In Conversation: Prof Dr Tania Singer & Gesine Borcherdt
Gesine Borcherdt, art critic and curator speaks with Prof Dr Tania Singer, neuroscientist, psychologist, meditation expert and Scientific Head of the Social Neuroscience Lab of the Max Planck Society
LAS is a globally oriented non-profit art platform in Berlin at the intersection of art, technology and science. Through experimental projects in unconventional places, LAS pushes up against conventions and questions divisions among disciplines.
This conversation is framed within the context of Robert Irwin’s exhibition at Kraftwerk Berlin, in which the artist has conceived a large-scale site-specific installation that invites the audience to look very closely. Seeing and perception are at the core of Irwin's practice, alongside the engagement of the audience who perceive themselves perceiving. Irwin’s work is about understanding the processes of perception, and the connection of seeing and perceiving to the whole body, where seeing is not just visual but rather happens with all senses – perceiving Irwin’s work aids in appreciating everything around us. Irwin’s holistic understanding of what art is and what it can do culminates in a practice that is about direct experience and entering into a relationship with the work of art and its environments, beyond institutional space, and in dialogue with both architectural surroundings and people.
"It is a misunderstanding if we only speak of mindfulness meditation. There are many different meditation techniques that can be used to cultivate different qualities, such as attention, compassion, empathy, wisdom or the ability to reflect."
Gesine Borcherdt: Art and meditation are both perceptual practices. They make us pause. They sharpen the senses. They allow us to see more clearly. They are both about feeling and thinking, about sensing our body in space and the space around us – in a broader sense, also the world in which we live. They each have the potential to renew and transform our view of the world and are rooted in the spiritual: mindfulness meditation, in all its variations, comes from Buddhism; art originated in a religious context – churches or monasteries as spaces designed through art. The artistically charged space is also a space of meditation.
When Robert Irwin develops a light installation in Kraftwerk Berlin, he auratically charges the secular space. For him it is about perception of one's own gaze and body in space, which evokes a meditative experience. This idea goes back to 1960s Minimalism, when artists began to delve into perception, with the body-bound nature of mental experience. Before we talk about potential overlaps with art, we first need a precise definition of meditation, or rather, mindfulness meditation, which has been so widely received in the West.
Tania Singer: Meditation is the former word. Nowadays we talk about mindfulness – a westernised translation of a certain kind of meditation used in the Far East, which has now come into fashion and is often, I believe, completely misunderstood. The translation of the Pali word ‘meditation’ means ‘making oneself familiar with’ or ‘cultivating one's own mind’ – it is introspective. The word also implies the body and emotions, and is not only to be understood as cognitively referring to thought.
It is a misunderstanding if we only speak of mindfulness meditation. There are many different meditation techniques that can be used to cultivate different qualities, such as attention, compassion, empathy, wisdom or the ability to reflect. Mindfulness meditation is a particular type of meditation that has been adopted in the West through Jon Kabat-Zinn's secular mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme. He defines it as a ‘non-judgmental perception of what is right now’. Mindfulness in the Buddhist context has many other connotations, especially ethical ones: the non-judgmental, but also compassionate, loving orientation towards life. Compassion plays a major role! Unfortunately, this is often left out of the Western understanding of mindfulness where it is frequently merely viewed as a kind of attention training, which it is not. It is often equated with breathing meditation, body scanning or observing thoughts, but the crucial quality is missing.
Gesine Borcherdt: Art also has a humanist aspect, although not necessarily ethical. It questions our attitude towards the world, other people and ourselves. It has the potential to evoke understanding, tolerance and maybe even compassion – we stop and notice what we perceive and how art affects us, we become more sensitive. You have worked with artists before. From your point of view, can we really draw a parallel between art and meditation?
Tania Singer: This contemplative moment of pause is something art certainly has in common with meditation. It is important not to reduce meditation to pausing – because meditation itself is a very active act. Many in the West believe that meditation is something like sleeping away or like autogenic training: becoming calm or empty or simply pausing and not talking. That would be far too short-sighted. There are meditations, such as compassion or metta meditation, which require very active processes that must be learned like a sport. They do not happen on their own, but rather require teachers of these practices so that we can actively use them. For example, we will say specific sentences internally and consciously activate certain feelings or motivations. When we do research in this field, we see that the heart rate increases. This is not dozing off, but very concentrated work. I think this training of alertness and mindfulness can probably also help the art viewer gain a more active perception of the art in a room.
Gesine Borcherdt: Almost any artist might also phrase that as: the work of art invites you to actively engage with it, regardless of whether it is mentally challenging or simply functions on a sensory level. For this purpose, you have to concentrate and be prepared to deal with something unknown – and also with yourself. There is an interesting overlap with meditation. When I look at a work of art, I am willing to expand my horizons, to be curious, just as I am in mindfulness meditation – whether this is metta meditation or breath observation – and as a result, I change my brain.
