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Symposium 2015

Solution for Reflexivity: The Interplay between Caring Decisions and Caring Societies

The Challenge

How can the communities of people around the globe be induced to become more caring, not just within the social groups from which they derive their identities, but also across these groups? As the w ...

How can the communities of people around the globe be induced to become more caring, not just within the social groups from which they derive their identities, but also across these groups? As the world's problems - from climate change to financial crises - become more global in reach, how can people's domain of altruism be extended accordingly? What concrete steps can be taken across countries and cultures to strengthen the bonds of cooperation and weaken the forces of conflict?

From Training the Mind and Heart towards a More Caring Society: Lessons from and Implementation to the ReSource Project

Modern society has made tremendous progress towards a more peaceful and democratic development, increased health, and subjective well-being, yet, it is also characterized by new economic and environmental crises, increasing levels of stress- and depression-related diseases, marked individualism and egoism. To solve these problems, new approaches are needed that could impact policy change towards better mental health, increased global cooperation and responsibility, and mutual understanding. Such changes can be either achieved through changes in institutional designs and rules, or by changes within each individual.

Over the past 20 years, the fields of psychology and neuroscience have begun to provide the appropriate solutions to such problems and steered towards developing secular mental training programs based on adapted meditation techniques from the East and mental training exercises from Western Psychology. Many of these usually 8-week long secular mental training programs focus on stress-reduction through mindfulness training such as MBSR or relapse prevention of depression such as MBCT (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Teasdale et al., 2014; Williams et al., 2000) or the cultivation of social competencies, prosocial motivation, and compassion (Singer and Bolz, 2013; Singer et al., 2015). New findings suggest that such programs may have the potential to increase mental and physical health on individual levels but also influence the development of important social skills, prosocial motivation, and cooperation on a larger scale (Bornemann et al., 2015; Engen and Singer, 2015; Kanske et al., in press; Klimecki et al., 2013; 2014; Leiberg et al., 2011; Lumma et al., 2015; McCall et al., 2014; Singer and Klimecki, 2014).

The ReSource Project is a unique large-scale longitudinal study on the effects of a newly developed science-based secular mental training program over a period of 9 months on well-being, brain, health, and behavior. The project was funded by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013/ ERC Grant Agreement Number 205557) and the Max Planck Society and carried out at the Department of Social Neuroscience of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany (Singer et al., 2015).

On the basis of a multimethod research program including a large sample of different measures (e.g., questionnaires, psychological computer tasks, virtual reality tasks, brain imaging, game-theoretical paradigms, hormones, immune-markers, etc.) the ReSource Project aimed at investigating the effects of such daily training on attentional, cognitive, and affective functioning, plasticity of the brain, the autonomic nervous system, but also on subjective well-being, health, stress responsivity, social intelligence, emotion-regulation, and prosocial behavior and cooperation.

The ReSource Training Program is secular in nature, so that it can also be integrated in various contexts such as schools, politics, or business environments. It is composed of three distinct 3-month modules each focusing on the cultivation of different kinds of mental- and affective capacities such as training attention and interoceptive awareness (Presence), benevolence and compassion, dealing with difficult emotions, and increasing prosocial motivation (Affect), as well as metacognitive skills and perspective-taking on self and others (Perspective). Each module features two core exercises which participants practiced on a daily basis, for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Over 300 participants were engaged in this multimethod training study. About 240 of them were taught in mental exercises and meditations by 17 professional teachers. All modules begin with a 3-day retreat, were participants get introduced to the overall topics and new exercises including the respective core exercises. After the retreat, participants are instructed by a team of teachers (usually two) in weekly group sessions for 13 weeks and the effects of each module are scientifically measured starting in week 7 of the module. Importantly, the training was designed to be easily integrated into a busy work and family life and the teachings focused on helping participants with this integration to support a daily routine.

In August 2015, most participants have successfully completed the program with an astonishingly low drop-out rate of less than 7%. Many participants continued with the training on their own. First results suggest that such daily mental training has indeed the capacity to reduce stress, induce plasticity on the brain level, increase prosocial behavior and trust, body awareness, and subjective well-being. Furthermore, the specific modules show specific effects, for example, Presence strongly increases attentional capacities, whereas Perspective fosters cognitive perspective-taking on others and Affect mostly enhances qualities such as compassion and prosocial motivation.

As shown above, the ReSource Training aims at more sustainable psychological and physiological changes than previous 8-week training programs which are mostly focusing on stress-reduction alone. Evidence for its effectiveness is based not only on subjective reports of past participants, but more specifically on observed behavioral changes as well as observed changes in brain function and structure. Moreover, health factors, such as peripheral autonomic responses or stress hormones, are also significantly changed after the training.

