyway just in case.

I scramble out from the way back, over the seat, and try to open the door, but I’m locked in why would she look me in? I tug at the lock and let myself out. With the car door still open, I scurry to the front window of my dad’s shop, and on my tiptoes, ten fingers to the ledge, I can see inside. The cage with the snakes is there, the desk and chairs are there, the cabinets and files are there, everything looks normal like the last time I was inside. Where are they?

Then through the window, I see my mom. At the end of the hall, I can see her through the doorway. But just her feet. Well, her feet and part of her legs. They are there, on the floor her sandals still on. I can make out the tip of his shoe too, at her thigh, like he’s sitting on top of her. She is still. I don’t get it. Why are they on the floor? I try to open the door, but it’s locked. I don’t recall knocking; maybe I did. I do know that I didn’t yell to be let in, call for help, or demand that I know what was going on.

It wasn’t her. It sounded like it came from down the street, I tell myself. Maybe it wasn’t a scream scream, anyway. Someone was probably just playing, I convince myself. I get back in the car. I close the door behind me and color some more.

Only two pages are colored in this time. Not Mickey and friends, Snow White now. Fairy tales. My dad knocks on the window, startling me, smiling. “Hey, princess. Your mom is on the phone with Aunt Jeannie, so you’ll just see her Monday. You’re coming with me, kiddo. We have to go get your brother.”

Everything I’ve seen is forgotten. My dad’s convincing smile, tender voice, and earnest eyes make all my fright disappear. He told me she was on the phone, and I believed him. How was I supposed to know that dads could lie?

Two days later, my brothers and I were at the beach on a job with Dad when our grandparents surprised us with the news. “Your mother is missing.” And it was only then, when I sensed the fear they tried so intently to wash from their faces, that the realization struck me as stark panic, that l was brought back to the scene for the first time and heard the scream I understood was really her.

My testimony would later become the turning point in the case, reason enough to convict my father, who in his cowardice had covered all his traces. Even after his conviction, it would be three more years until he fully confessed to the crime. I was eight when I stood, uncomfortable, in a stiff dress at her grave for the second time more flowers, same priest, same prayers.

To say I grew up quickly, though, as people have always suspected, would be a stretch. Certainly, I was more aware, but the shades of darkness were graced with laughter and lullabies and being a kid and building forts, and later, learning about my period from my crazy grandma.

I honestly don’t remember being treated any differently, from Grandma Kate at least. If I got any special attention, I didn’t know it. Life went on. Time was supposed to heal all wounds. My few memories of mom, despite my every attempt, faded with each passing holiday.

I was in Mrs. Dunne’s third grade class when my dad finally confessed. We faced a whole ’nother wave of reporters, news crews, and commotion. They replayed the footage on every channel: me, five years old again, clad in overalls, with my Care Bear, walking into the courtroom. And just like before, my grandpa taped all the news reels. “So we never forget,” he said.

For our final TV interview, my grandparents, the boys, and I sat in our church clothes in the front room to answer the reporter’s questions. I shifted around on Grandma Kate’s lap in my neatly pressed striped Easter dress. Everybody had a turn to talk. I was last. “Katie, now that the case is closed, do you think you will be able to move on?”

I’m not sure how I knew it then, especially when so many years of uncertainty were still to come, but I was confident: “Yeah.” I grinned. “I think I’ll make it.”

Chapter One


“Well, I just called to tell you I’ve made up my mind.” Silence “I will not be returning to school next year.”

Silence “I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to do I just know I cannot come back.”

Barbara, my faculty chair, on the other end of the line, fumed. I could hear it in each syllable of Catholic guilt she spat back at me. We’d ended a face-to-face meeting the day before with, “I’ll call you tomorrow with my decision,” as we agreed to disagree on the fact that the students were more important than my mental health and well-being.

“What will they do without you? You know how much they love you. We created this new position for you, and now you’re just going to leave? Who will teach the class? It’s August!” she agonized.

God, she was good. She had this guilt thing down pat. An ex-nun, obviously an expert, and this was the first I’d been on her bad side, a whole year’s worth of smiles, waves and high-fives in the hallways seemed to get clapped out with the erasers.

It was true; I loved the kids and didn’t want to do this so abruptly, like this is August. This was not my idea of a resume builder. Nevertheless, as each bit of honesty rose from my lips, I felt freer and freer and more true to myself than I’d felt in, well, a long frickin’ time. A sense of relief washed through me in a kind of cathartic baptism, cleansing me of the guilt. I stopped pacing. A warm breeze swept over the grass on the hill in front of our condo then over me. I stood on the sidewalk still nervous, sweating, smiling, teary-eyed. I can’t believe I just did that.

St. Anne’s was a very liberal Catholic school, which ironically, had given me a new faith in the closeminded. The building housed a great energy of love and family. I felt right at home walking through its doors even at new-teacher orientation, despite it having been a while since I needed to be shown the ropes. I’d already been teaching for six years in a position where I’d been mentoring, writing curriculum and leading administrative teams. I normally didn’t do very well on the bottom rung of the totem pole, but more pay with less responsibility had its merit.

It was definitely different, but a good different. I felt newly challenged in a bigger school, looked forward to the many programs already in place and the diversity of the staff and student body. The ceremonies performed in the religion-based setting seemed foreign at first, yet witnessing the conviction of our resident nuns and tenured faculty restored a respect I had lost over the years. They were the hymns that I recognized, the verses I used to recite, the prayers I was surprised I still remembered, the responses I thought I’d never say again.

The first time we had Mass together as an entire school, I was nearly brought to tears. I got goose bumps when the notes from the piano reverberated off the backboards on the court the gym-turned-place-of-worship hardly seemed the place to recommit. Yet, hearing the harmony of our award-winning gospel choir and witnessing the level of participation from the students, faculty, and administration, I was taken aback. The maturity of devotion in the room was something I had never experienced in any of my churches growing up. Students, lip-synching their words, distracted and bored, still displayed more enthusiasm than the lumps hunched at my old parishes.

It was during that first Mass that I realized there was only one person who could have gotten me there to a place she would have been so proud to tell her bridge club I was working. She would have been thrilled for me to find God here. The God she knew, her Catholic God the one who had listened to her rosary, day after day, her pleas for her family’s health and well-being, her pleas for her own peace and forgiveness. Gma had orchestrated it all. I was certain.

As that realization unfolded, I saw a glimpse of her endearing eyes, her tender smile before me, and with that my body got hot, my lashes heavy, soaked with a teary mist. Although it would be months till I stumbled upon a glimpse of what some might call God, it was here, at St. Anne’s, where I gained a tradition I had lost, a perspective I had thought impossible, a familiarity that let me feel a part of something, and a trust that may have ultimately led me straight out the door.

Our kitchen, growing up, reeked of canned beans and burnt edges. Grandma Kate knew of only one way to cook meat, crispy. On most nights, the fire alarm let us know that dinner was ready. The table was always set before I’d come running in, at the sound of her call, breathless from playing, to scrub the dirt from my fingernails. She was a diligent housewife, though at times she played the part of something far more independent. The matriarch, we called her the gel to the whole damn bunch of us: her six, or five rather, and us three.

She responded to Grandma Kate, or just Kate, or Kitty, as her friends from St. Cecelia’s called her, or Catherine, as she generally introduced herself, or Gma, as I later deemed her all names necessary to do and be everything that she was to all of us.

She and I had our moments through my adolescence where the chasm of generations between us was more evident than we’d bother to address. They’d sold their five-bedroom home in Manor Club when it was just she and Grandpa left alone inside the walls baring all their memories. The house had character worn into its beams by years of raising six children and consequently taking the abuse of the (then) eleven grandchildren like a docile Golden Retriever.

It wasn’t long after my grandpa died that I moved back in with Gma. At fifteen, it was just she and I in their new two-bedroom condo like college roommates, bickering at each other’s annoying habits, ridiculing each other’s guests, and sharing intimate details about each other’s lives when all guards were off and each other was all we had.

Despite our differences, her narratives always fascinated me. I had grown up on Gma’s tales and adventures of her youth. In most of her stories, she depicted the trials of the Depression and conversely, the joys of simplicity. She encouraged any craft that didn’t involve sitting in front of the television. She believed in hard work, and despite her dyslexia, was the first woman to graduate from Catholic University’s Architectural School in the mid-1940s. “Of course,” she said. “There was no such thing as dyslexia in my day. Those nuns damn near had me convinced I was just plain dumb.”

