Meditation linked to enhanced social cognition in new psychology research

Experienced meditators and people who are more mindful tend to score higher on several measures of social cognition, such as emotional recognition, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Despite the growing interested in meditation, “little is known about how mindfulness is related to social cognition,” the researchers wrote in their new study. “In this regard, some authors have suggested that meditation and mindfulness skills could be useful tools to promote social cognition domains, although research in this field is scarce, and few studies have formally addressed such issues.”

To examine this topic, the researchers administered psychological assessments to 30 Spanish meditators and 30 healthy non-meditators who were matched on sex, age, and ethnicity. The participants in the meditators group all had at least 1 year’s meditation experience.

Meditators tended to score higher on measures of empathy. They also tended to be better at recognizing emotions based on facial expressions and inferring the true intention behind indirect speech utterances. The meditators were also more likely to display reduced hostility bias, meaning they tended to view someone’s negative actions as accidental rather than intentional.

“Results were in the anticipated direction and confirmed that meditators performed better on social cognition indices, compared to non-meditators,” the authors of the study said.

The researchers found that meditators also had significantly higher levels of dispositional mindfulness, a personality trait that describes someone’s awareness and attention to what they are thinking and feeling in the moment. Dispositional mindfulness was, in turn, related to several social cognition outcomes.

“From a pedagogical perspective, our findings suggest that specific training in mindfulness focused on observing internal and external experiences – as well as non-reactivity to such inner experience – can result in enhancement of specific social cognition domains,” the researchers said.

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats. The researchers only examined cross-sectional survey data, which precludes any determination of cause-and-effect.

“For example, perhaps people who choose to engage in mindfulness simply have higher levels of social cognition to begin with, and the reasons for practicing mindfulness meditation could therefore be related to their outcomes,” the researchers explained. Future research could also benefit from larger, more diverse samples of participants.

But the findings are bolstered by a previous randomized, controlled study, which found that an 8-week compassion-based meditation program could significantly improve a person’s ability to read the facial expressions of others.

Similarly, another study published in PLOS One found that a 5-minute mindfulness meditation exercise improved the ability to infer and understand the mental states of others.

The new study, “Exploring the Role of Meditation and Dispositional Mindfulness on Social Cognition Domains: A Controlled Study“, was authored by Daniel Campos, Marta Modrego-Alarcón, Yolanda López-del-Hoyo, Manuel González-Panzano, William Van Gordon, Edo Shonin, Mayte Navarro-Gil, and Javier García-Campayo.