As a lifelong loner, I love the quiet meditation part of the service at my Zen Buddhist temple. But the part afterward when we mingle over tea and cookies in the sangha hall? Kind of a stress fest. However, there is good news for us not-so-social butterflies. A recent study shows evidence of plasticity of our social brains and states that certain types of meditation and contemplative practices can increase social intelligence and reduce social stress.
The study, from the ReSource Project from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, divided participants into three groups. One focused on mindfulness or attention meditation, while the other two focused on social competencies such as compassion, empathy, and perspective.
The “social meditators” were divided into two competencies: socio-affective and socio-cognitive. The socio-affective group worked with loving-kindness meditation, which involves wishing well for another person, and using phrases such as “May you be happy,” or “May you be safe.” This technique is known to increase feelings of connection and positivity toward others, even strangers, so that approaching a new person in a social setting becomes less scary. Participants also meditated with the intention of observing and regulating emotion, which helps us to be present with social anxiety and choose not to follow its lead.
Those in the socio-cognitive group focused on perspective training. This involved observing their own thought patterns, or metacognition, labeling these thoughts “thinking” or “judging,” and watching their thoughts as they arose and receded. In a sense, they observed their own biased perspectives. By mentally taking on the role of their own inner voices or personalities—such as the “worried mother” or the “inner critic”—and reflecting from those viewpoints, participants were able to understand their inner lives. The more we understand ourselves, the more likely we are to understand others, increase our social intelligence, and use these skills to overcome social anxieties.
Both groups of social meditators also participated in “contemplative dyads.” In these brief partner exercises, participants shared everyday experiences, examined difficult situations, practiced acceptance and gratitude, and listened closely. They viewed experiences from their partner’s perspective and considered how their thoughts differed. In a way, the dyads are like taking solo meditation “off the mat” and applying it to an external relationship.
Part of what is groundbreaking about this study is that it shows the underlying brain processes that occur as a result of these practices, including significant cortical thickening of brain regions associated with empathy, compassion, emotion control, and perspective-taking.
Interestingly, while all participants reported a perceived reduction in stress, it was only the two socially-focused groups that showed a measured decrease in the stress hormone cortisol after partaking in a psychosocial stress test. The study shows that while popular mindfulness meditation may be effective in strengthening attention and cognition, socially-focused practices transform us in different ways. Veronika Engert, a Resource Project scholar, speculates that it was the partner exercises that were particularly effective in reducing social stress.
“The daily disclosure of personal information to a stranger, coupled with the non-judgmental, empathic listening experience in the dyads may have ‘immunised’ participants against the fear of social shame and judgment by others—typically a salient trigger of social stress,” Engert said.
Tania Singer, principal investigator of the ReSource Project, notes that, because skills like empathy and perspective-taking are so important to successful social interactions, conflict resolution, and cooperation, these findings could have a great impact on schools and clinics as well as individuals. If we as a society want to become less vulnerable to social stress or to train in empathy, compassion, and perspective, she writes, perhaps we should choose mental training techniques focusing more on the “we” rather than the “me.”
This study speaks volumes about how meditation or contemplative practices can benefit us socially. Though it confirms there is no quick and easy way to become more socially intelligent via meditation—participants meditated for 30 minutes a day, six days a week, over the course of nine months—a 20-minute daily practice is far more effective than longer but infrequent sessions.
Has meditation influenced your social life? How so?