She was a trained painter and teacher, a fine quilter, gardener, and proud lefty. She had more sides to her than a rainbow-scattering prism. When we were young and curious, flooding her with questions, we’d “look it up” together. When we had ideas, no matter how silly, she’d figure out a plan to somehow help us make it happen. All of us grandkids had ongoing special projects at any given time: whether it was building in the garage, sewing in the living room, painting in the basement, or taking long, often lost, “adventures” that brought us closer to her past.

She was from Washington DC, so subway rides from Silver Spring into the city were a regular episode. We spent so many hours in the Museum of Natural History I might attribute one of my cavities to its famous astronaut ice cream. We also went to see the cherry blossoms when they were in bloom each year, visited the National Zoo and toured the Washington Monument as well as several of the surviving parks and canal trails from her childhood.

It was on these journeys that she and I would discuss life, politics, war, religion, and whatever else came to mind. She was a woman of many words, so silences were few and far between. I got to know her opinion on just about everything because nothing was typically left unsaid, nothing.

By the time I was in high school and college, the only music we could agree on in the car was the Sister Act soundtrack. On our longer jaunts when conversation dripped to a minimum, I would toss in the tape before the banter went sour, which was a given with our opposite views on nearly everything. I’d slide back the sunroof, and we’d sing till our hearts were content.

“Hail mother of mercy and of love. Oh, Maria!”

She played the grouchy old nun, while I was Whoopi, trying to change her stubborn ways.

Gma and I both loved musicals, but while I was off scalping tickets to see Rent on Broadway, which she would have found too loud and too crude (God knows she would have had a thing or two to say about the “fairy” drag queen), she was content with her video of Fiddler on the Roof.

As I sat in the theater recently for the Broadway performance of Lion King, I couldn’t help but picture her sitting there beside me, her big, brown eyes shifted right with her good ear turned to the stage; it was a show we would have both agreed on.

For the theater, she would have wetted down her short gray wispy hair and parted it to the side and then patted it down just so with both hands. A blouse and a skirt would have already been picked out, lying on the bed. The blouse would get tucked in and the belt fastened not too far below her bra line. Then she’d unroll her knee highs from the toes and slip on some open toe sandals, depending on the season; she didn’t mind if the hose showed. Some clip-on earrings might have made their way to her virgin lobes, if she remembered, and she would have puckered up in the hallway mirror with a tube of Clairol’s light pink lipstick from her pocketbook before announcing that she was ready.

Gma would have loved the costumes, the music, the precision in each detail. And in the car ride home, I can hear her now, yelling over the drone of the car’s engine because her hearing aid had remained in the dresser drawer since the day she brought it home. “There wasn’t but one white fella’ in the whole gosh dern show. Every last one of ’em was black as the day is long, but boy could they sing. God, what beautiful voices they had, and even as deaf as I am I could understand what they were saying. They were all so well spoken.”

Rarely does a day go by that I don’t smile at one of her idioms or imagine one of her crazy shenanigans, her backward lessons, or silly songs. I used to feel guilty about the proportion I spent missing her over the amount I did my own mother. I guess it makes sense, though, to miss what I knew for far longer, and I suppose I had been swimming laps in the gaping void I housed for my mom.

Over the years, I often thought if I truly searched for my mom she would give me a sign, but where would I even look? Or would I even dare? Gma believed in those kinds of things, and despite having long lost my religion, she made me believe.

She told me a story once, without even looking up from the quilt she mended, about a dark angel who sat in a chair by the window in the corner of the room, accompanying her in the hospital as her mother lay on her deathbed gripped by cancer. She said the angel’s presence alone had been enough to give her peace. I had watched her get mistyeyed while she brought herself back to the scene, still pushing the thimble to the fabric. Another time, she continued, she sat on the front step of their first house on Pine Hill in hysterics as she’d just gotten word of her three-year-old daughter’s cancer diagnosis; she’d felt a hand on her shoulder enough to calm her. She knew then she wasn’t alone.

These conversations became typical when it was just us. When she cried, so did I. We wore each other’s pain like thick costume makeup, nothing a good cry and some heavy cold cream couldn’t take off. She shared with me her brinks of meltdowns after losing my mother, and I grew up knowing that she had far more depth than her overt simplicity echoed.

It wasn’t until my latter college years, though, when we had become so close we were able to overlook most of our differences. By then, I wanted all the time I spent running away back; I wanted my high school bad attitude and disrespect erased; I wanted the smell of my cigarette smoke in her station wagon to finally go away. She was my history. She was my companion. She was home to me.

In the last few years, we shared our haunts, our fears, our regrets. Yet, we laughed a lot. She never minded being the butt of any good joke. She got crazier and goofier in her old age, shedding more of her crossbred New England proper and Southern Belle style. One of my favorite memories was of the time my college roommate, Kathleen, and I taught her how to play “Asshole” at our Bethany, Delaware, beach house.

Gma had said, “The kids were all down here whoopin’ it up the other night playing a game, havin’ a good ol’ time, hootin’ and hollerin’. I would like to learn that game. They kept shouting some curse word what’s it called again?”

“Asshole?” I had said.

“Yup, that must be it. Asshole sounds right. Think you can teach this old bird?”

Kathleen and I nearly fell over at the request but were obliged to widen Gma’s eyes to the awesome college beer-drinking game full of presidents, assholes, and beer bitches. And she loved it, quite possibly a little tipsy after a few rounds. We didn’t typically play Asshole with Jacob’s Creek chardonnay.

Throughout the course of several conversations, Gma assured me that she’d had a good life and when the time came, she’d be ready. In those last few years, if I stood in her condo and so much as mentioned the slightest gesture of admiration toward anything she owned, she’d say, “Write your name on the back.” She’d have the Scotch tape and a Sharpie out before I could even reconsider.

It was 2003, a year into my teaching career, when Gma finally expressed how proud she was of me. She said that my mom had always wanted to be a teacher, that she was surely proud of me, too. I’ll never forget waking up to my brother’s phone call, his voice solemn. I was devastated.

It was my mom and Gma who helped Brooke and I get our house, I always said. I had signed a contract to start at St. Anne’s in the fall, so we needed a home outside the city that would make my new commute toward DC more bearable. Three years after Gma died, since I wasn’t speaking to God much in those days, I asked Mom and Gma to help us out if they could. Brooke, who only knew Gma through my incessant stories, was just as kooky as I was when it came to talking to the dead so she never batted an eye at the references I made to the china cabinet.

Gma’s old antique china cabinet green until she stripped, sanded and painted it maroon the year she moved to her condo sat in the dining room of our rented row house in Baltimore. (The smell of turpentine will always remind me of her leathered hands.) Sometimes, for no good reason, the door would fall slightly ajar, and each time it did, I swore she was trying to tell me something. While dating a girl I imagine Gma was not particularly fond of, I eventually had to put a matchbook in the door just to keep the damn thing closed it creeped me out in the mornings when I’d wake up to the glass door gaping.

The exact night Brooke and I put the contract in on our house, we mentioned something to Gma before going to bed, kissing our hands and casually patting the side of the paint-chipped cabinet. The next morning wide open. Two days later contract accepted. I was elated; I’d never had such a good feeling about anything.

I felt so close to my team of guardian angels then. Everything seemed to be in its delightfully divine order, and I thanked them immensely from the moment we began the purchasing process until the time we moved in, displaying my gratitude thereafter with each stroke of my paintbrush and each rock pulled from the garden. I adored the home we were blessed with, our cute little cobblestone accented condo, our very first house. Even though we knew it wasn’t a forever home, it was ours to make our own for now. And we did or we started to.

So when the fairy tale began to fall apart, just a little over a year later, I couldn’t help but question everything, intentions, meaning. There was no sign from the china cabinet. None of it made sense, the reason behind it all, I mean. Sure, I had always known growing up that everything has its reason. I have lived by that motto, but I could make no sense of this. It’s one thing for a relationship to fall apart, but to have gone all this way, with the house to tie us even further? I was beside myself.

Needless to say, my bits of gratitude tapered off as I felt like I had less and less to be thankful for. I still talked to Mom and Gma, but not without first asking, “Why?” And something, quite possibly the silence that made the question seem rhetorical told me I was going to have to get through this on my own. Perhaps it was a test of independence or a sudden stroke of bad karma for all the years spent being an obnoxious teenager, ungrateful, untrustworthy. Either way I was screwed; of that much I was certain.

