What are the essential social skills

05.10.2017 11:09

Less stress, more social skills: adults can also train social skills

Verena Müller Press and public relations
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

The human brain is able to change and adapt to new circumstances throughout a lifetime. Scientists call this ability plasticity. So far it has not been clear to what extent it also includes the areas of the brain that control our social behavior. To research this, a research team led by Tania Singer, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences, developed mental training methods for social skills and measured their effects on the behavior of the participants, their brain structures and hormonal balance. Two main results of the ReSource project have now been published in the journal Science Advances.

For the ReSource project, Tania Singer worked with international experts to develop three three-month training units in which the focus was always on a specific skill area. The first module particularly focused on the factors of attention and mindfulness. During the classical meditations used here, the participants practiced concentrating purely on their breathing, their sensory impressions or individual areas of their body, each individually.

A second module was all about socio-affective skills such as compassion, gratitude and dealing with difficult emotions. The special thing about it: In contrast to attention training, a new technique was used here, in which two people train together. In partner exercises, so-called contemplative dyads, they shared their feelings in a highly concentrated manner in order to train closeness, gratitude, dealing with daily stressors and empathy.

In the third module, the participants cultivated their social, more precisely their socio-cognitive skills, in particular the ability to adopt perspective, that is, to take a bird's eye view of their own and other people's thought patterns. Here, too, the participants trained in dyads in addition to the classic meditations. To do this, they mentally slipped into the role of one of their inner personality parts - be it the inner worried mother, the curious child or the strict judge - and described a situation from their perspective. So while the speaker trained himself to understand himself better, the listener trained himself to put himself in another person's perspective and world of thought. The concept of the inner parts here refers to the work of Richard Schwarz in the model of the "inner family system", which assumes a multitude of inner personality parts in every person. The participants in the study worked out their respective parts under the guidance of the trainers as a necessary basis for exercise.

The practice took place six days a week, 30 minutes a day. After each of the three units, the researchers examined training-related changes in the participants using behavioral tests, as well as in the brain structure using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the stress system using numerous biomarkers such as the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva.

Each technique has its own effects on brain plasticity

And indeed: “Depending on which mental training method was used over three months, both the brain structure in the associated areas and the associated behaviors changed. This means that after the first training module, the test subjects showed an increase in the cerebral cortex, the cortex, in the areas that are responsible for attention. At the same time, their attention in computer tests had increased, but their compassion or their ability to change perspective did not. This required the social training modules, ”explains Sofie Valk, first author of the underlying publication, which has just appeared in the renowned journal Science Advances.

“In the other two modules, which trained either socio-emotional or socio-cognitive skills, we observed that compassion or cognitive perspective could indeed be increased selectively and that these improved social skills were accompanied by increased thickness of the cortex in the regions who deal with compassion or a change of perspective, ”says the native Dutchwoman.

"Although research into how the brain can be trained and changed, the so-called plasticity of the brain, has always played a central role in neurosciences, little was known about the plasticity of the social brain," explains Tania Singer, head of the ReSource- Project. "Our findings now clearly show that short and targeted daily mental training in adults can still bring about structural changes in the brain, and this in turn leads to an increase in social intelligence. Characteristics such as empathy, compassion and a change of perspective are essential for successful social interactions as well as conflict resolution and cooperation, these findings could have a high relevance for our education system. "

The stress is also reduced depending on the method

The different forms of mental training seem to have different effects not only on our brain but also on our stress level. "We discovered that the participants in a test in which they were exposed to a stressful performance situation, released up to 51 percent less of the stress hormone cortisol - but depending on the previously trained mental technique," explains Veronika Engert, first author of another current publication in Science Advances, which dealt with the connection between mental training and the acute stress response. “The two training modules focused on social skills reduced the cortisol concentration significantly. The module for increasing attention and mindfulness practiced alone did not, however, reduce social stress on the hormonal level. We suspect that the stress level was particularly reduced by the daily 10-minute social interactions in the dyad exercises. Opening up to a stranger on a regular basis and learning to listen to someone else without prejudice has probably led to a kind of social stress immunization, since social stress mainly arises from the fear of negative external judgment. The targeted training of increased attention, however, does not seem to reduce this type of social stress. "

The interesting thing about it: Subjectively, the test persons stated that they felt less stress after each of the three three-month training units. Seen objectively, i.e. measured by their cortisol level, their stress level only decreased significantly when the participants interacted with others during the social training units and trained intersubjective skills.

“A look into the brain, the behavior and the stress response of the participants not only shows that social skills can be practiced and stress can be reduced. It also reveals that different forms of mental training can have very different effects on the brain, health and behavior, ”explains Tania Singer. "If we know exactly which meditations and mental techniques have which effects, we can use them much more precisely in training programs to promote our mental and physical health."

The results would show, for example, that basic mindfulness techniques that are currently often used are the appropriate method to increase one's own attention and performance in various cognitive areas. However, if you want to be less susceptible to social stress in everyday life or to increase your social skills such as empathy, compassion and perspective, you should use other mental training techniques that focus more on the "we" and the social bond between us Put people.

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

Additional Information:

https://www.mpg.de/11514867/interview-singer-neue-meditationstechnik-fuer-empath...= Interview with Tania Singer: "A mental training to become a tolerant global citizen"

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