Meditating together against loneliness

January 04, 2017

Der Mensch ist ein soziales Wesen und Einsamkeit belastet ihn. Er leidet darunter nicht nur psychisch, sie macht ihn auch körperlich krank. Wissenschaftler des Max-Planck-Instituts für Kognitions- und Neurowissenschaften (MPI CBS) haben nun gezeigt, dass eine neue Form täglicher Meditation die soziale Verbundenheit untereinander steigern und das Gefühl von Einsamkeit reduzieren kann: Die sogenannte kontemplative Dyade. Diese setzt im Gegensatz zu traditionellen, allein im Stillen für sich praktizierten Techniken auf lautes Meditieren in Form hochkonzentrierter Dialoge – sei es von Angesicht zu Angesicht oder über eine spezielle Smartphone-App.

A person reports in detail about an argument with a friend or another unpleasant situation that they experienced the day before and how it felt physically. She then describes an experience for which she was particularly grateful in the last 24 hours. Another person, the listener, listens attentively to her story and begins to develop empathy for her. As she speaks, he listens attentively without commenting on what is said with words or facial expressions - and vice versa. A typical scene during a so-called contemplative dyad, i.e. a form of daily meditation in which two people exchange ideas in a highly concentrated dialogue.

"We wanted to find out whether this new form of daily contemplative dyad that we have developed can help strengthen the social connection between people, even if they don't know each other beforehand," says Tania Singer, study director of the underlying large-scale ReSource project, a nine-month longitudinal study that examines the effects of mental training on our well-being and our social, emotional, and mental abilities.

And indeed: "After each dyad, the participants reported that they felt much closer to their counterpart than before after the joint exercise. In the course of our daily 10-minute training five days a week over a period of six months, people increasingly shared more personal thoughts and feelings," explains Bethany E. Kok, lead author of the original publication. "They thus built up an emotional closeness to each other - although the dialogue partner changed every week and the exercise units were usually carried out face-to-face instead of face-to-face via a specially developed smartphone app. The neuroscientists concluded that the participants felt closer not only to their direct partner within the dyad, but to people in general.

For some time now, contemplative dyads have been discussed as a promising method to train personal social skills. "We have now provided the first scientific proof that this brief daily exchange of feelings and thoughts can be an effective means of bringing people closer together inwardly," she said. "We know from earlier studies that the personal connection to one's fellow human beings contributes to a longer, healthier and, above all, happier life.

In their study, Professor Singer and his team concentrated on two forms of contemplative dyads: the affective and the perspective. "The scene described at the beginning reflects the affective variant, in which a person describes a particularly emotional situation that he or she has just experienced from his or her own perspective.

In contrast to this, the speaker in the perspective dyad also describes a current event. However, this time he puts himself in the role of an inner personality part of himself: How would the concerned inner mother, the curious child or the stressed employee have perceived this situation? The listener in turn tries to understand this new perspective and to fathom from whose point of view it is reported.

"Both the affective and the perspective form of the dyad have contributed to making unknown people feel more connected to each other," explains Kok. However, the first variant turned out to be the more successful of the two when it comes to increasing social proximity - presumably because it focuses particularly on emotional experience and communication.

So far, the researchers have only investigated these relationships in adult study participants without psychological complaints. "It would now be interesting to find out whether these new methods can also be used to promote the social abilities of children or to help mentally ill people, who often suffer from loneliness and social deficits," says project leader Tania Singer. "Regardless of this, these short, interpersonal exercises offer a simple, effective way to strengthen people's sense of togetherness. In our increasingly highly individualized, stressful society, this is more important than ever."

The ReSource project is investigating how different forms of mental training can help to promote social, emotional and mental skills, and how this in turn affects health, the body and the brain. It is the largest project of its kind in the world.

Go to Editor View