I had always wanted to leave. To go away, I mean. Study abroad or go live in another state and explore. I had traveled a little in college but nowhere extensively. So, as all the boxes moved into our brand new house were unpacked and making their way into storage, the reality of being bound started creeping into my dreams through suffocation. I was faintly torn. Not enough to dampen the mood, because I imagined that somehow all that other stuff, my writing, my passions, would come later. It would all fall into place somehow. I guess I trusted even in the slightest possibility, although I knew that with each year of teaching, the job that was supposed to give me time off to be creative, I felt more and more comfortable and lackadaisical about pursuing my dreams.

I took a writing course online that drove in some discipline, only to drop it midway when things got complicated. Brooke often entertained the idea of moving to California, which kept me content, although I knew with the look of things that was only getting further and further from practical. But since being honest with myself wasn’t my strong suit, I ignored my intuition, and looking back, ignored a lot of signs that might have politely escorted me out the door rather than having it slammed in my face.

Chapter Two


I took a course, Sex in a Pluralistic Society, in my last semester of college. Somehow I thought it was going to be a lecture on the sociology of gender. Keep in mind this was the same semester I tried to cram in all my last requirements, registering for other such gems as Plagues and People; Death, Dying and Bereavement; and History of Theology.

Yes, the sex class was the lighter side to my schedule, but my prude Catholic upbringing made a sex journal, “Or, if you don’t have a partner, make it a self-love journal,” a really difficult assignment. Plus, the guy who taught the class just creeped me out. The videos he made us watch, I’m still traumatized. A classmate and I thought to complain, on several occasions, but it was both of our last semesters so it’s fair to say that, like me, she left that sort of tenacity to the underclassmen.

Despite the dildos, the pornography, and the daylong discussion on G-spots, I did take away one valuable lesson from that loony old perv. It was toward the end of the semester when the concept of love was finally introduced. By then, I had done my fair share of heart breaking and had tasted the bitter side of breakup a few times myself. I was sure I knew everything he had to say.

Instead, I was surprised to find myself taking notes when he broke down the Greeks’ take on the four different kinds of love: agape, eros, philia, storge. We discussed unconditional love versus conditional love. Yeah, yeah; I knew all that. He went on to describe eros as manic love, obsessive love, desperate love.

“This is the kind of love movies are based on. It’s high energy, high drama, requires no sleep, is built on attraction, jealousy runs rampant; it comes in like a storm and subsides often as quickly as it came in.” I cringed when he said, “It’s immature love.”

And here, I thought, this is what it was all about. All lesbian love, at least all those wonderful, electrifying things! Eros it even sounds erroneous.

It was when I was dating the most confident and beautiful, twinkly-eyed woman I’d ever laid my hands on, some four years later, that I was brought back to that lecture. Despite our good intentions and valiant attempts at maturity, Brooke and I had a relationship built on many of those very erroneous virtues. It was movie-worthy high passion infused with depths that felt like coming down from a rock star kind of party.

Perhaps it’s because it began all wrong. She was fresh out of college. I was already teaching, working weekends at a chick bar in Baltimore at the time, Coconuts, our very own Coyote Ugly. One night, a friend of hers (she admitted later) noticed me, in my finest wicker cowboy hat and cut-off shirt, slinging beers and lining up shots between stolen, flirtatious moments on the dance floor. A week later, Brooke and I were fixed up at a party. We were both in other relationships that we needed excuses to get out of, so why not? She was beautiful (did I say that already?), tall, caramel skin and hazel eyes, tomboy cute when she was feeling sporty, simply stunning when dressed to the nines. She even fell into her dad’s Brazilian accent after a few cocktails, which sealed it for me; I was enamored. Plus, she was a bona fide lesbian (a first for me), and we wore the same size shoe. What more do you need?

We did everything together: tennis, basketball, squash. She’d patiently sit on the beach while I surfed. I always said yes to her shopping trips. We even peed with the door open so as to not interrupt conversation. And I’m almost certain I slept right on top of her for at least a solid year, I’d never been considered a “peanut” before. In fact, I don’t think we separated at all for the first couple of years we dated, now that I think about it. Maybe for an odd trip, but it didn’t go without feeling like we’d lost a limb, I swear. We’d always say, “No more than five days,” as if we wouldn’t have been able to breathe on day six.

When we first started dating, I went to Japan for nine days to visit my brother Jack who had been stationed at Atsugi. I was pretty pathetic. It was my first time traveling alone, so when I stepped off the plane on foreign soil and my family wasn’t at the gate ready to collect me, I quickly reverted to my inner child, the sweeping panic stretched from my tippy toes to my fingertips.

It was the same feeling I used to get in Kmart when I’d look up from the shelf to tug at the skirt of the lady standing beside me, only to be both mortified and petrified when I realized that face and body didn’t belong to my Gma. I’m not sure who was supposed to be keeping track of whom, but whoever it was did so poorly. Hence the reason why I developed a system: I’d go sit in the back of our station wagon where I knew it would be impossible for me to be forgotten among the dusty racks of stiff clothes. The first time I put this system into place, unbeknownst to anyone, I resurfaced from the car when the two police cars arrived, to see what all the hubbub was about. Boy, were they glad to see me when I strolled back through the automatic sliding doors, unaware of all the excitement I had started.

Thank God my sister-in-law found me in Tokyo after I’d already figured out how to work the phones and had dialed home. Brooke had calmed me down by talking me through the basics: I wasn’t lost; I was just on the brink of being found, she assured me. I’d hung up and collected myself by the time Jill and the kids arrived.

Every evening in Japan, I slid away from the family and hid in my room where I clumsily punched hundreds of calling card numbers into the phone just so I could hear Brooke’s voice before bed. And like me, she was dying inside at the distance between us.

Sure, there were some caution signs, some red flags being waved, but all the good seemed to outweigh the bad, and who’s perfect, really? I thought some of my ideologies about love were too lofty and maybe, just maybe, I had to accept that I would never have all that I desired from a relationship, like say, trust. Plus, people grow, they mature, relationships mature; surely we’d be the growing kind. We liked self-help books. We had a shelf where they sat, most of them at least half-read.

Her family loved me, and I adored them. Yes, it took a while for them to get used to the idea of me being more than just Brooke’s “roommate.” Thankfully, the week Brooke came out to her family, a close family friend, battling breast cancer, took a turn for the worse. Brooke came back at her parents’ retorts with, “Well, at least I don’t have cancer.” And to that, well they had to agree.

Brooke and I traveled together. We loved the beach. We loved food and cute, quaint little restaurants. We loved playing house and raising a puppy. We loved talking about our future and a big fat gay wedding, and most of all we loved being loved. We bought each other flowers and little presents and surprised each other with dinner and trips and concert tickets. I’ll never forget the anniversary when she had me get all dressed up just to trick me into a beautiful candlelit dinner at home. I could have sat at that table forever, staring into her shimmering, smiling eyes, or let her hold me for just as long as we danced among the rose petals she’d scattered at our feet.

It was for all those reasons that the darkness never outweighed the light, the screaming matches, the silent treatments, the distrust, the jealousy. All those things seemed part of our short past when we began shopping for our first home. It was a blank slate, a new beginning signing the paperwork, picking out furniture, remodeling our kitchen.

God, we danced so much in that kitchen.

We laughed at our goofy dog, Porter. We cried on our couch, watching movies. We supported each other in our few separate endeavors. We shared chores and “mom” duty and bills and credit cards. And I think it was under the weight of all the things of which we were once so proud that it all began to crumble. “Do you have to slam the cabinets like that?” as if I were picking up new habits to purposefully push her away. “I hate fighting like this in front of him!” she’d say, pointing at Porter. “Look, we’re making him nervous.”

She sobbed and sobbed, and her big beautiful eyes remained bloodshot for at least six months as I watched her slip away from me. I begged her to tell me what she needed, and even that she couldn’t do.

Brooke finally had a social life that I supported wholeheartedly, but that social life seemed to echo more and more of what was wrong with us. During the day things appeared fine and good and normal, but at night her cold shoulder sent me shivering further and further to the opposite side of the bed until I eventually moved into the spare bedroom.

I didn’t get it. I said that I did, that I understood, but I didn’t.

