In 2011, I traveled to Australia over Christmas to visit my dear friend Kira Kay, who was leading an intense Satori retreat. I had heard many positive things about this intersubjective form of deep meditation, referred to in the 70s as “Enlightenment Intensives.1” So, I took a chance and enrolled in a six-day retreat with her.
The experience was profound and unlike any contemplative practice I had engaged in before. Instead of meditating alone, as I was accustomed to, I sat across from a partner, looking eye to eye. Each of us took turns repeating the same prompt, “tell me who you are,” switching roles at the sound of a gong. And each of us carefully attended to the other’s honest reflections. Tears ran down my cheeks the first time I listened to my partner’s deeply personal explorations. It felt like diving into the ocean of another’s eyes and soul.
Those six days would shape my work as a social neuroscientist for years to come. Upon returning home, I integrated this experience into my ongoing research on the effects of contemplative practice in a way that has become profoundly meaningful to me. Specifically, I was inspired to develop and study a specific type of intersubjective mental practice that would train social capacities—like compassion and perspective taking—that are critical for individual and societal well-being.
A Social Neuroscience Perspective
My passion to more deeply understand our interpersonal nature can likely be traced to the womb. I came into this world as an identical twin and grew up in a highly intersubjective space, always tuned into the feelings and actions of my sister. Looking back, I can see how the experience of constant interaction and interdependence likely contributed to my entering the emerging field of social neuroscience around the year 2000. I was drawn to its goal of understanding how our brains represent and understand each other. As a postdoc in London, I developed one of the first neuroscience approaches to study empathy. It involved scanning couples’ brains while one or the other was experiencing pain. This work revealed that we share and understand the pain of others by activating the same neuronal circuits that process our own pain.2 As researchers, we were given a first glimpse into the empathic neuronal circuitries in our brains.
The next step was to understand how we could train social emotions like empathy, and whether such training would induce brain plasticity. After studying the brains of long-term meditators and Buddhist monks, specifically compassion experts, I learned more clearly about the difference between empathy and compassion.3 Empathy, or feeling with another, is not the same as compassion, or feeling for another. In empathy, we suffer with the other or share their joy or other emotions—we feel what they feel. Compassion, by comparison, involves care and concern for the person who suffers, and comes with a strong motivation to help and feelings of warmth and love. We also learned that short trainings in compassion could activate similar brain circuits to those we saw in the expert meditators.
Building on this foundation, I submitted and surprisingly received a big grant from the European Research Council in 2008, enabling me to take the first steps to launch a large-scale contemplative mental training study: the ReSource project.4 In contrast to most mindfulness-based interventions, which last eight weeks, the ReSource project was a nine-month longitudinal study. I was keen to cultivate not only attention-based mindfulness but social qualities such as empathy, compassion, and cognitive perspective taking. The intervention consisted of three modules, each undertaken for three months: a mindfulness-based attention module (Presence), a compassion-based module (Affect), and a perspective taking module (Perspective). Such a design allowed us to go beyond the question of “what does meditation or mindfulness do to our brain or body?” Instead, we asked, “which type of contemplative practice does what, and in which domain?” And rather than focus on one or two outcome measures, we included more than 90 different markers.5 These ranged from biological, hormonal, and brain markers to behavioral tasks, subjective questionnaires, and phenomenological reports (see links and videos in resources section below).
I was keen to cultivate not only attention-based mindfulness but social qualities such as empathy, compassion, and cognitive perspective taking.
Working with my team of ReSource meditation and mindfulness teachers, we fleshed out the details of the nine-month intervention protocol. One issue in particular stood out for me at the time. Knowing that most contemplative practices are typically practiced alone, how could you really practice social skills such as empathy, compassion, or taking another’s perspective, beyond just imagining another person in your mind? I myself had struggled with holding the internal picture of an imagined other in my mind during, for example, classic Buddhist loving kindness (metta) meditations. And I knew others had similar difficulties. For me, imagination was powerful, but only went so far. My personal experience in Australia doing dyadic practices at the Satori retreat happened around this time, and opened a new doorway for me, suggesting a possible answer to my question.
