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Perspectives from contemplative neuroscience on power and care: How to train care and compassion?


Singer,  Tania
Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Singer, T. (2016). Perspectives from contemplative neuroscience on power and care: How to train care and compassion?. Talk presented at Power and Care Conference. A Mind & Life Dialogue with H. H. the Dalai Lama. Brussels, Belgium. 2016-09-09 - 2016-09-11.

Emerging fields such as the social- and contemplative neurosciences have focused on the questions of how people relate to and understand each other. Hereby, the ability for cognitive perspective taking is differentiated from concepts of emotion contagion, empathy, and compassion; the former represents a cognitive route to the understanding of others, the latter a motivational and affective route. Recently, neuroscientists have started to investigate the plasticity of the social brain, that is the trainability of capacities such as empathy, compassion or perspective taking through meditation-based mental training and describe its effects on changes in brain functions, subjective well-being, pro-social behavior, and health. One of these studies is a large-scale multi-disciplinary one-year secular mental training study, the ReSource Project, that aims at the daily cultivation of different capacities such as body awareness, perspective taking, empathy, and compassion as well as prosocial motivation and behavior. I will provide first results and evidence for socio-affective as well as socio-cognitive brain plasticity after mental training of empathy or compassion on the one hand and cognitive perspective taking on the other. While empathy training enhanced negative affect and activation in brain networks associated with suffering, compassion training resulted in an increase of positive affect and activation in brain networks associated to affiliation and care. Finally, daily cultivation of taking another’s person perspective lead to an improvement in measures of social intelligence with associated changes in neuronal mentalizing networks. Finally, such intersubjective skill training enhanced prosocial behavior and reduced social stress. These findings will be discussed in the context of how these can help move towards a more caring and balanced society. From the contemplative side, we will consider the difference between altruistic love, empathy and compassion. We will explore the consequences of dealing with the suffering of others only with empathy, which seems to lead to emotional exhaustion and burn-out, and the ways that cultivating altruistic love and compassion through training the mind (meditation) can serve as an antitode to burn out and allow to deal with the suffering of others in more constructive and meaningful ways.