She spent an awful lot of time with a “friend.” Julie, a mutual friend, or so I thought. We all hung out together, thus I didn’t think to question anything until it became more and more blatant. I would beg, “Just tell me what’s going on with the two of you. I’m a big girl. I’ll just walk away. But I can’t just sit around here feeling batty while you deny what I can see with my own two eyes!”

She wouldn’t admit to it. “Nothing is going on.” She said she just needed time to figure herself out.

In the meantime, I was still her home. I was still her best friend and even at the furthest distance she’d pushed me to, I was the one who calmed her when the weight of it all made her come unhinged.

I was the one who rubbed her back and kissed her forehead.

She wanted me to be an asshole, so she’d have an excuse. She wanted me to get pissed to lessen her compounding guilt. I’m not sure if it was that I couldn’t or that I wouldn’t do either of those things. I still hung onto what I’d promised with that sparkly little ring I’d given her, not the real thing, but a big promise. I had taken it all very seriously. “In sickness and in health.” And here she was before me, as far as I could see it, sick.

Well, sick was the only diagnosis that wouldn’t allow me to hate her as she inhabited our home with me, a platonic roommate, sometimes cold and aloof and other times recognizable and warm. I felt like we had somehow been dragged into the drama of a bad after-school special without the happy commercials of sugary cereals and toys that will never break or end up like the Velveteen Rabbit, who ironically, I was really starting to resemble in the confines of our condo with its walls caving in.

While the final days of summer strode past in their lengthy hour, the honest words, “I want to take a break,” were inescapably spoken. I felt sick, stunned by the syllables as they fell from her lips. We’d been at the beach for the weekend where I naively thought we might be able to spend some time all to ourselves, mending the stacks of broken things between us. I knew this had to do with Julie, but still nobody had the guts to admit it. I was infuriated. So much so, that I reduced myself to checking cell phone logs and sleuthing around my own home. I hated myself for the lengths I allowed her to push me.

There was no way I could return to school as my signed contract promised. I couldn’t imagine focusing on my students while I was so busy focusing on my failing relationship. Although the last thing I wanted to do was uproot myself, I had finally begun to gather the pebbles of self-respect that would eventually become its new foundation. I had to go.

And with the phone call to my faculty chair, I did exactly what I never imagined I would do. I resigned. I had never been so excited to throw in the towel well, except for that one awful restaurant where I was too much of a coward to quit so I faxed in my resignation an hour before my shift that time felt good too. But this was different. I didn’t chicken out. I stood up to Barbara’s crucifix-firing cannon and prevailed.

When Brooke and I weren’t fighting or walking on eggshells around each other, she dove into my arms expressing her undying love for me, and I held the stranger I no longer connected with, consoling her. I didn’t know what to make of all the mixed emotions. I had taken my accusations to Julie herself to try to get some answers, but she laughed at my arguments, claiming Brooke was “too confused” to be dating anyone right now. Julie was older, with graying wisps, loafers and pleated pants. To look at her anymore made me sick. And, after all, Brooke still wore the ring I’d given her. Still, after nine months, none of it made any sense.

The night she woke me, cross-legged on the floor at my bed because she couldn’t sleep and it was driving her crazy, she looked desperate. I held her and stroked her hair, calming her with my patient voice, exuding every ounce of love that could look past my own pain to reduce hers. Healthy? Probably not. But that was the only way I knew how to love her. To put everything of me aside. Everything.

I have always wanted a family. From the time I was little I knew I would be a mom. At eight, I thought marrying a rich man and becoming a housewife was the golden ticket to true happiness, along with becoming the president, a monkey trainer, and a marine biologist. My pending future changed with the weather, but rich was almost always a constant. A valid measure of success at eight, I suppose. A family, and its entire construct, was very important to me: the house, the dog, the hus or now the wife, all of it.

And that’s what Brooke and I had, or we talked like we did. Raising our puppy from ten weeks to his “man”hood and buying household goods on joint credit cards. We were all grown up like a real family. With our names linked on more than just the dog’s birth certificate, “taking a break” was really a separation and anything beyond that was really a divorce. I hadn’t reached that logic in my head, perhaps because I still refused to believe that all I imagined was disintegrating before me, where I stood, clenching fistfuls of hopeless dust.

Chapter Three


I toyed with the idea of California, as I had always talked about. No reason to stay here. Seriously, with no excuses holding me back, I searched tirelessly for jobs on craigslist day in and day out. And there was an edge of excitement in taking control, or that’s what I convinced myself was going on. I applied for a few teaching jobs in California, Colorado, British Columbia, and even New York. I was intrigued by the schools that touted their outdoor education programs and offered classes like rock climbing and snowboarding. I reasoned with myself: teaching can’t be all that bad with a mountain backdrop and class cancelations for white-water rafting.



I Think I’ll Make It. A True Story of Lost and Found

by Kat Hurley

get it at

Epigenetics: The Evolution Revolution – Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff * The Epigenetics Revolution – Nessa Carey.

So something that happened in one pregnant population affected their children’s children. This raised the really puzzling question of how these effects were passed on to subsequent generations.

These effects arise from a newly recognized genetic mechanism called epigenesis, which enables the environment to make long lasting changes in the way genes are expressed.

That’s what happens when cells read the genetic code that’s in DNA. The same script can result in different productions.

Why is it that humans contain trillions of cells in hundreds of complex organs, and microscopic worms contain about a thousand cells and only rudimentary organs, but we and the worm have the same number of genes?

We are finally starting to unravel the missing link between nature and nurture; how our environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.

Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck noted that life on earth had evolved over long periods of time into a striking variety of organisms. He sought to explain how they had become more and more complex. Living organisms not only evolved, Lamarck argued; they did so very slowly, “little by little and successively.” In Lamarckian theory, animals became more diverse as each creature strove toward its own “perfection,” hence the enormous variety of living things on earth. Man is the most complex life form, therefore the most perfect, and is even now evolving.

In Lamarck’s view, the evolution of life depends on variation and the accumulation of small, gradual changes. These are also at the center of Darwin’s theory of evolution, yet Darwin wrote that Lamarck’s ideas were “veritable rubbish.” Darwinian evolution is driven by genetic variation combined with natural selection, the process whereby some variations give their bearers better reproductive success in a given environment than other organisms have. Lamarckian evolution, on the other hand, depends on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Giraffes, for example, got their long necks by stretching to eat leaves from tall trees, and stretched necks were inherited by their offspring, though Lamarck did not explain how this might be possible.

When the molecular structure of DNA was discovered in 1953, it became dogma in the teaching of biology that DNA and its coded information could not be altered in any way by the environment or a person’s way of life. The environment, it was known, could stimulate the expression of a gene. Having a light shone in one’s eyes or suffering pain, for instance, stimulates the activity of neurons and in doing so changes the activity of genes those neurons contain, producing instructions for making proteins or other molecules that play a central part in our bodies.

The structure of the DNA neighboring the gene provides a list of instructions, a gene program, that determines under what circumstances the gene is expressed. And it was held that these instructions could not be altered by the environment. Only mutations, which are errors introduced at random, could change the instructions or the information encoded in the gene itself and drive evolution through natural selection. Scientists discredited any Lamarckian claims that the environment can make lasting, perhaps heritable alterations in gene structure or function.

But new ideas closely related to Lamarck’s eighteenth century views have become central to our understanding of genetics. In the past fifteen years these ideas, which belong to a developing field of study called epigenetics, have been discussed in numerous articles and several books, including Nessa Carey’s 2012 study The Epigenetic Revolution and The Deepest Well, a recent work on childhood trauma by the physician Nadine Burke Harris.

The developing literature surrounding epigenetics has forced biologists to consider the possibility that gene expression could be influenced by some heritable environmental factors previously believed to have had no effect over it, like stress or deprivation. “The DNA blueprint,” Carey writes,

Isn’t a sufficient explanation for all the sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, complexity of life. If the DNA sequence was all that mattered, identical twins would always be absolutely identical in every way. Babies born to malnourished mothers would gain weight as easily as other babies who had a healthier start in life.

That might seem a commonsensical view. But it runs counter to decades of scientific thought about the independence of the genetic program from environmental influence. What findings have made it possible?

In 1975, two English biologists, Robin Holliday and John Pugh, and an American biologist, Arthur Riggs, independently suggested that methylation, a chemical modification of DNA that is heritable and can be induced by environmental influences, had an important part in controlling gene expression. How it did this was not understood, but the idea that through methylation the environment could, in fact, alter not only gene expression but also the genetic program rapidly took root in the scientific community.

