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Join the International Conference on: How Might We Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion?

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Culture of Empathy Builder: Tania Singer
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Understanding Empathy and Compassion
Tania Singer

Tania Singer is a social neuroscientist and psychologist at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Germany. Her research aims to increase our understanding of the foundations of human social behavior. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, she and her team investigate the neuronal, hormonal, and developmental foundations of human social cognition, social and moral emotions such as empathy and compassion. In this dialogue we discussed the nature of empathy and her studies on  different empathy and compassion training types and their benefits.

Study Conclusion:
"Contemplative dyads elicited engagement similar to classical contemplative practices and increased perceived social connectedness. Contemplative dyads represent a new type of intervention targeting social connectedness and intersubjective capacities deficient in participants who experience loneliness and in many psychopathologies."


 In other words, there are a lot of benefits in people empathically listening to each other.  One of the benefits is that it reduces social anxiety about being judged and they feel more connected. This feeling of lower stress and greater connection lasts over time as well.

Sub Conferences: Science



Understanding Empathy and Compassion: Tania Singer and Edwin Rutsch
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Articles, Studies, Videos


Sidewalk Talk Interview:
Heart-Centered Listening Makes Us More Compassionate than Mindfulness Alone

"Stand Out Quotes:

  • Mindfulness in the west has been reduced to mind training to help us to be more efficient but mindfulness was designed to reduce suffering in the world.

  • Altruism and social stress only shift if you do relation based practices.

  • Fear of not being good enough is ingrained in our culture now so if we can increase care motivation and judge ourselves and others less we could potentially cure social diseases like depression and loneliness"

Jan 24 2015: How to build a caring economy By Tania Singer
"Research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience shows beyond doubt that the assumptions about human nature that underpin mainstream economic models are simply wrong...
The difference between empathy and compassion. It is important, however, to distinguish between basic empathic and caring responses, and a more universal capacity for compassion. It is possible that universal compassion is solely a human function. Empathy alone does not necessarily prompt prosocial behaviour. If you empathize with the suffering of another, for example, you may not necessarily help this person. Empathy can also result in empathic distress that may even lead to withdrawal or aggressive behaviour."



2013-06-24 - Feeling Others’ Pain: Transforming Empathy into Compassion

"Breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience: Highlighting influential research from the past 20 years

CNS talked with Singer, who is now at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, about the influence of the 2004 paper, her work exploring training people for compassion, and new avenues for social neuroscience, including the merging of neuroscience, economics, and psychology.

CNS: Why do you think your empathy for pain 2004 paper was and is still so important?
Singer: At the time of its appearance, it was one of the first cognitive neuroscience papers that reported about two people within the scanner environment instead of just focusing on a single brain. We had asked couples to come to our laboratory and scanned the female while she was empathizing with the suffering of her partner who was sitting next to her by the scanner. At that time, such an experimental set-up was extremely unusual as it was trying to capture a real-life social phenomena. "



The Neuroscience of Compassion | Tania Singer World Economic Forum


Brain Plasticity -


  •  1. Presence - 3 months

    • Meditation

    • attention

    • interceptive awareness

    • exercise

      • breathing

      • body scan

  • 2. Affect

    • become aware of body and feelings

    • care/compassion/gratitude

    • prosocial motivation

    • dealing with difficult emotions

    • exercise

      • observing thoughts

      • perspective dyad - empathic listening

  • 3. Perspective

    • meta-cognitive

    • perspective taking

    • theory of mind

    • exercise

Group meditation

5:00 - lots of studying and testing

Training Step 1, 2 3  -

Training Step 1, 3, 2 - 

6:30 difference in empathy and compassion

psychopaths understand the intentions, beliefs, - good at manipulating the other because they know what the person needs and thinks. no empathy and compassion, they don't care.

9:50 - training different capacities - exercising metaphor.

  • affective and perspective taking have different brain networks so can be trained differently

  • effects of trainings

Does time of practice matter?

  • have a test on stress

Old Model for economics

  • neo classic -self interest

  • context

we can be motivated by different forces (needs, feelings)




Raising Compassion
"Raising Compassion brings together a diverse group of neuroscientists, mental health professionals, and Buddhist monks in a remarkable exchange between science, art, and contemplative practice. In a series of informal conversations about compassion, initiated by neuroscientist Tania Singer and artist Olafur Eliasson, the protagonists discuss the public perception of compassion, talk about compassion-training programs at various research centres, relate their experiences about working with prisoners and in hospitals, and promote the practical uses of compassion-training in dealing with social and political issues."  July 2011,



DLDwomen 2012: About Priming Sex and Empathy


36:00 - Empathy, Compassion and Plasticity

Social Neuroscience - a new field

  • social brain

38:00 difference between Empathy and Compassion

  • how to train it

39:00 Definitions of Empathy

  • Emotional contagion

    • yawning

    • laughing (video)

    • Stress -

    • we are interconnect beings

    • Emotional contagion - this is not empathy yet

    • catch it like a virus

  • You have pain and I share your pain - Self other distinction

  • Difference between empathy and compassion

  • Empathy is a precursor and is good but if you have to much of it you can go into distress.

