2014 Mind & Life International Symposium on Contemplative Studies. In my first article, I explored why contemplative studies are booming and what neuroplasticity and contemplative practices could mean for healthy aging.Author’s note: This is part two of my review of the
After this article on the science of contemplative studies, I will return with another article on contemplative practices, including step-by-step instructions for doing one yourself.
Enhancing Empathy and Compassion
Of the 470 presenters at ISCS, none had a message more compelling than that of Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist from The Max Planck Institute. Singer seems vitally alive as she presents her work, a scientist who has clearly found her calling and is excited to share her findings.Singer studies the use of contemplative training to enhance empathy and compassion. In the longer term, Singer is interested in how the cultivation of compassion in individuals within a society could create conditions for enhanced pro-social behavior, or a caring society, as she refers to it.
Singer distinguishes between empathy and compassion, and believes that compassion offers greater benefit. She defines empathy as sharing or resonating with another’s emotion. In contrast, Singer defines compassion as cultivating caring feelings of kindness and warmth toward others.
Singer was intrigued by famed Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard’s idea that empathy alone, without acts of compassion, can lead to the empathic distress of taking on others’ emotions to the extent that it causes personal suffering. Singer decided to test this theory in her lab. She found that brain plasticity increased in both those trained in empathy and those trained in a method of cultivating compassion often referred to as loving kindness meditation. Just as Ricard had speculated, however, those trained only in empathy experienced a decrease in subjective well-being.
As a social neuroscientist, Singer is keenly interested in the path toward cultivating increased pro-social behavior in individuals. Singer is interested in a broader economic system that could be a foundation of a caring society. She has identified three systems of motivation for further study, including Incentive Motivations (what drives us forward toward a goal), Threat Motivations (how fears and anxiety motivate us) and Affiliation Motivations (how belonging motivates us).
Singer states that there has been good and relevant work done on the first two motivation systems, but that the third, Affiliation Motivation, or helping us feel a greater sense of belonging, has been largely neglected.
The ReSource Project is an important step in Affiliation Motivation research. This 7-year and counting neurophenomenology project is one way in which Singer intends to champion the use of contemplative practices. This 11-month intervention is occurring in Leipzig and Berlin. It trains participants in three areas:
- Phase I is deep self reflection called Presence.
- Phase II, Perspective, uses theory of mind training to better understand one’s view of the world.
- Phase III, Affect, helps develop emotional self-awareness, as well as a better understanding of the perceived emotions of others.
The Use of Contemplative Science to Serve Humanity
A highlight of the ISCS conference was a conversation with spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. The grand ballroom was still and quiet as the Dalia Lama arrived, accompanied by his interpreter, by Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, and by Amishi Jha, director of contemplative neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative at the University of Miami.
The Dalai Lama spoke of many ways to know, using all aspects of our mind, including thinking, feeling, and sensing to guide our understanding. He paints on the largest of canvases, encouraging us to use all resources available in our quest for understanding, including ancient wisdom and practices, scholarly work in the humanities, and the new horizons opened through modern science. Sometimes speaking in English and sometimes though his translator, the Dalai Lama posed a thoughtful and profound question to all present, “How can we take knowledge from science and apply it in the service of humanity?”
That is the quest of many contemplative scientists present at ISCS, including Al Kaszniak, Tania Singer, and many more.
Fredrickson B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 95:1045-62.
Klimecki, O., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M. & Singer, T. (2013). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst060. Abstract.
Singer, T., The ReSource Project. The Max Planck Institute.
Engen, H. G., & Singer, T. (2015). Compassion-based emotion regulation up-regulates experienced positive affect and associated neural networks. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Abstract.
Mind & Life Institute (2014). Summit in the Field: Four Scholars Reflect on the State of Contemplative Studies.
For a quick preview, here are the questions that each scholar addresses in this article:
Al Kaszniak was asked, “What in your opinion, is the most significant, or meaningful, breakthrough in contemplative science over the past 30 years?”
Tania Singer was asked, “What in your view is the big breakthrough you most want to see emerge in the next 30 years in contemplative studies?”
Diana Chapman Walsh was asked, “What are the implications for a Symposium like this that brings together individuals who might not ordinarily intersect?”
Edward Slingerland was asked, “What are the rewards and opportunities when science engages the contemplative traditions?”
Habitat for Humanity courtesy of Christopher Garrison