As scientists came to better understand the function of methylation in altering gene expression, they realized that extreme environmental stress, the results of which had earlier seemed self explanatory, could have additional biological effects on the organisms that suffered it. Experiments with laboratory animals have now shown that these outcomes are based on the transmission of acquired changes in genetic function. Childhood abuse, trauma, famine, and ethnic prejudice may, it turns out, have long term consequences for the functioning of our genes.

These effects arise from a newly recognized genetic mechanism called epigenesis, which enables the environment to make long lasting changes in the way genes are expressed.

Epigenesis does not change the information coded in the genes or a person’s genetic makeup, the genes themselves are not affected, but instead alters the manner in which they are “read” by blocking access to certain genes and preventing their expression.

This mechanism can be the hidden cause of our feelings of depression, anxiety, or paranoia. What is perhaps most surprising of all, this alteration could, in some cases, be passed on to future generations who have never directly experienced the stresses that caused their forebears’ depression or ill health.

Numerous clinical studies have shown that childhood trauma, arising from parental death or divorce, neglect, violence, abuse, lack of nutrition or shelter, or other stressful circumstances, can give rise to a variety of health problems in adults: heart disease, cancer, mood and dietary disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, infertility, suicidal behavior, learning deficits, and sleep disorders.

Since the publication in 2003 of an influential paper by Rudolf Jaenisch and Adrian Bird, we have started to understand the genetic mechanisms that explain why this is the case. The body and the brain normally respond to danger and frightening experiences by releasing a hormone, a glucocorticoid that controls stress. This hormone prepares us for various challenges by adjusting heart rate, energy production, and brain function; it binds to a protein called the glucocorticoid receptor in nerve cells of the brain.

Normally, this binding shuts off further glucocorticoid production, so that when one no longer perceives a danger, the stress response abates. However, as Gustavo Turecki and Michael Meaney note in a 2016 paper surveying more than a decade’s worth of findings about epigenetics, the gene for the receptor is inactive in people who have experienced childhood stress; as a result, they produce few receptors. Without receptors to bind to, glucocorticoids cannot shut off their own production, so the hormone keeps being released and the stress response continues, even after the threat has subsided.

“The term for this is disruption of feedback inhibition,” Harris writes. It is as if “the body’s stress thermostat is broken. Instead of shutting off this supply of ‘heat’ when a certain point is reached, it just keeps on blasting cortisol through your system.”

It is now known that childhood stress can deactivate the receptor gene by an epigenetic mechanism, namely, by creating a physical barrier to the information for which the gene codes. What creates this barrier is DNA methylation, by which methyl groups known as methyl marks (composed of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms) are added to DNA.

DNA methylation is long-lasting and keeps chromatin, the DNA-protein complex that makes up the chromosomes containing the genes, in a highly folded structure that blocks access to select genes by the gene expression machinery, effectively shutting the genes down. The long-term consequences are chronic inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder.

Such epigenetic effects have been demonstrated in experiments with laboratory animals. In a typical experiment, rat or mouse pups are subjected to early-life stress, such as repeated maternal separation. Their behavior as adults is then examined for evidence of depression, and their genomes are analyzed for epigenetic modifications. Likewise, pregnant rats or mice can be exposed to stress or nutritional deprivation, and their offspring examined for behavioral and epigenetic consequences.

Experiments like these have shown that even animals not directly exposed to traumatic circumstances, those still in the womb when their parents were put under stress, can have blocked receptor genes. It is probably the transmission of glucocorticoids from mother to fetus via the placenta that alters the fetus in this way. In humans, prenatal stress affects each stage of the child’s maturation: for the fetus, a greater risk of preterm delivery, decreased birth weight, and miscarriage; in infancy, problems of temperament, attention, and mental development; in childhood, hyperactivity and emotional problems; and in adulthood, illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression.

What is the significance of these findings?

Until the mid-1970s, no one suspected that the way in which the DNA was “read” could be altered by environmental factors, or that the nervous systems of people who grew up in stress free environments would develop differently from those of people who did not. One’s development, it was thought, was guided only by one’s genetic makeup.

As a result of epigenesis, a child deprived of nourishment may continue to crave and consume large amounts of food as an adult, even when he or she is being properly nourished, leading to obesity and diabetes. A child who loses a parent or is neglected or abused may have a genetic basis for experiencing anxiety and depression and possibly schizophrenia.

Formerly, it had been widely believed that Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, variation and natural selection, were the only means for introducing such long lasting changes in brain function, a process that took place over generations. We now know that epigenetic mechanisms can do so as well, within the lifetime of a single person.

It is by now well established that people who suffer trauma directly during childhood or who experience their mother’s trauma indirectly as a fetus may have epigenetically based illnesses as adults. More controversial is whether epigenetic changes can be passed on from parent to child.

Methyl marks are stable when DNA is not replicating, but when it replicates, the methyl marks must be introduced into the newly replicated DNA strands to be preserved in the new cells. Researchers agree that this takes place when cells of the body divide, a process called mitosis, but it is not yet fully established under which circumstances marks are preserved when cell division yields sperm and egg, a process called meiosis, or when mitotic divisions of the fertilized egg form the embryo. Transmission at these two latter steps would be necessary for epigenetic changes to be transmitted in full across generations.

The most revealing instances for studies of intergenerational transmission have been natural disasters, famines, and atrocities of war, during which large groups have undergone trauma at the same time. These studies have shown that when women are exposed to stress in the early stages of pregnancy, they give birth to children whose stress response systems malfunction. Among the most widely studied of such traumatic events is the Dutch Hunger Winter. In 1944 the Germans prevented any food from entering the parts of Holland that were still occupied. The Dutch resorted to eating tulip bulbs to overcome their stomach pains. Women who were pregnant during this period, Carey notes, gave birth to a higher proportion of obese and schizophrenic children than one would normally expect. These children also exhibited epigenetic changes not observed in similar children, such as siblings, who had not experienced famine at the prenatal stage.

During the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961), millions of people died, and children born to young women who experienced the famine were more likely to become schizophrenic, to have impaired cognitive function, and to suffer from diabetes and hypertension as adults. Similar studies of the 1932-1933 Ukrainian famine, in which many millions died, revealed an elevated risk of type II diabetes in people who were in the prenatal stage of development at the time. Although prenatal and early childhood stress both induce epigenetic effects and adult illnesses, it is not known if the mechanism is the same in both cases.

Whether epigenetic effects of stress can be transmitted over generations needs more research, both in humans and in laboratory animals. But recent comprehensive studies by several groups using advanced genetic techniques have indicated that epigenetic modifications are not restricted to the glucocorticoid receptor gene. They are much more extensive than had been realized, and their consequences for our development, health, and behavior may also be great.

It is as though nature employs epigenesis to make long lasting adjustments to an individual’s genetic program to suit his or her personal circumstances, much as in Lamarck’s notion of “striving for perfection.”

In this view, the ill health arising from famine or other forms of chronic, extreme stress would constitute an epigenetic miscalculation on the part of the nervous system. Because the brain prepares us for adult adversity that matches the level of stress we suffer in early life, psychological disease and ill health persist even when we move to an environment with a lower stress level.

Once we recognize that there is an epigenetic basis for diseases caused by famine, economic deprivation, war related trauma, and other forms of stress, it might be possible to treat some of them by reversing those epigenetic changes. “When we understand that the source of so many of our society’s problems is exposure to childhood adversity,” Harris writes,

The solutions are as simple as reducing the dose of adversity for kids and enhancing the ability of caregivers to be buffers. From there, we keep working our way up, translating that understanding into the creation of things like more effective educational curricula and the development of blood tests that identify biomarkers for toxic stress, things that will lead to a wide range of solutions and innovations, reducing harm bit by bit, and then leap by leap.

Epigenetics has also made clear that the stress caused by war, prejudice, poverty, and other forms of childhood adversity may have consequences both for the persons affected and for their future unborn children, not only for social and economic reasons but also for biological ones.

