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Insides from social neurosciences: From training the brain in compassion to a caring society


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

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Singer, T. (2014). Insides from social neurosciences: From training the brain in compassion to a caring society. Talk presented at International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS) of the Mind & Life Institute. Boston, MA, USA. 2014-10-30 - 2014-11-02.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0003-FAAB-3
In the last decades our society has faced many global and economic problems that call for new solutions and change. Emerging fields such as affective-social and contemplative neurosciences have produced promising findings that may help inform such necessary changes. For example, plasticity research has suggested that training of mental capacities such as mindfulness and compassion is indeed effective and leads to changes in brain functions associated with increases in positive affect, pro-social behavior, and better health. After summarizing findings on short-term training studies focusing on training empathy and compassion, I will introduce the ReSource Project, a large-scale multi-disciplinary and methodological one-year secular mental training program that aims at the cultivation of attention, interoceptive awareness, perspective taking on self and others, meta-cognition, prosocial motivation, and emotion regulation. This study also includes new ways of training the mind through contemplative intersubjective dyads supported by a web platform allowing for everyday practice with another person. I will conclude by suggesting ways of how the cultivation of mental faculties and compassion could help formulate new economic models aiming at reintroducing secular ethics in society emphasizing the need to step into a global responsibility through personal change. Question to promote the Symposium: What in your view is the next big breakthrough or insights I most want to see emerge- in the next 30 years? In the last decades the social sciences has witnessed an explosion of peer-reviewed scientific papers from diverse fields such as psychology, neurosciences or medicine focusing on the investigation of concepts such as mindfulness, empathy or compassion. This research reflects the emerging field of contemplative science that aims at unifying wisdom from contemplative traditions with empirical Western scientific methods; that is to bring together first- and third-person methods. Although this increasing interest in contemplative science is very promising, this field is still in its “kinder shoes” and much needs to be done in order for it to develop into a mature discipline that is fully unfolding its potential impact for society. What is needed in the future? On the short term, more sophisticated methods for the reliable assessment of complex first-person subjective data and their integration with established objective measurements of brain, health and body are needed. The creation of the discipline of “neurophenomenology” is a first step in the right direction. This could help rehabilitate the integration of knowledge gained from interoception as a serious method into Western empirical sciences. Second, although recently several research centers have successfully developed several secular mental training programs to promote wholesome qualities such as mindfulness, emotion-regulation or compassion, these programs have usually not been longer than 8 to 12 weeks and associated plasticity research has often lacked an active control group ultimately needed to test for specific effects of different mental training practices as well as long-term effects on subjective wellbeing, brain plasticity, health and behavior. On the longer term, research efforts in contemplative science need to be translated into tools and new models that can serve society in a broader sense. For example, mental training programs should be translated into curricula that can be taught to children of different ages in different countries. These programs should optimally be scientifically validated fist to assure that their modification is also beneficial to the use in schools and educational settings. Such a procedure would be similar to what is already a requirement in translational medicine and would suggest the creation of a new subfield called “translational psychology” or “translational contemplative sciences”. Furthermore, the bridge between contemplative sciences and economy is still very thin and fragile. This is astonishing given the huge impact our globalized cross-national economic systems have on society. Integrating new findings from contemplative sciences into economic models and policies could help replace old notions of a selfish and single minded “homo economicus” and lead to new models of a more “caring economy” that promotes the wellbeing of all global citizens and the environment they are living in also for future generations to come.