Tania elaborates on her research in a presentation on the neuroscience of compassion at the 2015 World Economic Forum.
Contemplative Dyads as Social Skill Learning
When I returned from Australia, I started to explore how we could adapt such intersubjective meditation practices outside of an intensive retreat setting. An indispensable ally was my long-time friend, mindfulness teacher and doctor Johannes Latzel, who was also familiar with the Satori retreat model. My hope was to develop dyads as an everyday practice people could pursue to cultivate social capacities specifically related to two modules—Affect and Perspective—of the ReSource project. In contrast to other partner-based contemplative practices that are typically done in a defined setting, such as a retreat, to explore a specific experience more deeply (see box below), I had in mind using these relational practices in real-life settings to promote skill-building in people’s everyday lives. The goal was to build up social skills such as empathic listening, acceptance, coping with stress and difficult emotions (for the Affect module), or taking the perspective of one’s own or other minds (for the Perspective module). To achieve these goals, participants would practice the same dyad exercise—repeating the same specific two questions on a daily basis over several weeks—so that “mind-muscles” could develop through neuroplasticity, and we could measure these changes in the brain and people’s behavior afterward.
What are Dyads?
In the context of psychology and communication, dyads refer generally to interactions between two individuals. These interactions take various forms and serve different purposes, including strengthening interpersonal relationships, studying communication patterns, and pursuing therapeutic goals where role plays are common. Contemplative dyads, in particular, represent a deep interpersonal meditative practice carried out in pairs with a witness who engages in active listening while the other person reflects on a question or topic. Dyad formats are used in many in-person mindfulness programs, including the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Through this so-called ‘inquiry method,” participants are asked open-ended questions to explore and deepen their understanding of a given experience during a meditation. The aim is to facilitate self-inquiry and self-awareness. Other intense retreat formats where in-person dyadic formats are used in group settings, often with long partner-based exercises of 40 minutes or more, are the Diamond approach by A.H. Almaas, the Insight Dialogue approach by Gregory Kramer, and the intense silent Enlightenment Intensive retreats, developed by Charles Berner in the 1960s (later also referred to as the Satori process). Our approach differs from those applied in retreat settings as it is a science-based skill-learning approach. Participants repeat daily practices focused on two related questions over many weeks, with partners changing weekly. They are supported by teacher-lead coaching sessions to deepen their practice and assure psychological safety.
For a year, Johannes and I experimented doing daily dyads together with different lengths and combinations of questions until we felt that the pieces really clicked. Later, my ReSource protocol development team further fine-tuned the dyadic practices, especially that pertaining to the Perspective Dyad. A unique approach to dyad work emerged, in which ReSource project participants engaged in a daily contemplative dyad of 10-12 minutes with randomly assigned partners. The pairs were supported by a customized mobile app, with partners changing every week to allow for a more diverse experience—and for a sense of shared humanity to emerge.
For both the Affect and Perspective modules, we developed a specific type of dyad6 that differed in the questions we asked. To cultivate emotional skills, we developed the Affect Dyad in which the listener first asked the explorer the question: “Describe a situation within the last 24 hours in which you experienced a difficult emotion, and how did it feel in your body?” After 2.5 minutes, a gong would sound and the listener, after thanking the speaker, would ask a second question about gratitude: “Describe a situation within the last 24 hours in which you felt grateful, and how did that feel in your body?” Typically, the second question functions as an antidote to the first one. As is the case with most dyad practices, after the speaker responded to both questions, the roles would switch—the speaker becoming the listener and vice versa.
These two questions are not random but aimed at developing specific skills. For example, in the Affect Dyad the person who is speaking learns acceptance of difficult emotions, body awareness, and resilience through care and gratitude. In return, the listener actively develops non-judgmental awareness and empathic listening skills. The Perspective Dyad focuses on learning to take different perspectives—those of another person, and even of different aspects of your own mind. In the context of the ReConnect Masterclass retreats I have been leading for several years, I developed additional dyads related to inner critique, self-compassion, and shame.
