As citizens of the 21st century, we face many problems that come with an industrialized and globalized world. We’re confronting climate change and poverty in the midst of plenty; wars and political instability are driving millions of people to leave their homes and seek refuge. At the same time, we’re witnessing increases in stress-related diseases, depression, and narcissism. Skillful solutions to these problems will require new forms of global cooperation, mutual understanding, and compassion across nationalities and cultures.
I’m not a lawyer or a politician, but a psychologist and neuroscientist. So research on how to train helpful mental and social capacities is my way to contribute to a more healthy, communal, and cooperative civilization.
For the past five years, that research has taken the form of the ReSource Project, one of the longest and most comprehensive studies on the effects of meditation-based mental training to date. Lots of research treats the concept of meditation as a single practice, when in fact meditation encompasses a diversity of mental practices that train different skills and different parts of the brain. Our goal was to study the specific effects of some major types of mental practices and distinguish their effects on well-being, the brain, behavior, and health—and, in particular, discover which practices could help build a more compassionate and interconnected world.
Our findings are still emerging, as my team and I continue to analyze a multitude of data. The results so far have been mostly encouraging, sometimes surprising, and crucial to understand for meditation practitioners and teachers.
Three types of mental training
In the ReSource Project, we asked over 300 German adults ages 20-55 to attend a two-hour class every week and practice for 30 minutes a day at home. The lessons and practices were designed by myself together with an expert team of meditation teachers and psychologists over the course of several years. They include a multitude of secularized meditations derived from various Buddhist traditions, as well as practices from Western psychology. Over the course of the study, participants moved through three different training modules, which each began with a three-day retreat:
Presence (3 months). This module focuses on training attention and internal body awareness. The exercises include scanning your body, focusing on the breath and bringing your attention to the present moment whenever your mind wanders, and bringing attention to the sensations of hearing and seeing.
Affect (3 months). This module focuses on training positive social emotions like loving-kindness, compassion, and gratitude, as well as accepting difficult emotions and increasing our motivation to be kind and helpful toward others. In the Affect and Perspective modules, there are two daily core practices: one classic meditation and one 10-minute partner exercise, with participants assigned to a new partner every week on our mobile application. In the Affect module, partners take turns sharing their feelings and body sensations while recalling difficult or gratitude-inducing experiences in their lives, and practicing empathic listening.
Perspective (3 months). This module focuses on meta-cognitive skills (becoming aware of your thinking), gaining perspective on aspects of your own personality, and taking the perspective of others. In this module, the partner exercise includes taking turns talking about a recent experience from the perspective of one aspect of your personality—for example, as if you were fully identified with your “inner judge” or “loving mother”—while the other partner listens carefully and tries to infer the perspective being taken.
Three cohorts moved through these modules in different orders, allowing us to discern the effects of a specific training module and compare it to the other modules. In other words, the cohorts acted as “active control groups” for each other. Another group of participants didn’t do any training but was still tested: Every three months, we measured how participants were doing with a barrage of more than 90 questionnaires, behavioral tests, hormonal markers, and brain scans, to see what (if anything) improved after each module.
When I first launched this study, some of my colleagues thought a year-long mental training course was crazy, that participants would drop out right and left. But that’s not what happened: In fact, less than 8 percent of people dropped out in total. Long after the study ended, we witnessed people logging on to our app and practicing; to this day, I know of people who still self-organize to practice the 10-minute daily partner exercises together—presumably because they found the practices so transformational.