Meditation can have positive effects on our health and well-being. It physically changes the brain which not only helps in increasing the ability to process information but helps in increasing empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviour.
Researchers have found that distinct training modules alter distinct brain networks and have an impact on either our attention or our social competencies. The stress hormone cortisol was able to be lowered with one mental strategy. The adaption of mental training in clinics and education may be influenced by these findings.
Our health benefits from meditation. Research on the practice of mindfulness has provided empirical evidence in favour of this age-old knowledge. On the other hand, the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” refer to a range of mental training methods intended to develop different competencies. Put differently, even if research on meditation is becoming more and more popular, it is still unknown which kind of mental exercise is best for enhancing social skills like empathy and perspective-taking or attention and mindfulness.
Some unanswered concerns include whether these practises can change the brain networks that underlie the processing of these competences and induce structural brain plasticity, as well as which types of training are most useful in lowering social stress. To address these issues, a large-scale project called ReSource Project was carried out by researchers from the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. The project’s goal was to dissect the distinct impacts of various mental training techniques on the body, the brain, and social behaviour.
Training modules based on mindfulness-based attention and interoception
Three three-month training modules, each concentrating on a distinct ability, made up the ReSource Project. Interoception and mindfulness-based attention were taught in the first module. The participants received instruction in traditional meditation methods such as those taught in the 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Programme (MBSR). These methods include breathing meditation, body scans, and focusing attention on environmental cues, as well as sensations in various body parts. The two exercises were performed by themselves.
Training module based on socio-affective competencies
The second module’s training concentrated on developing socio-affective competencies, such as gratitude, compassion, and handling challenging emotions. Apart from the traditional meditation practices, the participants acquired a novel approach that necessitates daily practice in pairs for ten minutes. These companion activities, also known as “contemplative dyads,” were marked by a concentrated sharing of commonplace affective experiences with the goal of cultivating empathy, managing challenging emotions, and thankfulness.
Training modules focusing on socio-cognitive abilities
Participants practised sociocognitive skills in the third module, including perspective-taking and metacognition on both their own and other people’s thoughts. Once more, in addition to traditional meditation activities, this programme included dyadic practises that aimed to enhance perspective-taking skills. Participants were taught to adopt the mental viewpoint of a personality trait or “inner part” in pairs. The “worried mother,” the “curious child,” or the “inner judge” are a few examples of inner parts.
The speaker in the dyadic pair practises perspective-taking on the self by thinking back on a recent experience from this angle, which helps them develop a more thorough grasp of their inner reality. Through attempting to deduce which inner voice is speaking, the listener exercises adopting the other’s point of view.
For a total of thirty minutes per day, six days a week, all exercises were trained. Before and after each of the three three-month training modules, researchers evaluated a range of parameters, including psychological behavioural tests, brain measurements using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and stress markers like cortisol release.
Training in mindfulness-based attention altered brain areas related to attention and executive functioning
“Depending on which mental training technique was practiced over a period of three months, specific brain structures and related behavioural markers changed significantly in the participants. For example, after the training of mindfulness-based attention for three months, we observed changes in the cortex in areas previously shown to be related to attention and executive functioning. Simultaneously, attention increased in computer-based tasks measuring executive aspects of attention, while performance in measures of compassion or perspective-taking had not increased significantly. These social abilities were only impacted in our participants during the other two more intersubjective modules,” states Sofie Valk, first author of the publication, which has just been released by the journal Science Advances.
Social modules showed improvements with regard to compassion and perspective-taking
“In the two social modules, focusing either on socio-affective or socio-cognitive competencies, we were able to show selective behavioural improvements with regard to compassion and perspective-taking. These changes in behaviour corresponded with the degree of structural brain plasticity in specific regions in the cortex which support these capacities,” according to Valk.
“Even though brain plasticity, in general, has long been studied in neuroscience, until now little was known about the plasticity of the social brain. Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence. As empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking are crucial competencies for successful social interactions, conflict resolution, and cooperation, these findings are highly relevant to our educational systems as well as for clinical application,” explains Prof. Tania Singer, principal investigator of the ReSource Project.
Different types of mental training also differentially affected the stress response
The various forms of mental training not only had distinct effects on brain plasticity but also on the stress response. “We discovered that in participants subjected to a psychosocial stress test, the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol was diminished by up to 51%. However, this reduced stress sensitivity was dependent on the types of previously trained mental practice,” says Dr. Veronika Engert, first author of another publication from the ReSource Project, which describes the connection between mental training and the acute psychosocial stress response, also recently published in Science Advances.
Cortisol stress response affected by dyadic exercises practiced in social modules
“Only the two modules focusing on social competencies significantly reduced cortisol release after a social stressor. We speculate that the cortisol stress response was affected particularly by the dyadic exercises practiced in the social modules. The daily disclosure of personal information to a stranger coupled with the non-judgmental, empathic listening experience in the dyads may have “immunized” participants against the fear of social shame and judgment by others — typically a salient trigger of social stress. The concentrated training of mindfulness-based attention and interoceptive awareness, on the other hand, had no dampening effect on the release of cortisol after experiencing a social stressor.”
It’s interesting to note that each of the three-month training modules lowered the participants’ subjective stress perception despite these variations in stress physiology levels. This indicates that participants felt subjectively less stressed after completing all mental training modules, even though objective, physiological changes in social stress reactivity were only observed when they interacted with others and practiced their inter-subjective abilities.
Social competencies necessary for successful social interaction and cooperation can be improved
“The current results highlight not only those crucial social competencies necessary for successful social interaction and cooperation can still be improved in healthy adults and that such mental training leads to structural brain changes and to social stress reduction, but also that different methods of mental training have differential effects on the brain, on health, and behaviour. It matters what you train,” suggests Prof. Singer. “Once we have understood which mental training techniques have which effects, we will be able to employ these techniques in a targeted way to support mental and physical health.”
For instance, a lot of the widely used mindfulness programs available today might be an effective way to improve cognitive efficiency and attention. However, mental training strategies that emphasize more on the “we” and social connectedness among individuals may be a preferable option if we want to develop social competencies, such as empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, or if we want to become less susceptible to social stress.
Materials provided by Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Sofie L. Valk et al. Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training. Science Advances, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700489
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. “Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 October 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171004142653.htm>.
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