My friend, Mikel Wisler recently directed a short film called Empathy O.D. (watch it on Youtube). The story takes place in a future world where technology addictions have led to certain people becoming “robots”—people with no ability to empathize. As a result, powerful drugs have been developed to allow these robot-people to experience emotions, but those who take too many will fry their brain—literally overdosing on empathy. This morning, Pastor Kristina Kaiser spoke at The River Church about living life to the fullest and referenced the film as an object lesson. Given my most recent composition All Things New and its central phrase, “I live!” I started thinking about the power of choral music, and how it might prevent this impending dystopia.
Leonid Perlovsky, a physics and cognition researcher, suggests that music allows us to deal with cognitive dissonance by helping us to concentrate on challenging questions for a sustained period of time. Additionally, music helps us to achieve “social cohesion” by teaching humans how to work together.
In my experience, such effects are magnified in a choir. Imagine the difference between a soloist, whose successful performance rests on a single pair of shoulders, versus an ensemble of voices where one person can miss a note but recover stealthily by listening to others singing the same part. One world requires absolute perfection, while another allows for the occasional mistake without sacrificing a powerful end product. I can hardly think of a better metaphor for building a successful society.
Additionally, studying music aids children in their “emotional and behavioral maturation”. The evidence for this claim is focused mainly on students in private lessons, but one might assume that learning in a group setting could amplify the effect. Ensemble experiences teach musicians to balance musical fidelity with love and respect for the other members of the ensemble.
Furthermore, research confirms that singing together is one of the most effective ways “to forge feelings of connection and inclusion”. Throughout history, group singing contributed to human populations growing and thriving “by encouraging a large number of people to work for the common good.”
If you’ve ever expressed concern over the future of our species or planet, perhaps this is your cue to start singing. You’ll help yourself to feel better, but you’ll also be building bridges to your fellow singers. Overdosing on music today is a good way to ensure that our future selves won’t have to worry about overdosing on synthetic empathy.