Meditation with a partner combats loneliness

January 04, 2017

Human beings are social beings and loneliness burdens them. They do not just suffer mentally, it also makes them physically sick. Neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig have shown that a new type of daily meditation with a partner increases social connectedness and could reduce feelings of loneliness: The contemplative dyad, this technique counts, in contrast to traditional meditation methods done alone, on loud meditation practiced face-to-face or via cell-phone app with a weekly changing partner.

A person speaks in detail about an argument with a friend or another recent unpleasant situation from the last day and how this felt in her body. Then, she turns to an experience for which she felt grateful that day. Another one, the listener, listens carefully and starts to cultivate empathic listening by being mentally present. While one dialogue partner is speaking, the other one is listening without giving any verbal or non-verbal comments about what is being said; and vice versa. A typical scenery during a so-called contemplative dyad that are new forms of mutual, highly concentrated dialogues and are developed as daily mental practices.

“These two persons are practicing one type of dyads, the so-called Affect dyad”, explains Tania Singer, the principal investigator of the large-scale ReSource Project at MPI CBS, a nine-month longitudinal mental training study designed for the improvement of well-being and health as well as social-, emotional, and cognitive capacities for which these new forms of meditative practices were developed. “After training these practices for ten minutes per day, five days a week, over six months we wanted to figure out whether they are suitable to enhance social skills and social connectedness between people unknown to each other”.

 And indeed: “After each dyad, participants reported feeling closer to their partners than before the exchange.  Over a period of weeks, people began to share more personal and intimate stories”, explains Bethany E. Kok, first author of the underlying original publication. Interestingly the participants grew in closeness to their partner over the study, even though the partner changed randomly every week. “This made us think that the daily 10-minutes practice made our participants feeling closer to people in general, rather than just to their respective dyadic partners.” And this even happened though the daily training that took place at home over the cell-phone app rather than the face-to-face training in the weekly group session with the teacher.

Recently, contemplative dyads are discussed as promising methods to train personal social capacities. “We have now provided the first scientific evidence that this daily short but intensive exchange of feelings and thoughts could be a useful tool to increase social connectedness among people in general”, says the American. “Given the previous findings that perceived closeness is connected with longevity, contemplative dyads could help people to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.”

In parallel with the Affect type of dyads the neuroscientists also tested the Perspective one: Here, the speaker tells his counterpart about a current situation, but this time she tries to see her own experiences from the perspective of an inner personality aspect of herself, whether it be the curious child, the stressed worker or the caring mother. The listener by contrast now cultivates her ability to take another’s perspective while inferring beliefs and thoughts of the other and guessing from which part the other is speaking from. “Both types of dyads helped people feel closer, but the Affect Dyad worked slightly better in increasing feelings of connectedness probably due to its emotional focus”, Bethany E. Kok adds.

So far, the neuroscientists observed this increasing social connectedness in healthy adult participants. “We now wonder whether these contemplative dialogues can also be applied to children to boost their social abilities as well as to older people and those with psychological disorders who very often suffer from loneliness or social deficits”, says Tania Singer. “In general, in our individualized high stress society such low-cost daily interpersonal mental practices could be beneficial to foster the feeling of togetherness between people, decrease social stress, and increase prosocial motivation and cooperation.”

The ReSource Project, is the world’s largest study of its kind. It investigates how various mental training methods can be used to train different social-, emotional, and cognitive abilities and what consequences they have on our brain, body, and health.

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