Improving Social Connectedness
With the intervention protocol complete, in 2013 we finally started testing. The ReSource program enrolled more than 300 participants, who practiced daily for 9 months. Each 3-month training module began with a 3.5-day retreat in which participants learned the practices of a given module. Every week, they met in person for two hours in small groups with their teachers to deepen their practices and learn new meditations. The ReSource app allowed them to perform their two core practices for each module daily at home. The testing period lasted three years, from 2013 to 2016.
Overall, the ReSource study showed that we maintain plasticity, even at older ages, on all levels: brain, hormones, behavior, and well-being. Each three-month module came with its unique fingerprint of results, revealing that it really matters which type of practice you engage in. Most importantly, we not only saw functional and structural brain plasticity, but the intervention boosted social skills, well-being, and prosocial behaviors while reducing stress and mental health problems. To date, more than 60 peer-reviewed papers have been published summarizing the findings of this unique study.
And to our surprise, the data analysis confirmed that the daily contemplative dyad practice approach we developed had worked! Prior to starting the project, many colleagues warned me that it would be impossible to have participants do a dyad with a partner they didn’t know, every day for three months. Despite this skepticism, we observed an enormously high compliance for the dyad practice in all cohorts and for all modules, which was comparable to the compliance to the daily meditations done alone6. Further, daily ratings before and after practice indicated that participants really enjoyed doing dyads and felt better afterward. They also reported feeling closer to their partner after both the Affect and Perspective Dyads. Even more interestingly, they felt closer to their partner from week to week of training—even before the dyad started, and also if their dyad partner was new (given that partners change every week). Finally, the content they disclosed became more personal from week to week, indicating growing connectedness and trust, again even with new partners.
It seemed that a sense of social connectedness and shared humanity emerged over time with this intersubjective practice, something we as teachers leading the retreats and weekly in-person classes could witness long before we had quantitative results. Dyads seemed to work like a social glue. One anecdote touched me deeply—I learned years later that some participants had self-organized to continue practicing dyads, managing to sustain this daily practice uninterrupted for many years!
It seemed that a sense of social connectedness and shared humanity emerged over time with this intersubjective practice.
Looking at biological markers, such as the stress hormone cortisol after participants underwent a social stressor in the lab, also suggested that the two social modules (Affect and Perspective), reduced the social stress response by up to 51%.7 Interestingly, we didn’t see this effect in the attention-based mindfulness module, which didn’t include dyads, but rather classic meditations done alone (Presence). Such observations made sense given that in a dyad you practice every day to not fear the potential judgments of another—a major cause of social stress—and to listen non-judgmentally.
These results were inspiring, but we could not be sure whether these and other impressive findings were merely based on the dyad practice alone, or the combination and/or the other solitary meditations participants were doing in a given three-month module. It took years before we could really answer these questions and investigate the direct and differential effects of contemplative dyads as compared to solitary mindfulness practices. As it turns out, an unforeseen circumstance—the Covid-19 pandemic—would trigger a whole new series of insights.
The CovSocial Project: A Step Towards Scale
I was building up a new research project in Berlin when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. In Germany, we entered our first lockdown in the spring of that year. Deprived of lab work, I conceived of a large-scale mental health study that would use the ReSource app to track changes in mental health, resilience, and social cohesion within the Berlin population during the different phases of the pandemic. Thus, the CovSocial project was born (for more details see: www.covsocial.de).
Over time, we recruited several thousand Berliners, assessing them at seven time points from Jan 2020 to April 2021. We quickly saw that on average the population suffered from the lockdowns, especially the almost six-month long second one, where clear lockdown fatigue effects8 could be observed. Women and younger people suffered most, showing increased levels of depression, loneliness, anxiety, and stress with decreased resilience and social cohesion.
Seeing the steady decline of mental health with every month, we decided to implement a second phase of the CovSocial project in hopes of boosting people’s resilience and reducing their stress and loneliness. Given all we had learned about the power of mental training from the in-person ReSource project, the time had come to implement less intense online training programs to see if a lower dose app-based training could be effective. This time, we invited around 300 participants from the first phase of the CovSocial project to join the training study. In this study,9 we compared a 10-week mindfulness program (with 12 minutes of daily solitary meditation practice) to a 10-week training during which participants practiced the Affect Dyad for 12 minutes daily with a partner, again changing their partner every week.
