Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Less stress, more social competence: Adults too can acquire social skills

05.10.2017

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 of the ReSource Project 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 meditation and mindfulness cover a gamut of mental techniques that aim to cultivate a broad range of skills.


Training to understand the feelings and thoughts of others induces structural changes in two divergent social brain networks.

MPI CBS


In participants subjected to a psychosocial stress test, the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol was diminished by up to 51 percent—depending on the types of previously trained mental practice.

MPI CBS

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.
Each technique has its own effects on brain plasticity

And in fact: “Depending on the mental training method used for three months, the brain structure in the associated areas as well as the related behaviours changed. After the first training module, the subjects showed growth of the cerebral cortex in the areas responsible for mindfulness. At the same time, their mindfulness had improved in computer tests. However, their compassion and ability to change perspectives did not increase. The latter required the social training modules,” explains Sofie Valk, lead author of the original publication, which appeared in the journal Science Advances.

“In the two other modules, which trained either socio-emotional or socio-cognitive skills, we observed that compassion or cognitive perspective-taking were selectively enhanced, and that these improved social skills were associated with increased cortex thickness in those regions that process compassion or changes in perspective,” says the Dutch-born researcher. “Although research into the plasticity of the brain, meaning its ability to change, has always played a central role in the neurosciences, very little was known about the plasticity of the social brain,” explains Tania Singer, head of the ReSource project. “Our findings now clearly show that short, targeted daily mental training can still bring about structural changes in the adult brain, which in turn lead to an improvement in social intelligence. Since attributes such as empathy, compassion and perspective-taking are essential for successful social interactions, conflict resolution and cooperation, these findings could prove highly relevant to our educational system.”
Stress also decreased depending on the method

The various forms of mental training appear to have different effects not only on the brain but also on stress levels. “We discovered that in a test in which the subjects were exposed to a stressful performance situation, they released up to 51 percent less of the stress hormone cortisol. However, this depended on the mental technique that was previously exercised,” explains Veronika Engert, lead author of another study recently published in Science Advances which dealt with the relationship between mental training and acute stress reactions. “The two training modules that focussed on social skills reduced cortisol levels significantly. By contrast, the only module designed to enhance awareness and mindfulness failed to lessen social stress at the hormonal level. We suspect that stress levels were reduced primarily by the ten-minute daily social interactions in the dyad exercises. To open oneself on a regular basis to a stranger and to learn to listen to another person without prejudice probably led to a kind of immunization against social stress, because social stress results largely from a fear of negative judgment by others. However, targeted mindfulness training does not appear to reduce this kind of social stress.”

An interesting finding was that subjectively, the subjects felt less stress after each of the three training sessions. Objectively, however, their stress exposure, as measured by their cortisol levels, diminished significantly only when they interacted with others during the social training sessions designed to exercise intersubjective skills.

“Observation of the brain, the behaviour and the stress response of the participants shows not only that social skills can be exercised and stress reduced, but also that various forms of mental training can have very different effects on the brain, health and behaviour,” Tania Singer explains. “If we know exactly which meditation exercises and mental techniques are effective, we can use them in a much more targeted manner in training programmes to enhance mental and physical health.” Thus, the results show that frequently practised basic mindfulness techniques are the most suitable methods for increasing awareness and performance in various cognitive areas. However, if your aim is to be less prone to social stress in everyday life or to enhance your social skills, such as empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, you should use other mental training techniques that focus on the “we” and the social bond between people.

+++ The ReSource project explores how various forms of mental training can help promote social, emotional and cognitive abilities and how this, in turn, affects health, the body and the brain. It is the largest project of its kind in the world. +++

Weitere Informationen:

http://www.cbs.mpg.de/press-release/improving-social-skills

Verena Müller | Max-Planck-Institut für Kognitions- und Neurowissenschaften
Further information:
http://www.cbs.mpg.de

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Pollinator friendliness can extend beyond early spring
22.11.2019 | American Society for Horticultural Science

nachricht Wound healing in mucous tissues could ward off AIDS
22.11.2019 | University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Machine learning microscope adapts lighting to improve diagnosis

Prototype microscope teaches itself the best illumination settings for diagnosing malaria

Engineers at Duke University have developed a microscope that adapts its lighting angles, colors and patterns while teaching itself the optimal...

Im Focus: Small particles, big effects: How graphene nanoparticles improve the resolution of microscopes

Conventional light microscopes cannot distinguish structures when they are separated by a distance smaller than, roughly, the wavelength of light. Superresolution microscopy, developed since the 1980s, lifts this limitation, using fluorescent moieties. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research have now discovered that graphene nano-molecules can be used to improve this microscopy technique. These graphene nano-molecules offer a number of substantial advantages over the materials previously used, making superresolution microscopy even more versatile.

Microscopy is an important investigation method, in physics, biology, medicine, and many other sciences. However, it has one disadvantage: its resolution is...

Im Focus: Atoms don't like jumping rope

Nanooptical traps are a promising building block for quantum technologies. Austrian and German scientists have now removed an important obstacle to their practical use. They were able to show that a special form of mechanical vibration heats trapped particles in a very short time and knocks them out of the trap.

By controlling individual atoms, quantum properties can be investigated and made usable for technological applications. For about ten years, physicists have...

Im Focus: Images from NJIT's big bear solar observatory peel away layers of a stellar mystery

An international team of scientists, including three researchers from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), has shed new light on one of the central mysteries of solar physics: how energy from the Sun is transferred to the star's upper atmosphere, heating it to 1 million degrees Fahrenheit and higher in some regions, temperatures that are vastly hotter than the Sun's surface.

With new images from NJIT's Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO), the researchers have revealed in groundbreaking, granular detail what appears to be a likely...

Im Focus: New opportunities in additive manufacturing presented

Fraunhofer IFAM Dresden demonstrates manufacturing of copper components

The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM in Dresden has succeeded in using Selective Electron Beam Melting (SEBM) to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

First International Conference on Agrophotovoltaics in August 2020

15.11.2019 | Event News

Laser Symposium on Electromobility in Aachen: trends for the mobility revolution

15.11.2019 | Event News

High entropy alloys for hot turbines and tireless metal-forming presses

05.11.2019 | Event News

 
Latest News

New antenna tech to equip ceramic coatings with heat radiation control

22.11.2019 | Materials Sciences

Pollinator friendliness can extend beyond early spring

22.11.2019 | Life Sciences

Wound healing in mucous tissues could ward off AIDS

22.11.2019 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>