In a UCLA study, neurologists Istavan Molnar-Szakacs and Katie Overy watched brain scans to see which neurons fired while people and monkeys perform specific actions or experience specific emotions. They determined that a set of neurons in the observer “mirrors” what they saw happening in the observed…Visual and auditory clues trigger empathetic neurons. Corny but true: If you smile you will make other people happy…empathy seems to be built into our neurology…The border between what you feel and what I feel is porous. That we are social animals is deeply ingrained and makes us what we are. We think of ourselves as individuals, but to some extent we are not; our very cells are joined to the group by these evolved empathic reactions to others. This mirroring isn’t just emotional, it’s social and physical too. When someone gets hurt we “feel” their pain, though we don’t collapse in agony. And when a singer throws back his head and lets loose, we understand that as well.
Excerpts from “How Music Works” by David Byrne, former singer for the Talking Heads, in Smithsonian magazine, October 2012.