In consequence, the successful completion of the scientific project lead to the idea to provide the individual and societal benefits of the training to a broader audience, assuming that the outcomes of the study can have implications far beyond the laboratory setting in important areas such as exhaustion, chronic stress, and burn-out while at the same time fostering qualities such as prosocial motivation, effective communication, empathy, mutual understanding as well as social responsibility and cooperation, all skills that are, for example, quite necessary in the workenvironment or for successful leadership. These changes may not only lead to healthier individuals but will profit society as a whole.

The ReSource Institute will be founded as an independent company and intends to provide tailor-made, adapted versions of the scientifically tested program to different areas: businesses, political organizations, healthcare institutions, and educational settings.

As one example, awareness of the importance of mental health and stress reduction is a constantly growing factor in the public eye. Consequently, private investments in health-care related activities are a growing economic sector. The secondary health market (e.g., prevention and care) is also on the rise. Thus, we plan to develop an adapted version specifically for health-care professionals who reportedly have a high rate of burn-out (Embriaco et al., 2007; Gosseries et al., 2012, Morse et al., 2012), which will focus on important skills to counteract typical daily challenges such as exposure to chronic suffering. This adapted version will be based on a crucial concept (and element of the ReSource Training) focusing on the differentiation between empathy and compassion (Singer and Klimecki, 2014) as a tool to facilitate stronger resilience.

Moreover, the program has the potential to not only positively influence subjective well-being but also to decrease health care spending and help reduce number of missed work days due to mental health-related problems (a substantial economic factor in Western work environments). Furthermore, such mental training may also support the development of prosocial motivation and increase levels of cooperation. Taken together, these effects could ultimately lead to more sustainable and caring communal, economic, social, and political systems.

In the present symposium, we would like to explore how such programs could concretely be implemented in business contexts and which adaptation would be needed to assure success in that particular work environment. Potentials and challenges will be discussed.

Bornemann, B., B.M. Herbert, W.E. Mehling and T. Singer (2015). Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through three months of contemplative training. Frontiers in Psychology 5:1504. (doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01504)

Embriaco, N., L. Papazian, N. Kentish-Barnes, F. Pochard, and E. Azoulay (2007). Burnout syndrome among critical care healthcare workers. Current Opinion in Critical Care 13(5): 482–488.

McCall, C., N. Steinbeis, M. Ricard, and T. Singer (2014). Compassion meditators show less anger, less punishment, and more compensation of victims in response to fairness violations. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 8:424. (doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00424)

Gosseries, O., A. Demertzi, D. Ledoux, M.A. Bruno, A. Vanhaudenhuyse, A. Thibaut, S. Laureys, and C. Schnakers (2012). Burnout in healthcare workers managing chronic patients with disorders of consciousness. Brain Injury 26(12): 1493–1499.

Engen, H.G., and T. Singer (2015). Compassion-based emotion regulation up-regulates experienced positive affect and associated neural networks. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Advance online publication.( doi:10.1093/scan/nsv008)

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology-Science and Practice 10(2): 144–156.

Kankse, P., A. Böckler, F.-M. Trautwein, and T. Singer (in press). Dissecting the social brain: Introducing the EmpaToM to reveal distinct neural networks and brain-behavior relations for empathy and Theory of Mind. NeuroImage.

Klimecki, O.M., S. Leiberg, M. Ricard, and T. Singer (2014). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9(6): 874–879.

Klimecki, O.M., S. Leiberg, C. Lamm, and T. Singer (2013). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex 23(7): 1552–1561.

Leiberg, S., O. Klimecki, and T. Singer (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PLoS One, 6(3): e17798. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017798)

Lumma, A.-L., B.E. Kok, and T. Singer (2015). Is meditation always relaxing? Investigating heart rate, heart rate variability, experienced effort and likeability during training of three types of meditation. International Journal of Psychophysiology 97(1): 38–45.

Morse, G., M.P. Salyers, A.L. Rollins, M. Monroe-DeVita, and C. Pfahler (2012). Burnout in mental health services: A review of the problem and its remediation. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research 39(5): 341–352.

Singer, T., and M. Bolz (eds.). (2013). Compassion: Bridging practice and science. < Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences>

Singer, T., and O. Klimecki (2014). Empathy and compassion. Current Biology 24(18): R875–R878.

Singer, T., B.E. Kok, B. Bornemann, M. Bolz, and C.A. Bochow (2015). The ReSource Project. Background, design, samples, and measurements. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Teasdale, J.D., J.M.G. Williams, and Z.V. Segal (2014). The mindful way workbook: An 8-week program to free yourself from depression and emotional distress. New York: Guilford Publications.

Williams, J.M., J.D. Teasdale, Z.V. Segal, and J. Soulsby (2000). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy reduces overgeneral autobiographical memory in formerly depressed patients. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 109(1): 150–155.

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