The Neuroscience of Compassion By Tania Singer


Can training our brains help make the world a better place? Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences thinks it can. She’s a social neuroscientist and psychologist who says the brain’s plasticity means it can be trained to make us less selfish and more compassionate. In this video for the World Economic Forum, Singer shows how our decision making is driven by a set of psychological motivations – from power to fear – that can be altered to help us make better decisions for society and for our health. Her research has also influenced the development of a new model of “caring economics” that hopes to work towards sustainability and global cooperation.

Watch Tania Singer’s presentation in the video above, or read key quotes below.

On the plasticity of the brain
“The concept of plasticity is really the concept of changeability and trainability, not only of our brain but also of our immune system and stress system. So, I’m not just talking about the brain but the whole body. I’m presenting very fresh data about a one year longitudinal study.”

“You’ve probably have heard the concept of mindfulness, about training the attention of your mind, stabilising your mind, becoming present in the moment. This is what we spend the first three months training in the module we call presence. So it’s really just getting your mind stable and developing introspective body awareness. Then there’s a module called Affect, and this is about emotions and it’s about training compassion, loving kindness, empathy and how to regulate emotion in the context of anger or stress. This is juxtaposed with perspective – a cognitive model that allows you to get a perspective on yourself and on others.”

“People have to do these core exercises for 20 to 30 minutes each day, and integrate it into their daily routine, like brushing your teeth. We give them a cell phone and we can monitor their progress. We have exercises you do on your own and dyadic exercises where you have to call up a partner.”

On Compassion
“Compassion is really important. Psychopaths are very good at manipulating and understanding what the other person needs, but they have no compassion and empathy, so they don’t care. Participants go into the scanner five times in the year and they see screens. One screen shows videos of people explaining real suffering stories of their lives. And you measure the brain, the empathic response to these stories and also what they say they feel. The stories need a lot of belief and understanding, so you can compute a social intelligence score based on how well someone can do cognitive perspective taking.”

“What we have shown in our study, that just being tested in these exercise doesn’t do anything, doesn’t improve your theory of mind. Doing three months of mindfulness training does nice other things, but doesn’t do anything with theory of mind. It’s really the perspective taking module which brings a huge increase in theory of mind. Just breathing doesn’t make you more compassionate, but compassion training makes you more compassionate.”

On the brain as a muscle
“We are brain scientists, so we wanted to know if you can change the hardware of your brain. We always thought our brains are just declining after the age of 25. So this is showing whether you can increase in cortical thickness, the grey matter volume of your brain through training. We have data that shows that we can increase these abilities through training. You can train different networks in the brain, just as you train different muscles in the gym. This is what we do with the mind, so different mental practices cultivate different aspects.”

“I’m interested in how we can activate care and affiliation as this leads to prosocial behaviour and global cooperation. There are ways to shift our motivation system, like institutional design and changing laws, and there’s also internal mental training and education.”

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