Especially for the intersubjective dyads, it’s crucial to onboard participants, creating a safe space and familiarizing them with the rules and structure of the practice. To this end, participants of both intervention groups received weekly two-hour coaching sessions led by trained mindfulness teachers. The coaching for the dyad group covered topics such as “body language and interoceptive awareness,” “how to listen empathically,” “gratitude and how it’s different from a pleasant feeling,” and “how to be with and accept difficult emotions.” The onboarding also taught participants how to recognize social patterns and social conditioning, which are central when doing intersubjective practices with another person. For example, dyad partners can come late, forget about their appointment, or share about controversial topics, which can impact the experience and relationship. Becoming aware of these social triggers—and ways of reacting—is part of the learning experience in this type of contemplative practice.
The data from this project revealed once again that the dyads worked! It should be noted that many of these participants had never heard of meditation or mindfulness, nor done any inner work before. While many publications are still under review at the time of writing this essay, the first analysis, focusing on self-report questionnaires, showed that both online interventions—the dyad and the attention-based solo mindfulness practices—reduced depression, anxiety, and emotion regulation difficulties, although through seemingly different underlying mechanisms. They also boosted empathy,10 self- and other-related compassion, as well as bodily and emotional awareness.11 However, only the dyad12 increased positive thoughts about other people, increased social connectedness while decreasing loneliness and hormonal responses to social stress, and boosted resilience and positive interpretation bias (the tendency to perceive the world more optimistically). When comparing both interventions across all the measures we have analyzed so far, it seems that the dyadic practice intervention was the most powerful, revealing more effects especially in the domain of enhancing resilience and social capacities (for an initial summary of findings, see https://www.covsocial.de/symposium-2022).
Broader Societal Application and Notes of Caution
Ever since the first findings of the ReSource project came out, people from diverse fields have asked if they could use the intervention—in healthcare, educational, or other work settings—to boost resilience and foster social skills. While a nine-month in-person intensive training such as the ReSource protocol was very effective for gaining deep scientific insights, it was hardly transferrable to real-life settings. Simply organizing multi-day retreats at the outset of each module, followed by weekly in-person sessions with teachers, would be too much for many institutions.
To make the intervention more practical and accessible, I started to develop ReConnect Masterclasses. These mental training programs start with a 3.5-day residential retreat with 50-70 participants learning core contemplative practices, including dyads, and attending psycho-educational lectures. This in-person retreat is then followed by an online eight-week daily dyad course done at home, and weekly online coaching with trained teachers.
One of these masterclasses was delivered to a group of healthcare providers in the middle of the pandemic, in cooperation with the University of Strasbourg. It was amazing to see how much these busy doctors, therapists, and surgeons enjoyed the daily dyad practice. Surveys confirmed that although they all enjoyed the intense in-person retreat in a French cloister, they also found it helpful to transfer their practice to their everyday work life and to connect with colleagues who had experienced similar challenging situations. A sense of social cohesion and support emerged among these heroes, who too often are left emotionally alone in their stressful jobs of helping those who are suffering.
With the first findings of the online CovSocial project, we now have a dyad model available through a digital platform and app that is much easier to scale across locations. It consists of a 10-week online dyad program with weekly online coaching sessions, and only 12-minutes of daily practice at home.
It’s important to note that for this type of skill training to work, it requires daily dyad practice over many weeks, along with proper onboarding and weekly coaching sessions with trained teachers. To ensure a safe practice space, we teach not only psychological content, but introduce rules of conduct and engage staff to monitor and support participants. We further use the coaching sessions for group sharing, feedback, and ensuring the practices are really understood. Dyad coaches must receive special training as well to understand the nuances of this intersubjective practice. Such teacher training takes time and runs counter to fast scalability. Furthermore, as the size of the observed training results from CovSocial are overall small, it is important to note that, as with training the physical body, only regular practice over months is likely to lead to robust and long-term changes in our mental fitness. For this reason, cutting features, such as the duration of training, to facilitate product sales and scalability, may mean that the scientific effects we’ve seen no longer hold.
