We asked MLI Fellow Tania Singer what she believes the next frontiers will be in the field of contemplative science.
In the last decades, the social sciences have witnessed an explosion of peer-reviewed scientific papers from diverse fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and medicine focusing on the investigation of concepts such as mindfulness, empathy, or compassion. This research reflects the emerging field of contemplative science that aims at unifying wisdom from contemplative traditions with empirical Western scientific methods—that is, to bring together first- and third-person methods. Although this increasing interest in contemplative science is very promising, this field is still in its “kinder shoes” and much needs to be done in order for it to develop into a mature discipline that is fully unfolding its potential impact for society.
What is needed in the future? On the short term, more sophisticated methods for the reliable assessment of complex first-person subjective data and their integration with established objective measurements of brain, health, and body. The creation of the discipline of “neurophenomenology” is a first step in the right direction. This could help rehabilitate the integration of knowledge gained from interoception as a serious method into Western empirical sciences. Second, although recently several research centers have successfully developed several secular mental training programs to promote wholesome qualities such as mindfulness, emotion-regulation, or compassion, these programs have usually not been longer than eight to 12 weeks, and associated plasticity research has often lacked an active control group ultimately needed to test for specific effects of different mental training practices, as well as long-term effects on subjective well-being, brain plasticity, health, and behavior.
On the longer term, research efforts in contemplative science need to be translated into tools and new models that can serve society in a broader sense. For example, mental training programs should be translated into curricula that can be taught to children of different ages in different countries. These programs should optimally be scientifically validated first to assure that their modification is also beneficial to schools and educational settings. Such a procedure would be similar to what is already a requirement in translational medicine and would suggest the creation of a new subfield called “translational psychology” or “translational contemplative sciences.” Furthermore, the bridge between contemplative sciences and economics is still very thin and fragile. This is astonishing given the huge impact our globalized cross-national economic systems have on society. Integrating new findings from contemplative sciences into economic models and policies could help replace old notions of a selfish and single-minded “homo economicus” and lead to new models of a more “caring economy” that promotes the well-being of all global citizens and the environment they are living in for future generations to come.
Tania Singer, PhD, received her PhD in psychology from Freie Universität Berlin in 2000 and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin until 2002. Afterwards, she conducted research on the neural foundations of empathy and fairness at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience in London from 2002–2005 and at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London from 2005–2006. In the same year,Tania took up the position of Assistant Professor of Social Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, where she also became Co-Director of the Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research in 2007 and Inaugural Chair of Social Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics in 2008. Since 2010, she has been the Director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Using a multi-method and interdisciplinary approach from areas such as neuroscience, developmental and social psychology, psychobiology, and economics, she investigates the foundations of human social behavior. More specifically, she is interested in the developmental, neural, and hormonal mechanisms underlying social cognition; social and moral emotions such as empathy, compassion, envy, revenge, and fairness; and emotion-regulation capacities and their role in social decision making.