The Epigenetics Revolution

Nessa Carey

Sometimes, when we read about biology, we could be forgiven for thinking that those three letters explain everything. Here, for example, are just a few of the statements made on 26 June 2000, when researchers announced that the human genome had been sequenced:

Today we are learning the language in which God created life. US President Bill Clinton

We now have the possibility of achieving all we ever hoped for from medicine. UK Science Minister Lord Sainsbury

Mapping the human genome has been compared with putting a man on the moon, but I believe it is more than that. This is the outstanding achievement not only of our lifetime, but in terms of human history. Michael Dexter, The Wellcome Trust

From these quotations, and many others like them, we might well think that researchers could have relaxed a bit after June 2000 because most human health and disease problems could now be sorted out really easily. After all, we had the blueprint for humankind. All we needed to do was get a bit better at understanding this set of instructions, so we could fill in a few details. Unfortunately, these statements have proved at best premature. The reality is rather different.

We talk about DNA as if it’s a template, like a mould for a car part in a factory. In the factory, molten metal or plastic gets poured into the mould thousands of times and, unless something goes wrong in the process, out pop thousands of identical car parts.

But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a script. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for example. In 1936 George Cukor directed Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in a film version. Sixty years later Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in another movie version of this play. Both productions used Shakespeare’s script, yet the two movies are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes.

That’s what happens when cells read the genetic code that’s in DNA. The same script can result in different productions.

The implications of this for human health are very wide ranging, as we will see from the case studies we are going to look at in a moment. In all these case studies it’s really important to remember that nothing happened to the DNA blueprint of the people in these case studies. Their DNA didn’t change (mutate), and yet their life histories altered irrevocably in response to their environments.

Audrey Hepburn was one of the 20th century’s greatest movie stars. Stylish, elegant and with a delicately lovely, almost fragile bone structure, her role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s has made her an icon, even to those who have never seen the movie. It’s startling to think that this wonderful beauty was created by terrible hardship. Audrey Hepburn was a survivor of an event in the Second World War known as the Dutch Hunger Winter. This ended when she was sixteen years old but the after effects of this period, including poor physical health, stayed with her for the rest of her life.

The Dutch Hunger Winter lasted from the start of November 1944 to the late spring of 1945. This was a bitterly cold period in Western Europe, creating further hardship in a continent that had been devastated by four years of brutal war. Nowhere was this worse than in the Western Netherlands, which at this stage was still under German control. A German blockade resulted in a catastrophic drop in the availability of food to the Dutch population. At one point the population was trying to survive on only about 30 per cent of the normal daily calorie intake. People ate grass and tulip bulbs, and burned every scrap of furniture they could get their hands on, in a desperate effort to stay alive. Over 20,000 people had died by the time food supplies were restored in May 1945.

The dreadful privations of this time also created a remarkable scientific study population. The Dutch survivors were a well defined group of individuals all of whom suffered just one period of malnutrition, all of them at exactly the same time. Because of the excellent healthcare infrastructure and record keeping in the Netherlands, epidemiologists have been able to follow the long term effects of the famine. Their findings were completely unexpected.

One of the first aspects they studied was the effect of the famine on the birth weights of children who had been in the womb during that terrible period. If a mother was well fed around the time of conception and malnourished only for the last few months of the pregnancy, her baby was likely to be born small. If, on the other hand, the mother suffered malnutrition for the first three months of the pregnancy only (because the baby was conceived towards the end of this terrible episode), but then was well fed, she was likely to have a baby with a normal body weight. The foetus ‘caught up’ in body weight.

That all seems quite straightforward, as we are all used to the idea that foetuses do most of their growing in the last few months of pregnancy. But epidemiologists were able to study these groups of babies for decades and what they found was really surprising. The babies who were born small stayed small all their lives, with lower obesity rates than the general population. For forty or more years, these people had access to as much food as they wanted, and yet their bodies never got over the early period of malnutrition. Why not? How did these early life experiences affect these individuals for decades? Why weren’t these people able to go back to normal, once their environment reverted to how it should be?

Even more unexpectedly, the children whose mothers had been malnourished only early in pregnancy, had higher obesity rates than normal. Recent reports have shown a greater incidence of other health problems as well, including certain tests of mental activity. Even though these individuals had seemed perfectly healthy at birth, something had happened to their development in the womb that affected them for decades after. And it wasn’t just the fact that something had happened that mattered, it was when it happened. Events that take place in the first three months of development, a stage when the foetus is really very small, can affect an individual for the rest of their life.

Even more extraordinarily, some of these effects seem to be present in the children of this group, i.e. in the grandchildren of the women who were malnourished during the first three months of their pregnancy.

So something that happened in one pregnant population affected their children’s children. This raised the really puzzling question of how these effects were passed on to subsequent generations.

Let’s consider a different human story. Schizophrenia is a dreadful mental illness which, if untreated, can completely overwhelm and disable an affected person. Patients may present with a range of symptoms including delusions, hallucinations and enormous difficulties focusing mentally. People with schizophrenia may become completely incapable of distinguishing between the ‘real world’ and their own hallucinatory and delusional realm. Normal cognitive, emotional and societal responses are lost. There is a terrible misconception that people with schizophrenia are likely to be violent and dangerous. For the majority of patients this isn’t the case at all, and the people most likely to suffer harm because of this illness are the patients themselves. Individuals with schizophrenia are fifty times more likely to attempt suicide than healthy individuals.

Schizophrenia is a tragically common condition. It affects between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent of the population in most countries and cultures, which means that there may be over fifty million people alive today who are suffering from this condition. Scientists have known for some time that genetics plays a strong role in determining if a person will develop this illness. We know this because if one of a pair of identical twins has schizophrenia, there is a 50 per cent chance that their twin will also have the condition. This is much higher than the 1 per cent risk in the general population.

Identical twins have exactly the same genetic code as each other. They share the same womb and usually they are brought up in very similar environments. When we consider this, it doesn’t seem surprising that if one of the twins develops schizophrenia, the chance that his or her twin will also develop the illness is very high. In fact, we have to start wondering why it isn’t higher. Why isn’t the figure 100 per cent? How is it that two apparently identical individuals can become so very different? An individual has a devastating mental illness but will their identical twin suffer from it too? Flip a coin heads they win, tails they lose. Variations in the environment are unlikely to account for this, and even if they did, how would these environmental effects have such profoundly different impacts on two genetically identical people?

Here’s a third case study. A small child, less than three years old, is abused and neglected by his or her parents. Eventually, the state intervenes and the child is taken away from the biological parents and placed with foster or adoptive parents. These new carers love and cherish the child, doing everything they can to create a secure home, full of affection. The child stays with these new parents throughout the rest of its childhood and adolescence, and into young adulthood.

Sometimes everything works out well for this person. They grow up into a happy, stable individual indistinguishable from all their peers who had normal, non abusive childhoods. But often, tragically, it doesn’t work out this way. Children who have suffered from abuse or neglect in their early years grow up with a substantially higher risk of adult mental health problems than the general population. All too often the child grows up into an adult at high risk of depression, self-harm, drug abuse and suicide.

Once again, we have to ask ourselves why. Why is it so difficult to override the effects of early childhood exposure to neglect or abuse?

Why should something that happened early in life have effects on mental health that may still be obvious decades later?

In some cases, the adult may have absolutely no recollection of the traumatic events, and yet they may suffer the consequences mentally and emotionally for the rest of their lives.

These three case studies seem very different on the surface. The first is mainly about nutrition, especially of the unborn child. The second is about the differences that arise between genetically identical individuals. The third is about long term psychological damage as a result of childhood abuse.

But these stories are linked at a very fundamental biological level. They are all examples of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the new discipline that is revolutionising biology. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, this is called epigenetics. When a change in environment has biological consequences that last long after the event itself has vanished into distant memory, we are seeing an epigenetic effect in action.

Epigenetic phenomena can be seen all around us, every day. Scientists have identified many examples of epigenetics, just like the ones described above, for many years. When scientists talk about epigenetics they are referring to all the cases where the genetic code alone isn’t enough to describe what’s happening, there must be something else going on as well.

This is one of the ways that epigenetics is described scientifically, where things which are genetically identical can actually appear quite different to one another. But there has to be a mechanism that brings out this mismatch between the genetic script and the final outcome. These epigenetic effects must be caused by some sort of physical change, some alterations in the vast array of molecules that make up the cells of every living organism. This leads us to the other way of viewing epigenetics, the molecular description.

In this model, epigenetics can be defined as the set of modifications to our genetic material that change the ways genes are switched on or off, but which don’t alter the genes themselves.