Tania Singer: Yes, art and meditation have this attitude in common. In meditation, this is called the beginner's mind. That is a very important concept. Even if you have extensive experience with meditation, you approach it with this childlike beginner's mind. This means that you have no expectations of what you will experience – not even of the feelings of happiness you may have experienced in a retreat. Beginner's mind means letting yourself be surprised by whatever comes. And if there are negative emotions like restlessness or anger, that's just as good as a flight of fancy. Every moment, every phenomenological experience moment by moment is always new and fresh, regardless of how long you have been practising. When it comes to art, I believe, you also need an open mind to be surprised.
Gesine Borcherdt: And this open mind counteracts the learned patterns of perception, which, again and again, make us react to triggers identically. So, in art as well as in meditation, we can practise new ways of perception instead of further trotting out the neuronal pathways that already exist in the brain – and, by doing so, change the brain. Can you put it that way?
Tania Singer: Yes, the changes in the brain, however, depend significantly on the type of meditation. Our institute conducted the ‘ReSource Project’: a study with three different meditation modules and three hundred test subjects who practised over nine months. Our question was not: ‘What does meditation do to the brain?’ It was rather: ‘What type of meditation does what to the brain?’
For the first three months, the test subjects did attention-based mindfulness exercises: breathing meditation, body scanning, listening meditation. They paid attention to what was happening with their senses without judging and practised focussing on tasting, smelling, hearing, seeing or the body. For the next three months, people actively did only compassion and heart-opening exercises – care, gratitude, loving-kindness and compassion. And during the third module, they practised cognitive and socio-cognitive meditations and exercises, where the test subjects looked at their own thoughts, without thinking them, or at the self from a bird's eye view. They were asked to turn their gaze towards different inner personality parts, hold on to them, let them go again – it was about the change of perspective.
Depending on what they practised for three months, the changes in the brain were completely different – different ‘muscles’ were trained every three months, so to speak. The networks for attention, the socio-emotional networks and the mentalising networks, which are related to the ability to reflect, were all thicker and had plastically changed after three months. This means that neuroplasticity is extremely specific – depending on the exercise, different networks in the brain will thicken or change, which in turn affects behaviour. Therefore, it is also really important to move away from the concept of ‘meditation’ as a single activity.
"Their perception of the world changes significantly, as well as their approach to other people. This is called ‘embodiment’. People who radiate this high concentration of attention or compassion are very inspiring personalities."
Gesine Borcherdt: You mentioned the analogy to muscle training. If I stop training after three months, what I have achieved starts fading away again, right? So, I have to practise the same areas every day, just like in sports.
Tania Singer: Exactly, otherwise, this increase in the grey matter will shrink again. However, when you have reached a very high level of expertise, then it transfers into everyday life. This means that no longer are you only formally doing breathing meditation while seated on a cushion, but you are also doing it while on the underground, brushing your teeth, talking to others. The posture you practise can become a personality trait that takes over your whole life. We see this in meditation experts – they don't lose it anymore. Their perception of the world changes significantly, as well as their approach to other people. This is called ‘embodiment’. People who radiate this high concentration of attention or compassion are very inspiring personalities.
Gesine Borcherdt: ‘Embodiment’ is a beautiful word. The body is also of central importance in the perception of art. Even before the pandemic, swiping and scrolling often replaced real viewing in space, the actual museum visit. But the physical encounter with art, and also the space in which you find yourself with the art, are extremely important – something unfolds that is conveyed to all viewers in the same room. Aura, if you will, the counterpart to ‘embodiment’.
Tania Singer: It's interesting that people in ‘silent retreats’ often experience how close they feel to the other people meditating. They have not exchanged a word, just sat silently next to each other in a room, often not even knowing the other’s name. However, because the practice is very intense and the presence of the others in the room is palpable, there is a feeling of togetherness and closeness that cannot be created as easily in a Zoom retreat. Although it works better than you'd think.
Gesine Borcherdt: How did you come into your field – this interrelationship of neuroscience, psychology and meditation?
Tania Singer: I have always been active on multiple fronts. The plasticity of consciousness has always fascinated me. I used to work in opera and theatre where you also experiment with psychology, but from inside the art. Furthermore, I have privately participated in many silent retreats out of curiosity. After finishing my degree in psychology, I continued to work in research, in scientific psychological empirical research. At the time, any form of meditation experience was an absolute taboo in that field. I couldn't just come back from a retreat and tell my colleagues what I had experienced – they would always look at me as if I was a bit strange. That was way before mindfulness became socially acceptable. So, I only practised it privately: all kinds of forms of expanding consciousness, not only Buddhist meditation, but many different psychological techniques. As a psychologist coming from clinical psychology, i.e., working with personality development, this fascinated me. Then I became a researcher and went to London, where I helped develop social neuroscience. In 2004, I did the first empathy experiments in the brain and proved that empathy could be measured, detected and made visible in the brain – that people empathise with emotions even though they don't have them themselves. That was unthinkable in neuroscience at the time. ‘You'll find an empty brain there. After all, it's someone else's pain that's outside the scanner and not yours. What is supposed to happen in the brain?’ they asked. The opposite was the case.
