Go to Top

Can training our brains make the world a better place?

Brain exercises can make us less selfish and more compassionate, social neuroscientist and psychologist Tania Singer says. Through time and practice, we can change stable preferences, and increase social intelligence and cooperation. Read More

– I’m interested in how we can activate care and affiliation as this leads to prosocial behaviour and global cooperation. There are ways to shift our motivation system, like institutional design and changing laws, and there’s also internal mental training and education, says Tania Singer in the video below, filmed at the World Economic Forum.

Tania Singer is a neuroscientist and psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Her research has convinced her that training brains can make the world a better place.

Singer says the brain’s plasticity means it can be trained to make us less selfish and more compassionate. In the video, she shows how our decision making is driven by a set of psychological motivations – from power to fear – that can be altered to help us make better decisions.

Video from the World Economic Forum.

Mindfullness, compassion and perspective
In the video, Singer presents fresh data from a one-year longitudinal study. During the year, the participants trained in mindfulness, compassion, and taking the perspective of others.

– You’ve probably heard the concept of mindfulness, about training the attention of your mind, stabilising your mind, becoming present in the moment. This is what we spend the first three months training in the module we call Presence. So it’s really just getting your mind stable and developing introspective body awareness, the neuroscientist explains.

Then the participants did a module called Affect, which is about emotions and about training compassion, loving kindness, empathy and how to regulate emotion in the context of anger or stress.

– This is juxtaposed with perspective – a cognitive model that allows you to get a perspective on yourself and on others, Singer says.

People did the core exercises for 20-30 minutes every day, integrating them into their daily routine. Progress was monitored through a cell phone, and participants did exercises individually and in pairs.

Empathy and perspectives
– Compassion is really important, and this involves being able to understand what others think and feel. Singer points out that psychopaths are very good at manipulating and understanding what the other person needs, but they have no compassion and empathy — they don’t care.

Perspective-taking and compassion/empathy involve different parts of the brain. In her study, participants go into the scanner five times in the year and they see screens. One screen shows videos of people explaining real suffering stories of their lives. And you measure the brain, the empathic response to these stories and also what they say they feel.

What the researchers show in their study, is that just being tested in these exercises does not improve your theory of mind. Doing three months of mindfulness training does not do anything with theory of mind. It is really the perspective taking module that makes a difference.

Can training change the hardware of the brain?
As brain scientists, Singer and colleagues wanted to know if you can change the hardware of your brain. And what they found were that you can in fact increase the cortical thinkess, the grey matter volume of your brain, through training.

– We always thought our brains are just declining after the age of 25. We have data that shows that we can increase these abilities through training. You can train different networks in the brain, just as you train different muscles in the gym. This is what we do with the mind, so different mental practices cultivate different aspects, Singer says.

Let’s Cooperate!
What are the implications of this work? Singer points out that it is important for global cooperation; compassion training can be used to develop a sense of global citizenship.  Through time and practice, we can increase social intelligence and cooperation. Mental training can change stable preferences, and according to Singer, the context in which this occurs matters. This means that we may need  to change our models of economic decision making!

Back to News.

Photo: Bodhisatwa is a person (in Mayhana Buddhism) who delays reaching nirvana of out compassion in order to save suffering beings. Credits: Tutincommon/Flickr/CC-license.