    • go into closing down

  • What we want to have is compassion

  • What are driving motivational factors to be prosocial. not egoistic

  • The roots of coming to understand the other (routes of social cognition

    • affective root - resonance

    • cognitive metalizing - theory of mind

      • psychopathy

44:40 Empathy for Pain Tests - pain matrix

47:50 Modulatory factors (what blocks empathy)

  • Alexthymia

    • don't know what you feel?

    • don't have access to your feeling

    • understanding your own feeling and empathy is very close [self-empathy]

    • introspective training

  • Perceived fairness of others

    • [isn't fairness like the person is not empathizing with you?]

    • empathizing or not with the cheater

  • Perceived group membership

    • ingroup and out group

    • more empathy for outgroup

  • Schdenfreude and prosocial behavior

  • 53:45 Summary

    • we are wired for empathy

    • connects to and use our own neurons

    • empathy training should start with learning to read your own feelings

    • you can inhibit empathy

56:00 Empathy is fragile

  • What can we do about it. Through training

  • Looked for experts and did tests

    • Dali Lama monks

    • activate warm feelings from caring system

59:00 Addressing compassion fatigue

  • has big grant in training

  • address burnout, stress, egocentricity >> leads to depression

1:00:00 End

Q and A?

  • Priming How should we change our behavior

  • Q 1:05 - Why should we be empathic and why should we learn it.

    • start with empathy go to compassion

  • Q - Do you do something to increase your empathy and compassion?

    • exercise the steps we teach

    • meditation

    • many techniques

    • Attention and perspective taking training

  • Q Do you measure differences between cultures?

    • we are not there.

    • the systems are universal even in animals.

  • Q. do you work with the police?

  • will publish a book with findings and trainings.



The Neuroeconomics of Mind Reading and Empathy pdf
The phenomenon of empathy entails the ability to share the affective experiences of others. In recent years social neuroscience made considerable progress in revealing the mechanisms that enable a person to feel what another is feeling. The present review provides an in-depth and critical discussion of these findings./..


2012-05-(26-29) International Symposia for Contemplative Studies

Master Lecture Webcast: Basic Science/Neuroscience and Contemplative Practice

Tania Singer  Neuroscience, Empathy versus Compassion from Biological perspective

(times are off?)


Singer  - empathy and compassion from a biological perspective


How first and third person perspective can meet 

  • and can lead to something new

  • Our framework: Affective Sisters

  • From contagion via empathy to compassion


Emotional contagion (not empathy)

  • babies crying

  • yawning

  • laughing

  • stress watching stress


3:04 Empathy needs a distinction between self and other

  • develops after 18 months

  • empathy is not compassion

  • it's a vicarious feeling

  • empathy is only to get into resonance together

  • I share your pain

  • (why is everyone so hung up on pain? just over and over again)

  • can lead to burnout and poor health in the helping professions

  • Compassion has motivation to help

4:50 Theory of Mind - is a cognitive route

  • Metalizing

  • Cognitive perspective taking

  • to others beliefs and thoughts


  • is a warm feeling rooted in love not a distressing feeling

  • wanting to alleviate the pain

  • compassion is much broader


Want to lead to Prosocial behavior



6:15 Experimental Set-up: Empathy 'In Vivo'

  • suffering pain

  • empathy for pain circuitry

8:00 Can we train empathy and compassion?

  • how are training effects associate with changes in the brains, behavior and health

8:13 Plasticity of the Social Brain

  • study experts compassion meditation

  • comparing empathy and compassion

  • rising warmth and concern

  • tested just resonating with the suffering

11:18 Contrasting Pain and Empathy V Compassion and Metta

  • different networks activated

12:15 Effects of Compassion vs Empathy Training

  • Compassion vs. Empathy Distress

  • if you are just having empathy, your picking up the distress of others,. If you get empathy training you pick up the distress better. This means you will have more stress and lead to burnout. Compassion training helps you relieve the stress.


Empathic Concern

other related emotion
positive feelings - love
good health
prosocial motivation

Empathic/Personal Distress

self -related emotion
negative feelings, burnout


Training compassion, empathy & memory










Positive valence

14:42 changes in brain responses after compassion training

16:30 one week of empathy training?

