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Paired meditation deepens interpersonal connection: Tania Singer's wonderful ReSource project

Yesterday I was skimming through the JAMA Psychiatry journal and I got hijacked by Kok & Singer's recent article "Effects of contemplative dyads on engagement and perceived social connectedness over nine months of mental training: a randomized controlled trial".  The abstract reads - "Importance  Loneliness is a risk factor for depression and other illnesses and may be caused and reinforced by maladaptive social cognition. Secularized classical meditation training programs address social cognition, but practice typically occurs alone. Little is known about the effectiveness of contemplative practice performed in dyads.  Objective  To introduce and assess the effectiveness of contemplative dyadic practices relative to classical-solitary meditation with regard to engagement and perceived social connectedness.  Design, Setting, and Participants  The ReSource Project was a 9-month open-label efficacy trial of three, 3-month secularized mental training modules. Replacement randomization was used to assign 362 healthy participants in Leipzig and Berlin, Germany. Eligible participants were recruited between November 11, 2012, and February 13, 2013, and between November 13, 2013, and April 30, 2014. Intention-to-treat analyses were conducted.  Interventions  Breathing meditation and body scan (the presence module), loving-kindness meditation and affect dyad (the affect module), and observing-thoughts meditation and perspective dyad (the perspective module).  Main Outcomes and Measures  Primary outcomes were self-disclosure and social closeness. Engagement measures included compliance (ie, the mean [95% margin of error] number of meditation sessions that a participant engaged in per week), liking, and motivation to practice.  Results Thirty participants dropped out after assignment to 3 experimental groups; 90 participants were assigned to a retest control that did not complete the main outcome measures; 16 participants provided no state-change data for the affect and perspective modules (226 remaining participants; mean age of 41.15 years; 59.3% female). Results are aggregated across training cohorts. Compliance was similar across the modules: loving-kindness meditation (3.78 [0.18] sessions), affect dyad (3.59 [0.14] sessions), observing-thoughts meditation (3.63 [0.20] sessions), and perspective dyad (3.24 [0.18] sessions). Motivation was higher for meditation (11.20 [0.40] sessions) than the dyads (9.26 [0.43] sessions) and was higher for the affect dyad (10.11 [0.46] sessions) than the perspective dyad (8.41 [0.46] sessions). Social closeness increased during a session for the affect dyad (1.49 [0.12] sessions) and the perspective dyad (1.06 [0.12] sessions) and increased over time for the affect dyad (slope of 0.016 [0.003]) and the perspective dyad (slope of 0.012 [0.003]). Self-disclosure increased over time for the affect dyad (slope of 0.023 [0.004]) and the perspective dyad (slope of 0.006 [0.005]), increasing more steeply for the affect dyad (P < .001).  Conclusions and Relevance  Contemplative dyads elicited engagement similar to classical contemplative practices and increased perceived social connectedness. Contemplative dyads represent a new type of intervention targeting social connectedness and intersubjective capacities deficient in participants who experience loneliness and in many psychopathologies."

Gosh, how fascinating in a whole series of ways.  I've been aware of Tania Singer's work for a while, but just "out of the corner of my eye".  I've thought of her as "an expert on empathy & compassion" - see, for example last year's paper "The structure of human prosociality: Differentiating altruistically motivated, norm motivated, strategically motivated, and self-reported prosocial behavior" or 2014's "Empathy and compassion".  I'd even been vaguely aware of her ReSource Project, but I hadn't really taken on board what an amazing research journey this has involved.  The Project's excellent website comments "The ReSource Project is a unique, large-scale study on Eastern and Western methods of mental training.  Over a period of eleven months, participants practiced a wide range of mental exercises that are designed to enhance attentional control, body- and self-awareness, healthy emotion regulation, self-care, compassion, empathy, and perspective taking.  Overall, the aim of the training is to improve mental health and social skills.  It may reduce stress, improve mental clarity, increase life satisfaction, and lead to a better understanding of others' views, values and actions.  The ReSource project is a secular program developed by a team of experienced meditation teachers, scientists, and psychotherapists.  It was conducted from 2012-2016 in Leipzig and Berlin as part of a research project of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.  The Principle Investigator of the project is Prof. Dr. Tania Singer, Director of the Social Neuroscience Department at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig.  The project is supported by funds from the European Research Council and the Max Planck Society."  Wonderful, it's the sort of research effort that would have been a jokey pipe dream back in 1970 when I first joined the Cambridge Buddhist Society and started meditating ... or for that matter, a couple of years later, when I started exploring interpersonal group work.

The Project's website provides some wonderful free resources.  For example you can download a free copy of the 272 page book "The ReSource Project.  Background, design, samples, and measurements".  The page "Contemplative neuroscience: selected publications" lists and provides links to 9 research papers ranging from "Affect and motivation are critical in constructive meditationto "Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training"while the page "The ReSource project: selected publications" lists 17 papers from "Who am I?  Differential effects of three contemplative mental trainings on emotional word use in self-descriptions" to "Phenomenological fingerprints of four meditations: differential state changes in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition, and interoception before and after daily practice across 9 months of training" and "Is meditation always relaxing?  Investigating heart rate, heart rate variability, experienced effort and likeability during training of three types of meditation".

Roaming through the site, I felt a bit like a little boy let loose in a sweetie shop.  However it was the JAMA Psychiatry paper on contemplative dyads that had taken me there in the first place.  As is so often the case, a little internet searching - for example at www.researchgate.net - brings up a freely downloadable full text copy of the research. The authors write "Here we introduce an interpersonal implementation of secularized daily meditation practice, the contemplative dyad, designed to increase social connectedness via enhancing social capacities, including social cognition. In the contemplative dyad, 2 partners are assigned to disclose their thoughts and feelings to one another in structured meditation-based interactions. Contemplative dyads are a “loud meditation”: the speaker voices whatever comes to mind regarding a topic as the listener’s presence promotes focus for the other’s contemplation." Fascinating.  "Two types of contemplative dyad were developed within a large-scale 9-month longitudinal study of secularized contemplative practices, the ReSource Project. Each dyad was taught in combination with a content-matched classical meditation. The overarching purpose of the ReSource Project was to develop a mental training program that focused on training 3 types of mental capacities: (1) mindfulness-based present-moment–focused attention (presence module, which lacks the dyadic element); (2) socioaffective capacities including loving-kindness and compassion, acceptance of difficult emotions, and prosocial motivation (the affect module); and (3) sociocognitive capacities including metacognitive abilities and perspective-taking on self and others (the perspective module); the latter is also described as theory of mind."    

Great.  And for how they went about teaching the affect module, see the next post "Paired meditation deepens interpersonal connection: how to go about it".


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