Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Meditation, From Attention to Socio-Affective and Cognitive Competencies

When it comes to meditation, a common emphasis in the mindfulness movement is on the cultivation of attention and concentration. These practices are often transformative in themselves and have been correlated with changes in the brain, especially in the cortex, which regulates executive functioning. This is certainly helpful, bearing benefits to both my well being in general and to my work in conflict transformation and community activism. 

However, for those of us who are struggling with developing compassion or handling overwhelming emotions, it's important to note that these practices are not aimed at and do not produce increased skills in socio- affective and cognitive competencies. To build those skills, we need to widen our nets, considering reflective practices that we might not as readily associate with meditation. 

The ReSource Project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brains Sciences is a good example of the type of work we can be doing to accomplish just this, and they have also provided a book, Compassion. Bridging Practice and Science by Tania Singer and Matthias Bolz, that can be downloaded for free, as well as a film, Raising Compassion, that can be viewed onlineSignificantly, 

"'Even though brain plasticity in general has long been studied in neuroscience, until now little was known about the plasticity of the social brain. Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence. As empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking are crucial competencies for successful social interactions, conflict resolution, and cooperation, these findings are highly relevant to our educational systems as well as for clinical application,' explains Prof. Tania Singer, principal investigator of the ReSource Project." (SOURCE)
"'the different types of mental training also differentially affected the stress response. "We discovered that in participants subjected to a psychosocial stress test, the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol was diminished by up to 51%. However, this reduced stress sensitivity was dependent on the types of previously trained mental practice,' says Dr Veronika Engert, ... . 'Only the two modules focusing on social competencies significantly reduced cortisol release after a social stressor.'" (SOURCE)
As we welcome 2018, we can also welcome practices and habits that give us the tools we need work together to build sustainable and resilient movements and communities. As the Max Planck Institute puts it, 
"many currently popular mindfulness programmes may be a valid method to foster attention and strengthen cognitive efficiency. However, if we as a society want to become less vulnerable to social stress or train social competencies, such as empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, mental training techniques focusing more on the 'we' and social connectedness among people may be a better choice." (SOURCE)