  • just resonate with the suffering of the others

  • people were feeling distressed

17:15 then trained in compassion for a week

  • compassion training brought people back to normal


2011-03-08  Interview with Tania Singer @Stanford University CCARE
*Can we train people to become more empathic, and which processing level (bottom-up or top-down) should be targeted in order for such a training to be most effective and persistent? For example, is it more effective to increase sensory awareness and low level affective sharing, or should we develop emotion regulation strategies or positive compassionate feelings to reduce personal distress and withdrawal behavior? How does this interact with individual differences in trait empathy and related concepts, and at what age(s) should training take place? Apparently, the investigation of the latter questions requires large-scale longitudinal studies which could have enormous implications for education and society as a whole.

What do you think Compassion is?

  • is not an agreement on definition

  • a mixture of

    • a feeling of love for another person

    • wish to see person happy

    • if person is suffering a desire to do something about it

    • a motivation to help

Describe compassion personally?

  • closest to love that is not conditioned to getting something back

  • a way of unconditional love

  • not wanting something back

  • if you feel it, your out of the way, but it's good for you

  • it's closes to real freedom

Is compassion innate or can it be cultivated?

  • basic compassion/love is innate

  • in humans have different capacities - systems

    • love/compassion

    • fear

  • have to learn to deal with fear

  • if fear is up - compassion down, and visa versa

  • learn about your fears.

  • to cultivate compassion learn to work with your fears

  • Empathy - everyone has more or less

    • emotion contagion

    • that's a precursor of compassion

Difference of empathy and compassion?

  • sisters of empathy

  • family of empathic responses

    • emotion contagion - animals have that

      • yawning - you yawn

      • babies crying

    • Shared feelings

      • if you have identity of self

      • you are sad - and I'm sad for you

      • distinction between you and I

    • Empathy doesn't mean I'm nice to you

      • empathy can have everything

    • Empathy concern or compassion

      • Empathy is a necessary precondition for compassion to arise

      • psychopaths can't do compassion because no empathy

      • too much empathy might be detrimental

        • care giving might lead to burnout

      • need to teach how to deal with these feelings

      • transform pain into action

Courage and compassion?

  • are they the same thing, no

  • need courage to deal with pain

  • compassion moves to pain

Courage, empathy and compassion training?

  • studying plasticity of brain - for empathy and compassion

  • how can we train that

Personal role of Compassion in your life?

  • many have done compassion for me

  • is subtitle - we connect with people and get into relationship with people

  • compassion is flowing

  • feel they stepped out and understand

  • feel this love, a heroic act

Training Compassion interventions?

  • can use for autism, Aspergers,  psychopathy

  • lack of compassion is omnipresent

  • empathy training could profit

  • create exercises, schools, politics

2011-03-07: Tania Singer, Neuroscience, Zurich University  @ Stanford CCARE
Social Emotions in Social Neuroscience: From Emotion Contagion to Empathy and Fairness

Fairness and compassion base cooperation

clarification of terms

  • emotional contagion;

    • yawning,

    • children crying

    • pupils change

  • mimicry;

  • empathy;

    • differentiation your feeling from the others

    • I share your pain but it's not mine

    • self other distinction

  • cognitive empathy;

    • cognitive perspective taking

    • theory of mind

    • abstract concept of the other

    • not sharing feeling

  • emotional empathy;

  • sympathy;

    • can have condescension quality

  • compassion;

    • an equality of sameness of humanity

    • difficult to define

    • deep awareness of the suffering of another

    • wish to relive it

    • human understanding the suffering of others

  • prosocial behavior;

empathic networks

neural networks activation

  • smelling disgusting odors

  • pain

empathy deficits

  • alexithymia - difficulty in identifying and describing your own feelings

    • have an empathy deficit

  • pain, empathy, and fairness, male and female

  • compassion training?

empathy training- should start with training you to identify your own feelings

autism empathy deficit is from alexithymia 

study empathy training


Tania Singer - Breaking the Wall between People @Falling Walls 2010


"What defines humans: self-interest, self-focus, empathy or compassion?
While "exogenous" sciences like economy and sociology failed to give by themselves an exhaustive definition of human nature, producing partial concepts like the "homo economicus", the answer might come from an "inside-out" approach."

Breaking the wall between people

The fall of the wall in Berlin

Walls between between people were breaking -  minds and mental states

less in and out group - empathy joy

2:00 Talk about these experiences from social neuroscience

  • how do we understand other minds?

  • others thoughts, believe,  intensions

2:50 From Emotional Contagion through Empathy to Compassion


  • Emotional Contagion

    • babies crying contagion

    • baby laughing contagion - [video]

    • eye pupil measurements - are also contagious

    • see someone that is sad, you mirror it.

    • unconsciously

    • [dogs?]

    • this is not yet empathy

  • Empathy

    • self other distinction

    • differentiating my pain and your pain.

