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Although the processes that underlie sharing others’ emotions (empathy) and understanding others’ mental states (mentalizing, Theory of Mind) have received increasing attention, it is yet unclear how they relate to each other. For instance, are people who strongly empathize with others also more proficient in mentalizing? And (how) do the neural networks supporting empathy and mentalizing interact? Assessing both functions simultaneously in a large sample (N = 178), we show that people’s capacities to empathize and mentalize are independent, both on a behavioral and neural level. Thus, strong empathizers are not necessarily proficient mentalizers, arguing against a general capacity of social understanding. Second, we applied dynamic causal modeling to investigate how the neural networks underlying empathy and mentalizing are orchestrated in naturalistic social settings. Results reveal that in highly emotional situations, empathic sharing can inhibit mentalizing-related activity and thereby harm mentalizing performance. Taken together, our findings speak against a unitary construct of social understanding and suggest flexible interplay of distinct social functions.
Successful social interactions require both affect sharing (empathy) and understanding others' mental states (Theory of Mind, ToM). As these two functions have mostly been investigated in isolation, the specificity of the underlying neural networks and the relation of these networks to the respective behavioral indices could not be tested. Here, we present a novel fMRI paradigm (EmpaToM) that independently manipulates both empathy and ToM. Experiments 1a/b (N = 90) validated the task with established empathy and ToM paradigms on a behavioral and neural level. Experiment 2 (N = 178) employed the EmpaToM and revealed clearly separable neural networks including anterior insula for empathy and ventral temporoparietal junction for ToM. These distinct networks could be replicated in task-free resting state functional connectivity. Importantly, brain activity in these two networks specifically predicted the respective behavioral indices, that is, inter-individual differences in ToM related brain activity predicted inter-individual differences in ToM performance, but not empathic responding, and vice versa. Taken together, the validated EmpaToM allows separation of affective and cognitive routes to understanding others. It may thus benefit future clinical, developmental, and intervention studies on identifying selective impairments and improvement in specific components of social cognition.
ImportanceLoneliness 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. Trial Registration clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT01833104
This review provides an overview of the field of social neuroscience from a European perspective and focuses mainly on outlining research topics which originated in European laboratories. After a brief historical synopsis of the emergence of this young field, the most relevant findings related to the investigation of the neural networks underlying our capacity to understand the minds of others are summarized. More specifically, three routes of social cognition are distinguished: (1) our capacity to mentalize, or to infer intentions and beliefs of others, (2) our capacity to mimic and understand other's motor actions, and (3) our capacity to empathize, or to share and understand the feelings of others. More recent studies focusing on social emotions such as love, compassion, revenge or our sense of fairness will be discussed linking the field of social neuroscience to the even younger field of neuroeconomics, with the focus on the study of human social interactions using game theoretical paradigms. Finally, the use of a multi-method and multi-disciplinary research approach combining genetic, pharmacological, computational and developmental aspects is advocated and future directions for the study of interactive minds are discussed.
Compassion has been suggested to be a strong motivator for prosocial behavior. While research has demonstrated that compassion training has positive effects on mood and health, we do not know whether it also leads to increases in prosocial behavior. We addressed this question in two experiments. In Experiment 1, we introduce a new prosocial game, the Zurich Prosocial Game (ZPG), which allows for repeated, ecologically valid assessment of prosocial behavior and is sensitive to the influence of reciprocity, helping cost, and distress cues on helping behavior. Experiment 2 shows that helping behavior in the ZPG increased in participants who had received short-term compassion training, but not in participants who had received short-term memory training. Interindividual differences in practice duration were specifically related to changes in the amount of helping under no-reciprocity conditions. Our results provide first evidence for the positive impact of short-term compassion training on prosocial behavior towards strangers in a training-unrelated task.