As a lifelong loner, I love the quiet meditation part of my Zen Buddhist temple service. 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 in 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 focused on social competencies such as compassion, empathy, and perspective.
The “social meditators” were divided into socio-affective and socio-cognitive competencies. 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 increases feelings of connection and positivity toward others, even strangers, so approaching a new person in a social setting becomes less scary. Participants also meditated to observe and regulate 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 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 biased perspectives. By mentally taking on the role of their inner voices or personalities–such as the “worried mother” or the “inner critic”–and reflecting from those viewpoints, participants could 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.
This study is groundbreaking because it shows the underlying brain processes that occur due to 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, only the two socially-focused groups 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 effectively strengthen attention and cognition, socially-focused practices transform us differently. Veronika Engert, a Resource Project scholar, speculates that the partner exercises 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, the 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 greatly impact schools, clinics, and 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 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 nine months–a 20-minute daily practice is far more effective than longer but infrequent sessions.