Brain changes in response to learning social skills

How a period of intense training in compassion alters the functional and structural architecture of the brain
29 September 2023

Interview with 

Sofie Valk, Max Planck Institute


A cartoon brain outweighing a cartoon heart on a balance scale.


In the year 2000, Eleanor Maguire published a paper that caused a seismic shift in the neuroscience landscape: she scanned London taxi drivers as they completed “the knowledge” - the arduous task of learning every road through London. She famously found that the brain region called the hippocampus in these drivers enlarged as they progressed through their training, showing that even the adult brain has impressive powers of plasticity. So what about other aspects of behaviour, and in particular social skills and compassion? Can these be taught, and if so what changes, if any, are visible in the brain? Speaking with Chris Smith, and from the Max Planck Institute, Sofie Valk…

Sofie - Can we train social skills to adults? Can we learn to be more compassionate, more understanding for others? And if so, what would this do to the brain? And we had different types of mental training such as training from maybe yoga practice, mindfulness, social training where you speak with your partner about your emotions and the other person listens and then the other person speaks about their emotions. Or also that you learn that you have different perspectives in yourself. So for example, I'm a lab leader, but I'm also a mother and I'm also somebody that loves to watch crappy shows on Netflix when I'm tired. So I have all these different perspectives in me and as do you all, and learning about them helps you to understand the different roles we all have. And hence it may increase the understanding we have for other people and their perspectives.

Chris - It's sort of practice making perfect then. So by practising to be better at this, you in some way change the way your brain processes information and its structure and how it handles information does change in response to those stimuli.

Sofie - That's the idea, yeah. To let people increase awareness and also performance in emotional understanding and compassion, but also taking the perspective of others.

Chris - There's this old saying, isn't there, 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks.' And I suppose it's really relevant to the brain. We do learn much better when we are younger than when we're older. So who did you look at and how did you actually make these measurements?

Sofie - We recruited adult individuals between 20 and 55 years of age. Normal, healthy adults, willing to take part in this rather intense nine months training protocol. So it ended up being like both men and women. Average age 40, but distributed between 20 and 55.

Chris - And what did you do to establish the baseline? How did you work out how their brains were working before you did anything to them?

Sofie - For the beginning of the study, we did many behavioural tests to kind of establish a baseline and then we scanned them to understand the structure of their brain. So the anatomy is based on brain matter and white matter, but also looks at the function of the brain, namely looking at the activations that happen over a certain time period while you're scanned.

Chris - And then you subject your subjects to a fairly, as you put it, intense training over the nine month period. Did you look during that period or did you look just at the end to see whether anything had changed?

Sofie - Because it was three different types of training, because part of the study, the goal was also to understand if there's differences in learning to understand other people's emotions, further understanding their perspectives of thoughts. So we wanted to also compare different types of training to understand the specificity. So everything was a three month course and every three month training block was then evaluated by having a set of scans, also a set of behavioural measurements so that we kind of track how people changed over time.

Chris - And on average, we can look at how individuals might have performed differently in a minute, but on average, what happened over the course of the study?

Sofie - Many things happened. <laugh> I think focusing more on brain structure, you see over the course of nine months that particularly the structure on average changes. But function is more subtle and it seems to adapt more to the circumstances or the specifics of what you train. So here, what I observed in the functional measurements that I took, it wasn't something that just kept on adding, but something that kept on dynamically changing depending on what the needs of that certain training protocol were. So over nine months, brain anatomy changes in a more slow fashion or a gradual fashion. It builds up upon each other. Whereas function is something that you get a bit more of this if you train one thing, but then this reduces again if you train another thing.

Chris - We had an insight that this sort of thing happens because of the famous London taxi driver study with people developing larger sub regions of their hippocampus if they have to do the knowledge and learn the streets of London to navigate them very well. So what does this add? Does this tell us that it's not just the memory and navigational circuits, it's the emotional and other circuits in the brain that change as well when we use them?

Sofie - It depends on how you look at it, but for me it means that we can still also change as adults, right? So the brain is like a sponge and depending on the environment and the opportunities that we give ourselves, we can always learn and adapt to the circumstances, always within certain limits. And maybe over time with age and with certain habits or certain genetic predispositions to opportunities to change are more limited or different. So across individuals, but still, the context matters to the brain and the context is part of what shapes how the brain looks and functions.

Chris - Many would argue that's really encouraging to hear because some of your subjects were older, so we don't seem to be completely fixed in our ways. I mean maybe there were some subtle effects if you looked at just older people versus younger people. But what are the implications for people who have neurodevelopmental disorders? I'm thinking of people who might be on the spectrum, the autism spectrum, for example. If the brain can be, I don't want to use the word reprogrammed, but if it can be remolded in order to make it function better under certain circumstances, does this mean that we should be offering certain types of interventions to people with some of these particular developmental situations to help them?

Sofie - Yes. The question is to what extent you can support those who have neurodevelopmental conditions because it was like, obviously one should always stimulate somebody, right? Like if somebody is sick and starts feeling better, you should also encourage them to get out of bed, right? And get on moving after an operation. And probably this is the same that you find, you have to find a good way to stimulate people, but not all stimulation is right for whatever occasion or whatever person. And I think one of the take-homes also of the study is how differentiable it is so that you can also train different things depending on what you need, such as more emotional skills or more understanding of perspective skills, but also just more mindfulness, attentional skills. And now often these things are sometimes combined together in different ways and, and by unfolding them and seeing how these components actually contribute differently to the brain, but also to behaviour, I think is also a first step to maybe understand what components could then be best tested for a certain individual.


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