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  Training compassion and theory of mind separately: Differential mental training effects on socio-affective and socio-cognitive abilities

Kanske, P., Trautwein, F.-M., Böckler, A., & Singer, T. (2015). Training compassion and theory of mind separately: Differential mental training effects on socio-affective and socio-cognitive abilities. Talk presented at Conference of the International Society for Research on Emotion (ISRE). Geneva, Switzerland. 2015-07-08 - 2015-07-10.

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Kanske, Philipp1, Author           
Trautwein, Fynn-Mathis1, Author           
Böckler, Anne1, Author           
Singer, Tania1, Author           
1Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society, ou_634552              


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 Abstract: Social neuroscience has identified different neural networks, a more affective (empathy and compassion) and a more cognitive route (Theory of Mind (ToM)) to the understanding of others. While the anterior insula (AI) is critically involved when empathizing with the pain of another person, experiencing compassion for another’s suffering activates a different network including the ventral striatum. ToM tasks, in contrast, engage the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), temporal poles (TP) and medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). To study the separability and interrelations of these neural networks as well as their plasticity, we developed a novel paradigm, the EmpaToM.
In the EmpaToM task, participants were presented with naturalistic video stimuli in which people recount autobiographical episodes that are either emotional or neutral. Each video is followed by empathy and compassion ratings and questions about the content of the video that probe ToM. Participants were tested before and after each training module in a 3T Scanner.
At baseline, emotional vs. neutral videos increased activity in bilateral AI, which parametrically modulated with subjective empathy ratings. Compassion ratings, in contrast, covaried with activity in the ventral striatum. ToM activated bilateral TPJ, TP and MPFC. Inter-individual differences in the activity of these networks were uncorrelated, suggesting independence of these socio-affective and -cognitive abilities. Training in the Perspective, but not the Presence or Affective Module, enhanced performance in ToM questions. The compassion ratings, in contrast, increased more after the Affective and Perspective module, not so however after the Presence module. Similarly, differential change was also observed with regards to the neural networks underlying compassion and ToM.
The present results confirm that the neural networks underlying empathy, compassion and ToM can be reliably identified within a single task and also demonstrate their independence on an inter-individual level – strong empathizers are not (necessarily) good mentalizers. Most critically, the training-related changes indicate that Theory of Mind can be trained by specific practices implemented in the Perspective Module. Surprisingly, there was an increase in experienced compassion after both, the Affective and the Perspective Modules. As no effect was observed after the Presence Module, which focused on attention and interoceptive awareness, the readiness to experience compassion seems to only increase after modules involving intersubjective exercises focusing on prosocial affect and motivation (Affective) or cognitive perspective taking of self and others (Perspective). In conclusion, these results provide first evidence that we can induce plasticity in socio-affective and socio-cognitive capacities through specifically designed mental training programs.


 Dates: 2015-07
 Publication Status: Not specified
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Title: Conference of the International Society for Research on Emotion (ISRE)
Place of Event: Geneva, Switzerland
Start-/End Date: 2015-07-08 - 2015-07-10

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