Although it may seem confusing that the word ‘epigenetics’ can have two different meanings, it’s just because we are describing the same event at two different levels. It’s a bit like looking at the pictures in old newspapers with a magnifying glass, and seeing that they are made up of dots. If we didn’t have a magnifying glass we might have thought that each picture was just made in one solid piece and we’d probably never have been able to work out how so many new images could be created each day. On the other hand, if all we ever did was look through the magnifying glass, all we would see would be dots, and we’d never see the incredible image that they formed together and which we’d see if we could only step back and look at the big picture.

The revolution that has happened very recently in biology is that for the first time we are actually starting to understand how amazing epigenetic phenomena are caused. We’re no longer just seeing the large image, we can now also analyse the individual dots that created it.

Crucially, this means that we are finally starting to unravel the missing link between nature and nurture; how our environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.

The ‘epi’ in epigenetics is derived from Greek and means at, on, to, upon, over or beside. The DNA in our cells is not some pure, unadulterated molecule. Small chemical groups can be added at specific regions of DNA. Our DNA is also smothered in special proteins. These proteins can themselves be covered with additional small chemicals. None of these molecular amendments changes the underlying genetic code. But adding these chemical groups to the DNA, or to the associated proteins, or removing them, changes the expression of nearby genes. These changes in gene expression alter the functions of cells, and the very nature of the cells themselves. Sometimes, if these patterns of chemical modifications are put on or taken off at a critical period in development, the pattern can be set for the rest of our lives, even if we live to be over a hundred years of age.

There’s no debate that the DNA blueprint is a starting point. A very important starting point and absolutely necessary, without a doubt. But it isn’t a sufficient explanation for all the sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, complexity of life. If the DNA sequence was all that mattered, identical twins would always be absolutely identical in every way. Babies born to malnourished mothers would gain weight as easily as other babies who had a healthier start in life. And as we shall see in Chapter 1, we would all look like big amorphous blobs, because all the cells in our bodies would be completely identical.

Huge areas of biology are influenced by epigenetic mechanisms, and the revolution in our thinking is spreading further and further into unexpected frontiers of life on our planet. Some of the other examples we’ll meet in this book include why we can’t make a baby from two sperm or two eggs, but have to have one of each. What makes cloning possible? Why is cloning so difficult? Why do some plants need a period of cold before they can flower? Since queen bees and worker bees are genetically identical, why are they completely different in form and function? Why are all tortoiseshell cats female?

Why is it that humans contain trillions of cells in hundreds of complex organs, and microscopic worms contain about a thousand cells and only rudimentary organs, but we and the worm have the same number of genes?

Scientists in both the academic and commercial sectors are also waking up to the enormous impact that epigenetics has on human health. It’s implicated in diseases from schizophrenia to rheumatoid arthritis, and from cancer to chronic pain. There are already two types of drugs that successfully treat certain cancers by interfering with epigenetic processes. Pharmaceutical companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a race to develop the next generation of epigenetic drugs to treat some of the most serious illnesses afflicting the industrialised world. Epigenetic therapies are the new frontiers of drug discovery.

In biology, Darwin and Mendel came to define the 19th century as the era of evolution and genetics; Watson and Crick defined the 20th century as the era of DNA, and the functional understanding of how genetics and evolution interact. But in the 21st century it is the new scientific discipline of epigenetics that is unravelling so much of what we took as dogma and rebuilding it in an infinitely more varied, more complex and even more beautiful fashion.

The world of epigenetics is a fascinating one. It’s filled with remarkable subtlety and complexity, and in Chapters 3 and 4 we’ll delve deeper into the molecular biology of what’s happening to our genes when they become epigenetically modified. But like so many of the truly revolutionary concepts in biology, epigenetics has at its basis some issues that are so simple they seem completely self evident as soon as they are pointed out. Chapter 1 is the single most important example of such an issue. It’s the investigation which started the epigenetics revolution.

Notes on nomenclature

There is an international convention on the way that the names of genes and proteins are written, which we adhere to in this book.

Gene names and symbols are written in italics. The proteins encoded by the genes are written in plain text. The symbols for human genes and proteins are written in upper case. For other species, such as mice, the symbols are usually written with only the first letter capitalised.

This is summarised for a hypothetical gene in the following table.

Like all rules, however, there are a few quirks in this system and while these conventions apply in general we will encounter some exceptions in this book.

Chapter 1

An Ugly Toad and an Elegant Man

Like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head. William Shakespeare

Humans are composed of about 50 to 70 trillion cells. That’s right, 50,000,000,000,000 cells. The estimate is a bit vague but that’s hardly surprising. Imagine we somehow could break a person down into all their individual cells and then count those cells, at a rate of one cell every second. Even at the lower estimate it would take us about a million and a half years, and that’s without stopping for coffee or losing count at any stage. These cells form a huge range of tissues, all highly specialised and completely different from one another. Unless something has gone very seriously wrong, kidneys don’t start growing out of the top of our heads and there are no teeth in our eyeballs.

This seems very obvious but why don’t they? It’s actually quite odd, when we remember that every cell in our body was derived from the division of just one starter cell. This single cell is called the zygote. A zygote forms when one sperm merges with one egg.

A Zygote

This zygote splits in two; those two cells divide again and so on, to create the miraculous piece of work which is a full human body. As they divide the cells become increasingly different from one another and form specialised cell types. This process is known as differentiation. It’s a vital one in the formation of any multicellular organism.

If we look at bacteria down a microscope then pretty much all the bacteria of a single species look identical. Look at certain human cells in the same way say, a food absorbing cell from the small intestine and a neuron from the brain and we would be hard pressed to say that they were even from the same planet. But so what? Well, the big ‘what’ is that these cells started out with exactly the same genetic material as one another. And we do mean exactly, this has to be the case, because they came from just one starter cell, that zygote. So the cells have become completely different even though they came from one cell with just one blueprint.

One explanation for this is that the cells are using the same information in different ways and that’s certainly true. But it’s not necessarily a statement that takes us much further forwards. In a 1960 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor as the time travelling scientist, there’s a scene where he shows his time machine to some learned colleagues (all male, naturally) and one asks for an explanation of how the machine works. Our hero then describes how the occupant of the machine will travel through time by the following mechanism:

In front of him is the lever that controls movement. Forward pressure sends the machine into the future. Backward pressure, into the past. And the harder the pressure, the faster the machine travels.

Everyone nods sagely at this explanation. The only problem is that this isn’t an explanation, it’s just a description. And that’s also true of that statement about cells using the same information in different ways it doesn’t really tell us anything, it just re-states what we already knew in a different way.

What’s much more interesting is the exploration of how cells use the same genetic information in different ways. Perhaps even more important is how the cells remember and keep on doing it. Cells in our bone marrow keep on producing blood cells, cells in our liver keep on producing liver cells. Why does this happen? One possible and very attractive explanation is that as cells become more specialised they rearrange their genetic material, possibly losing genes they don’t require. The liver is a vital and extremely complicated organ. The website of the British Liver Trust states that the liver performs over 500 functions, including processing the food that has been digested by our intestines, neutralising toxins and creating enzymes that carry out all sorts of tasks in our bodies. But one thing the liver simply never does is transport oxygen around the body. That job is carried out by our red blood cells, which are stuffed full of a particular protein, haemoglobin. Haemoglobin binds oxygen in tissues where there’s lots available, like our lungs, and then releases it when the red blood cell reaches a tissue that needs this essential chemical, such as the tiny blood vessels in the tips of our toes. The liver is never going to carry out this function, so perhaps it just gets rid of the haemoglobin gene, which it simply never uses.

It’s a perfectly reasonable suggestion cells could simply lose genetic material they aren’t going to use. As they differentiate, cells could jettison hundreds of genes they no longer need. There could of course be a slightly less drastic variation on this, maybe the cells shut down genes they aren’t using. And maybe they do this so effectively that these genes can never ever be switched on again in that cell, i.e. the genes are irreversibly inactivated. The key experiments that examined these eminently reasonable hypotheses, loss of genes, or irreversible inactivation involved an ugly toad and an elegant man.

Turning back the biological clock

The work has its origins in experiments performed many decades ago in England by John Gurdon, first in Oxford and subsequently Cambridge. Now Professor Sir John Gurdon, he still works in a lab in Cambridge, albeit these days in a gleaming modern building that has been named after him. He’s an engaging, unassuming and striking man who, 40 years on from his ground breaking work, continues to publish research in a field that he essentially founded.

