Plasticity of the Social Brain
To this end, we are conducting small- and large-scale longitudinal training studies to search for evidence whether cultivation of compassion and altruism could have the potential to help increase mental and physical health on individual levels but also leads to the development of prosocial motivation and increased levels of cooperation. Moreover, this research focus aims to investigate the subjective, behavioural, neuronal, and hormonal changes associated with mental training of socio-affective as well as cognitive capacities ranging from attention and mindfulness, empathy, prosocial motivation, and compassion to emotion-regulation and perspective taking on self and others.
In order to reliably study the putative changes induced by such mental training programmes, we started to develop a range of new tasks optimized for repeated measurements of socio-affective functions in longitudinal intervention designs as well as new short- and long-term intervention programs. One major study of the department was the realization of a European funded (ERC) one-year longitudinal mental training study, the ReSource Project. More than 200 participants are tested repeatedly with a multi-method approach while they are undergoing mental training every day over a period of nine months. We also explore whether cultivating compassion via mental training in healthy adult populations can be associated with changes in stress physiology, social behaviour, and brain plasticity.
Additionally, we investigate the plasticity of the social and compassionate brain using expert models. More specifically, we compare structural and functional neuroimaging and behavioural data from meditation experts with naive control subjects and investigate the effect of compassion training expertise on pain analgesia, emotion-regulation capacities, and economic decision making, for instance. Such evidence would not only have important implications for the implementation of scientifically validated, effective training programs for schools and economic or political organizations, but also for the treatment of people with marked social deficits, such as autistic or depressed individuals.