    • people think empathy is a good thing,

    •  if you have too much empathy, like in caregiver profession, this can be a problem

    • you can burnout

    • you can turn it into compassion

  • Compassion

    • you can turn it into sympathy, compassion, concern for the other

    • a real motivation for the welfare for the other

    • a concern for the other

    • a warm feeling

  • Theory of Mind (TOM) - there are different routes into the brain/mind of another person

    • Theory of Mind - a cognitive perspective taking

    • not an affective root into the other but a cognitive route.

    • Psychopaths for example have (TOM)

      • good at manipulating others, know the others needs and beliefs are

      • but they lack empathy

6:20 have identified the different roots into the mind.

6:50 shared pain tests in scanner

  • empathy for pain

  • shared pain circuitry

  • brain response of husband and wife

  • check networks used in the brain

9:30 What factors block this automatic empathy

  • Schadenfreude - how does this come about?  joy in the pain of others.

  • Unfairness or cheating by someone

  • Economic games tests

    • principle of fairness

    • woman - empathy for both fair person and unfair player

    • men - empathy for both fair person and non empathy for unfair player

  • In group and out group helping


13:40 Can you train compassion?

  • checking monks

  • regulation of emotion and compassion

  • doing studies and tests

The Neuroscience of Compassion | Tania Singer
World Economic Forum
"Can training our brains help make the world a better place? Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences thinks it can. She’s a social neuroscientist and psychologist who says the brain’s plasticity means it can be trained to make us less selfish and more compassionate. In this video for the World Economic Forum, Singer shows how our decision making is driven by a set of psychological motivations - from power to fear - that can be altered to help us make better decisions for society and for our health. Her research has also influenced the development of a new model of “caring economics” that hopes to work towards sustainability and global cooperation.'



DLD14 - How to Train Your Mind and Your Heart 
"A world expert on empathy, Tania Singer explores how improved cognitive and mental skills foster stability of mind, open hearts and encourage cooperation. After a short talk on the neurobiological basis of compassion, she'll leads a special DLD workshop based on her freely downloadable multi-media eBook "Compassion. Bridging Science and Practice." Developed through a cooperative effort of neuroscientists, therapists, contemplative scholars and monks, the book describes a variety of secular mental training programs, their use in education, clinical settings and for everyday life, as well as scientific findings on the resulting changes of brain, health and general well-being."



Empathy expert resigns as head of Max Planck institute after report confirms bullying allegations
By Kai Kupferschmidt
Dec. 5, 2018 , 1:45 PM
"Empathy expert Tania Singer will resign as director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, after a commission confirmed allegations of bullying made by several members of the institute.

“[S]ignificant failures in leadership had occurred” at the institute, the Max Planck Society said in a statement released yesterday. “In order to avoid a further escalation of the situation and to enable all parties involved to return to focused scientific work, the Max Planck Society and Ms. Singer have agreed that she will step down from her position as Director on her own initiative.” The neuroscientist “will continue her work as a scientific researcher, on a smaller scale, without a management function outside the Leipzig Institute,” the statement noted.


Surprise! The world's top empathy researchers might be bullies. So what about their work? (LA Times)

"On Wednesday, the journal Science broke the story that neuroscientist and lab director Tania Singer allegedly bullied and intimidated her colleagues, particularly pregnant women. Singer is one of the world’s most respected empathy researchers, best known for her groundbreaking work on feeling others’ pain and the impact of meditation.

Singer isn’t the only academic whose alleged personal behavior is in conflict with her professional focus. In March, the Boston Globe reported that psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk was fired from his post as medical director of the Brookline Center, where he had worked for 35 years, for allegedly bullying and denigrating employees.


His 2014 book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” has been celebrated by experts and laypeople alike; the New York Times ran a 7,000-word profile of Van der Kolk in advance of its release."


Professor described as a world expert on empathy is dubbed a BULLY by eight colleagues 
"Having a baby was you letting down the team’: Professor described as a world expert on empathy is dubbed a BULLY by eight colleagues who have complained about her behaviour

  • Tania Singer, the leading expert on empathy, is facing bullying claims from scientist

  • Eight employees at the Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany have made the claims

  • It's claimed she reduced staff to tears and discriminated against pregnant women

  • Her lawyers denied allegations of bullying and said she had never discriminated against pregnant women"

She’s the world’s top empathy researcher. But colleagues say she bullied and intimidated them
by Kai Kupferschmidt
Aug. 8, 2018 ,

"World's top empathy researcher accused of bullying colleagues: 75% of her researchers have QUIT over claims she screams and intimidates

  • Dr Tania Singer directs the Max Planck Institute's department of social neuroscience
    She is world famous for her sprawling study of the biology of empathy and meditation

  • But eight colleagues claim that Dr Singer threatened their job security and brow-beat them for everything from disagreeing with her to getting pregnant

  • Dr Singer has been on a year-long sabbatical since mediation proceedings concluded last year
    She is slated to return with a 'new start' in January 2019"