John Gurdon cuts an instantly recognisable figure around Cambridge. Now in his seventies, he is tall, thin and has a wonderful head of swept back blonde hair. He looks like the quintessential older English gentleman of American movies, and fittingly he went to school at Eton. There is a lovely story that John Gurdon still treasures, a school report from his biology teacher at that institution which says, ‘I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist. In present showing, this is quite ridiculous.’ The teacher’s comments were based on his pupil’s dislike of mindless rote learning of unconnected facts. But as we shall see, for a scientist as wonderful as John Gurdon, memory is much less important than imagination.

In 1937 the Hungarian biochemist Albert SzentGyorgyi won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, his achievements including the discovery of vitamin C. In a phrase that has various subtly different translations but one consistent interpretation he defined discovery as, ‘To see what everyone else has seen but to think what nobody else has thought’. It is probably the best description ever written of what truly great scientists do. And John Gurdon is truly a great scientist, and may well follow in Szent-Gyorgyi’s Nobel footsteps.

In 2009 he was a co-recipient of the Lasker Prize, which is to the Nobel what the Golden Globes are so often to the Oscars. John Gurdon’s work is so wonderful that when it is first described it seems so obvious, that anyone could have done it. The questions he asked, and the ways in which he answered them, have that scientifically beautiful feature of being so elegant that they seem entirely self-evident.

John Gurdon used non-fertilised toad eggs in his work. Any of us who has ever kept a tank full of frogspawn and watched this jelly-like mass develop into tadpoles and finally tiny frogs, has been working, whether we thought about it in these terms or not, with fertilised eggs, i.e. ones into which sperm have entered and created a new complete nucleus. The eggs John Gurdon worked on were a little like these, but hadn’t been exposed to sperm.

There were good reasons why he chose to use toad eggs in his experiments. The eggs of amphibians are generally very big, are laid in large numbers outside the body and are see-through. All these features make amphibians a very handy experimental species in developmental biology, as the eggs are technically relatively easy to handle. Certainly a lot better than a human egg, which is hard to obtain, very fragile to handle, is not transparent and is so small that we need a microscope just to see it.

John Gurdon worked on the African clawed toad (Xenopus Iaevis, to give it its official title), one of those John Malkovich ugly-handsome animals, and investigated what happens to cells as they develop and differentiate and age. He wanted to see if a tissue cell from an adult toad still contained all the genetic material it had started with, or if it had lost or irreversibly inactivated some as the cell became more specialised. The way he did this was to take a nucleus from the cell of an adult toad and insert it into an unfertilised egg that had had its own nucleus removed. This technique is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), and will come up over and over again. ‘Somatic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘body’.

After he’d performed the SCNT, John Gurdon kept the eggs in a suitable environment (much like a child with a tank of frogspawn) and waited to see if any of these cultured eggs hatched into little toad tadpoles.

The experiments were designed to test the following hypothesis: ‘As cells become more specialised (differentiated) they undergo an irreversible loss/inactivation of genetic material.’ There were two possible outcomes to these experiments:


The hypothesis was correct and the ‘adult’ nucleus has lost some of the original blueprint for creating a new individual. Under these circumstances an adult nucleus will never be able to replace the nucleus in an egg and so will never generate a new healthy toad, with all its varied and differentiated tissues.


The hypothesis was wrong, and new toads can be created by removing the nucleus from an egg and replacing it with one from adult tissues.

Other researchers had started to look at this before John Gurdon decided to tackle the problem, two scientists called Briggs and King using a different amphibian, the frog Rana pipiens. In 1952 they transplanted the nuclei from cells at a very early stage of development into an egg lacking its own original nucleus and they obtained viable frogs. This demonstrated that it was technically possible to transfer a nucleus from another cell into an ‘empty’ egg without killing the cell. However, Briggs and King then published a second paper using the same system but transferring a nucleus from a more developed cell type and this time they couldn’t create any frogs. The difference in the cells used for the nuclei in the two papers seems astonishingly minor just one day older and no froglets. This supported the hypothesis that some sort of irreversible inactivation event had taken place as the cells differentiated. A lesser man than John Gurdon might have been put off by this. Instead he spent over a decade working on the problem.

The design of the experiments was critical. Imagine we have started reading detective stories by Agatha Christie. After we’ve read our first three we develop the following hypothesis: ‘The killer in an Agatha Christie novel is always the doctor.’ We read three more and the doctor is indeed the murderer in each. Have we proved our hypothesis? No. There’s always going to be the thought that maybe we should read just one more to be sure. And what if some are out of print, or unobtainable? No matter how many we read, we may never be entirely sure that we’ve read the entire collection. But that’s the joy of disproving hypotheses. All we need is one instance in which Poirot or Miss Marple reveal that the doctor was a man of perfect probity and the killer was actually the vicar, and our hypothesis is shot to pieces. And that is how the best scientific experiments are designed to disprove, not to prove an idea.

And that was the genius of John Gurdon’s work. When he performed his experiments what he was attempting was exceptionally challenging with the technology of the time. If he failed to generate toads from the adult nuclei this could simply mean his technique had something wrong with it. No matter how many times he did the experiment without getting any toads, this wouldn’t actually prove the hypothesis. But if he did generate live toads from eggs where the original nucleus had been replaced by the adult nucleus he would have disproved the hypothesis. He would have demonstrated beyond doubt that when cells differentiate, their genetic material isn’t irreversibly lost or changed. The beauty of this approach is that just one such toad would topple the entire theory and topple it he did.

John Gurdon is incredibly generous in his acknowledgement of the collegiate nature of scientific research, and the benefits he obtained from being in dynamic laboratories and universities. He was lucky to start his work in a well set-up laboratory which had a new piece of equipment which produced ultraviolet light. This enabled him to kill off the original nuclei of the recipient eggs without causing too much damage, and also ‘softened up’ the cell so that he could use tiny glass hypodermic needles to inject donor nuclei.

Other workers in the lab had, in some unrelated research, developed a strain of toads which had a mutation with an easily detectable, but non-damaging effect. Like almost all mutations this was carried in the nucleus, not the cytoplasm. The cytoplasm is the thick liquid inside cells, in which the nucleus sits. So John Gurdon used eggs from one strain and donor nuclei from the mutated strain. This way he would be able to show unequivocally that any resulting toads had been coded for by the donor nuclei, and weren’t just the result of experimental error, as could happen if a few recipient nuclei had been left over after treatment.

John Gurdon spent around fifteen years, starting in the late 1950s, demonstrating that in fact nuclei from specialised cells are able to create whole animals if placed in the right environment i.e. an unfertilised eggé. The more differentiated/specialised the donor cell was, the less successful the process in terms of numbers of animals, but that’s the beauty of disproving a hypothesis we might need a lot of toad eggs to start with but we don’t need to end up with many live toads to make our case. Just one non murderous doctor will do it, remember?

Sir John Gurdon showed us that although there is something in cells that can keep specific genes turned on or switched off in different cell types, whatever this something is, it can’t be loss or permanent inactivation of genetic material, because if he put an adult nucleus into the right environment in this case an ‘empty’ unfertilised egg it forgot all about this memory of which cell type it came from. It went back to being a naive nucleus from an embryo and started the whole developmental process again.

Epigenetics is the ‘something’ in these cells. The epigenetic system controls how the genes in DNA are used, in some cases for hundreds of cell division cycles, and the effects are inherited from when cells divide. Epigenetic modifications to the essential blueprint exist over and above the genetic code, on top of it, and program cells for decades. But under the right circumstances, this layer of epigenetic information can be removed to reveal the same shiny DNA sequence that was always there. That’s what happened when John Gurdon placed the nuclei from fully differentiated cells into the unfertilised egg cells.

Did John Gurdon know what this process was when he generated his new baby toads? No. Does that make his achievement any less magnificent? Not at all. Darwin knew nothing about genes when he developed the theory of evolution through natural selection. Mendel knew nothing about DNA when, in an Austrian monastery garden, he developed his idea of inherited factors that are transmitted ‘true’ from generation to generation of peas. It doesn’t matter. They saw what nobody else had seen and suddenly we all had a new way of viewing the world.

The epigenetic landscape

Oddly enough, there was a conceptual framework that was in existence when John Gurdon performed his work. Go to any conference with the word ‘epigenetics’ in the title and at some point one of the speakers will refer to something called ‘Waddington’s epigenetic landscape’.


The Epigenetics Revolution

by Nessa Carey

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