Meditation practice followed by an interaction in pairs increased participants’ perception of social connectedness, a JAMA Psychiatry study found. The findings suggest a potential therapy option for patients experiencing loneliness as part of their pathology.
“Perceiving oneself as socially connected is deeply embedded in human functioning, and the absence of feeling connected prospectively predicts both mental and physical illness and premature mortality,” wrote Bethany Kok, PhD, and Tania Singer, PhD, both from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. “Because many mental illnesses are characterized, in part, by social dysfunctions that threaten social connectedness, interventions that bolster connectedness have a particular relevance to clinicians,” they wrote.
The researchers tested the effectiveness of 3 different meditation interventions, each lasting 3 months. The presence module involved solo breathing practice with a body scan. The affect module involved a loving-kindness meditation followed by a partner affect practice. Similarly, the perspective module involved an observing-thoughts meditation followed by a partner perspective practice. During the partner practices, participants were randomly paired with another participant using a website or Smartphone app. One person spoke for 5 minutes while the other silently listened, and then they flipped roles after completing some written questions.
“The affect dyad cultivates socioaffective capacities, such as empathy, gratitude, and dealing with difficult emotions, and the perspective dyad cultivates cognitive perspective, taking on the self and others,” Dr Kok and Dr Singer explained.
Initially, 362 participants were randomly assigned to 1 of the 3 training cohorts or a control condition: 80 to training cohort 1 and 81 each to training cohorts 2 and 3, with the remaining 90 in the control condition. However, after 30 patients dropped out and 106 did not provide sufficient data or complete the outcome measures, 226 participants remained in the study for analysis. All participants attended a 2-hour weekly training session with meditation teachers on top of their private daily practice.
Training cohorts 1 and 2 began the presence module with a 3-day retreat and continued practice for 3 months. Then cohort 1 did the affect module for 3 months, followed by the perspective module. Training cohort 2 followed their presence module first with the affect module and then with the perspective module. Training cohort 3 only did the affect module.
Participants were expected to use guided recordings to engage in practice 5 times a week at home. Compliance was similar across all 3 interventions, with an average of 3 to 4 sessions per week. The researchers assessed the participants’ engagement based on their use of the recordings and their ratings of how motivated they were and how much they liked the practice. Individuals also self-reported their closeness to others after the partner exercise, as well as their willingness to speak intimately about themselves (self-disclosure).
The participants rated their motivation as slightly higher for the meditation practice than the dyad experience, and the affect dyad elicited more motivation than the perspective dyad. Social closeness increased for both dyads during the session and over time. Self-disclosure also increased for both dyads over time, although more strongly for the affect dyad. The results overall showed similar engagement and increased social connectedness for the dyadic practice compared with traditional solo meditation.
The study’s biggest limitation was its presence within a larger study with solo meditation, preventing the researchers from being able to assess the value of the dyadic experience independent of the solo practice.
“[R]egular dyadic contemplative practice at home can be used to foster perceived social connectedness,” Dr Kok and Dr Singer wrote. “Individuals currently experiencing chronic loneliness, which is often accompanied by abnormalities in social cognition, may benefit from dyadic contemplative practices as a way to undo maladaptive sociocognitive tendencies.”
Kok B, Singer T. Effects of contemplative dyads on engagement and perceived social connectedness over 9 months of mental training a randomized clinical trial [published online December 24, 2016]. JAMA Psychiatry. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3360