The final session of Day 2 at DLD14 sees Tania Singer speaking about how to train your mind and heart. Since 2010, Singer has been the director of the department of social neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. In this role, she investigates the foundations of human social behaviour. More specifically, she is examining the developmental, neural, and hormonal mechanisms underlying social cognition, social and moral emotions (such as empathy, compassion, envy, revenge, and fairness), emotion-regulation capacities, and social decision making.
The field of social neuroscience is relatively new, and has only been picked up by established science publications in the last few years. "Now you don't have to hide yourself for working in this field anymore," Singer quips. "Now that we now we can measure emotions as we can memory."
Many important insights can be mined from the field - such as the surprising fact that stress can spread like a virus. The phenomenon is known as stress contagion and only occurs when you are surrounded by stressed people you care about. But it is one of the negative consequences of empathy.
Empathy is a type of mirroring emotion, an automatic activation inside our brain copying the emotion we witness in another. Early on, Singer thought training people to become more empathetic would be desirable. But as the example of stress shows, this can also have downsides.
"What we would really like more of is compassion," she says. Compassion is a positive affiliative feeling for another. To study it, Singer began observing monks, whom she affectionately refers to as her guinea pigs. Monks are experts in meditation and thus experts in consciousness. There was even a monk involved who was formerly a neurologist. "From studying him we learned that when he went into a compassionate state he was not sad or distressed." Rather, the subject described that compassion as a positive, soothing feeling. It is not unlike the idea of a mother. If she were to become distressed by her crying child, the child would only cry more. So instead, she reacts in a comforting manner.
After a control group received compassion training for only a week, they too showed less distress via empathy and more positive emotions via compassion. These are important lessons, Singer explains, because people who have to deal with others' stress professionally (health-care workers, firemen etc.) have high burn-out rate, which may be assuaged if they could learn to be more compassionate. Expert compassion trainers can even eliminate pain through this positive emotion, as it releases opiates and oxytocin.
Training compassion as a mindset
These insights led to the development of the ReSource project - a nine moth training course in compassion. 200 participants between the ages of 20 and 55 took part. After the nine months, less than six percent had dropped out.
"At this conference I've noticed that everyone is always on their gadgets," Singer says. These have advantageous, of course, but also risks, she warns. In fact, "this digital life is the very opposite of what we train during the first three months of our course: namely presence."
Singer and the Max Planck Institute are collaborating with the Institute for World Economy in their research on collaboration.
Winding up her talk, Singer mentioned the eBook on compassion available and then receives questions from an enthusiastic audience, who encourage her to make the research available to a much larger public. Singer also provided more insight into the content and structure of the compassion training course. "The next step is building an institute," Singer says. "Do you need funding for that?" asks one participant. "Yes!" Singer says. "We need a more concrete business plan, as you call them."