Less stress, more social competence
The human brain is able to change and adapt to new conditions throughout life. Scientists refer to this capacity as plasticity. Until recently, it was unclear to what extent areas of the brain that control social behaviour also possess this ability. To find out, a research team led by Tania Singer, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, developed methods for training social skills and measured their effects on the behaviour of study subjects, their brain structures and their hormonal balance. Two important findings have now been published in the journal Science Advances.
Meditation is beneficial for the body and mind. Though this may sound trite, it has in fact been demonstrated in a number of studies on the effects of mindfulness training. However, the terms meditationand mindfulness cover a gamut of mental techniques that aim to cultivate a broad range of skills. Despite growing interest in meditation research, it is still unclear which mental training techniques are particularly suitable for enhancing awareness and mindfulness as well as social skills such as compassion and cognitive perspective-taking. Another key question concerns the extent to which these various mental training methods lead to structural brain changes in neural networks underlying the exercised skills in adults. It is also unknown which mental techniques reduce psychosocial stress most effectively at the hormonal level. To find answers to all these questions, a team of researchers in the Social Brain Science Department of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, led by Tania Singer, investigated how various meditation techniques for developing mental and social skills affect the brain and the body.
For the large-scale research project, called ReSource, Tania Singer, together with international experts, developed three three-month-long training sessions, each concentrating on a specific skill area. The first module focussed on the factors of awareness and mindfulness. During classical meditation exercises used in this module, the subjects, each on his or her own, practised focussing solely on breathing, sensory impressions or specific parts of the body.
The second module paid particular attention to what are known as socio-affective skills, such as compassion, gratitude and dealing with difficult emotions. The special thing about this module is that, in contrast to the mindfulness exercises, a new technique was used in which two people train together. In partner-based exercises, known as contemplative dyads, the subjects focussed on sharing their emotions in order to train closeness, gratitude, empathy and the ability to handle everyday stress factors.
In the third module, the participants cultivated their social skills – or more precisely their socio-cognitive skills –in particular their ability to assume perspectives, i.e. to take a bird’s-eye view of their own and others’ thought processes. Here, too, the participants trained in dyads in addition to doing classical meditation exercises. To this end, they assumed the role of one of their inner personality parts in their mind – whether the concerned mother, the curious child or the strict judge – and described a situation from the perspective of that personality part. Thus, while the speaker practised self-understanding, the listener practised shifting into the perspective and cognitive world of another person. The concept of inner personality parts relates to the work of Richard Schwarz, who devised the model of the “inner family system”, which assumes the presence of a multitude of inner personality parts in every individual. Under the guidance of the trainers, the participants developed their personality parts as a basis for training.
The participants performed the exercises for 30 minutes a day, six days a week. After each of the three units, the researchers tested the participants’ training-induced behavioural changes. They also measured changes in the brain structure by means of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and checked the stress system by means of numerous biomarkers, such as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva.
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