To continue to produce science-based interventions that can transform society and boost mental health on a broader scale, my Social Neuroscience Lab in Berlin is now developing a new project, Edu:Social. It will investigate the effects of different types of dyadic interventions in domains of society that are in critical need of burn-out prevention and resilience—education and healthcare. Similar to the field of translational medicine, our aim is to apply fundamental research to real-world settings.
A challenge will be to develop measures to capture changes in an entire system, such as a classroom or a hospital division. In developing these applications, we need to look at potential ripple effects. For example, could boosting social skills and resilience in teachers affect the entire classroom climate? And if we teach medical students and hospital staff to listen more empathically, will this affect the recovery rates of patients, and/or their satisfaction with the care they receive? Such studies may be a start to better understanding how inner work can lead to systemic, and ultimately to societal change.
Such studies may be a start to better understanding how inner work can lead to systemic, and ultimately to societal change.
The isolation and loneliness imposed by the Covid pandemic served as a potent reminder of just how much we, as humans, need one another; and yet we continue to struggle with how to connect deeply, openly, and honestly with those around us. My experience with doing contemplative dyads myself, and teaching them to many thousands of people from all backgrounds, ages, and nationalities, has shown me just how powerful this intersubjective practice can be for authentically relating to myself and others, and for experiencing—on a deeply felt level—our shared humanity. Now, more than ever, may such practices help us come together, to heal, and to strengthen our communities in light of the collective challenges we face.
Video talks about the ReSource project
Noyes, L. (1998). The enlightenment intensive: Dyad communication as a tool for self-realization. Frog Books.
Chapman, J. (1988). Tell me who you are. J. and E. Chapman.
Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2004). Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science, 303(5661), 1157–1162.
Singer, T., & Klimecki, O. (2014). Empathy and compassion. Current Biology, 24(18), R875−R878.
Singer, T., Kok, B. E., Bornemann, B., Bolz, M., & Bochow, C. (2015). The ReSource Project: Background, design, samples, and measurements. Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig.
Singer, T., & Engert, V. (2019). It matters what you practice: Differential training effects on subjective experience, behavior, brain and body in the ReSource Project. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, 151–158.
Kok, B. E., & Singer, T. (2017). Effects of contemplative dyads on engagement and perceived social connectedness over 9 months of mental training: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry, 74(2), 126−134.
Engert, V., Kok, B. E., Papassotiriou, I., Chrousos, G. P., & Singer, T. (2017). Specific reduction in cortisol stress reactivity after social but not attention-based mental training. Science Advances, 3(10), e1700495.
Godara, M., Rademacher, J., Hecht, M., Silveira, S., Voelkle, M, & Singer, T. (2023). Heterogeneous mental health responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in Germany: An examination of long-term trajectories, risk factors and vulnerable groups. Healthcare, 11, 1305.
Godara, M., Silveira, S. J., Matthäus, H., Heim, C., Voelkle, M., Hecht, M., … & Singer, T. (2021). Investigating differential effects of socio-emotional and mindfulness-based online interventions on mental health, resilience and social capacities during the COVID-19 pandemic: The study protocol. PLoS One, 16(11): e0256323.
Silveira, J., Godara, M., & Singer, T. (2023). Boosting empathy and compassion through mindfulness-based and socio-emotional dyadic practice: A randomized control trial with app-delivered trainings. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 25, e45027.
Silveira, S., Godara, M., Faschinger, A., & Singer, T. (2023). Reducing alexithymia and increasing interoceptive awareness: A randomized controlled trial comparing mindfulness with dyadic socio-emotional app-based practice. Journal of Affective Disorders, 341, 162-169.
Petzold, P., Silveira, S., Godara, M., Matthäus, H. & Singer T. (2023). Phenomenological fingerprints of app-based mental trainings: Differential changes in thought patterns and emotional well-being after mindfulness versus dyadic socio-emotional practice. Scientific Reports. 13(1), 13843.