Gesine Borcherdt: This was shortly after Richard Davidson measured the brain waves of Tibetan monks and was one of the first to prove that meditation changes the brain.
Tania Singer: Exactly. He first studied monks based on mindfulness. But Richie Davidson does emotion research. I, on the other hand, do research in social neuroscience. Compassion and empathy are social and ethical emotions because they relate to another person. Richie first did the work with the monks to look at Samatha, which is the meditation of ‘tranquillity’ or, well, mindfulness. He was interested in the cognitive, that is, attention networks in the brain because at the time he increasingly exchanged ideas with Jon Kabat-Zinn. He looked at the area of mindfulness in the brain and not at the heart. In order to explore the difference between empathy and compassion, I later carried out an empathy and compassion study with Matthieu Ricard, the famous Buddhist monk and confidant of the Dalai Lama. Matthieu was often in the lab with Richie but also spent many hours with me.
Gesine Borcherdt: You and Matthieu Ricard have also worked with the artist Olafur Eliasson, who, like Robert Irwin, deals with space and light. What did this collaboration look like?
Tania Singer: We met in 2011 at a panel discussion. Olafur was very interested in empathy and in body sensations. At the time, I was planning a conference on empathy, neuroscience and compassion, where we wanted to kick off a kind of grassroots movement for the development of eight-week programmes on compassion – so explicitly not on mindfulness. Olafur was very interested in the gathering of monks, Zen Buddhists and researchers, and spontaneously made his studio available to us. We spent four days there and held a neuroscientific conference on contemplative practices in Berlin with all these fascinating sculptures, these spheres that Olafur was exhibiting there. That was extremely beautiful and creative. It turned into an e-book, a co-creation between artists, researchers and monks. As a result, in Olafur's exhibition The Weather Project at the Turbine Hall in London's Tate Modern (2003–04), artists also sat next to monks and scientists and meditated every morning. That was really a wonderful experience.
"The embedding in an artistic context really sparked something – we didn't just stay in our heads but instead had experiences related to art and space."
Gesine Borcherdt: Do you feel there is more potential there? Should there be more collaboration in art, neuroscience and meditation?
Tania Singer: Yes! But it requires an intrinsic openness for artists to truly be interested in the research, so they don't just use it as a fig leaf. They need to want to understand how we work and what we do. But if that's the case, if there actually is that openness on both sides, it's definitely an incredibly beautiful synergy. Our conferences are usually held in these horrible American hotels with air conditioning. The gathering in the Turbine Hall bathed in warm light was something completely different. This creative context was extremely conducive to our own creativity and also to cohesion between everyone. I received ground-breaking positive feedback from people who have done a lot of gatherings in their lifetimes and who found this conference to be the best of their lives. The embedding in an artistic context really sparked something – we didn't just stay in our heads but instead had experiences related to art and space. After that, I worked several times in that area on the threshold between art and science, which was always interesting. But I believe an emergent new thing really needs to be formed. Both worlds, the art world and the research world, must engage with each other for something that doesn't yet exist to actually emerge – just like what occurs at the Mind and Life Institute, which in 1991 was the result of intercultural dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists from a variety of research areas: quantum physicists, biologists, neuroscientists. This is where I met Matthieu Ricard and the other monks I scanned. The Dalai Lama has always been interested in research. The first conferences were organised in the 1980s, initially in the Dalai Lama's living room. Over the years, they became bigger and bigger. Today, the institute's headquarters are in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Gesine Borcherdt: What is the specific function of the Mind and Life Institute?
Tania Singer: It's about the dialogue on the topic of what the different worlds can learn from each other. If you come in with that beginner's mind and don't judge the differences, something great can emerge. The mindfulness movement would not even exist without this institute. It was the Dalai Lama who said in 2000, ‘Well, we have discussed the different Western and Eastern perspectives long enough. Now we have to do something. I want Westerners to do decent research on our type of meditation techniques now.’ At that moment, the National Institute of Health released funds for this research – and then also some very highly respected research institutes like MIT researched meditation. That's how the mindfulness movement became socially acceptable in the first place. It was only thanks to this that I was able to combine my private world of meditation with my research soon after the beginning of the noughties. Before, I wouldn't even have received funding at all – and now there is a field called contemplative neuroscience.
Gesine Borcherdt: What would happen if art were to be included in the Mind and Life Institute? Do you have an idea how this could be approached?
Tania Singer: I think it depends on the artist, what they’re curious about and what they want to learn from us scientists. Then you need a certain openness to even engage in the dialogue. But a real experiment would be best. Working together on a product is the most fruitful since something really new is supposed to emerge. It also puts a bit of pressure on everyone, and people have to deal with each other in a completely different way than if just taking part in a panel. Working together on something that might also be relevant for society and is not just ‘l'art pour l'art’ – that would be the most promising.
"The cooperation with Matthieu Ricard is the best example of how something completely new can emerge from two different worlds. With him, we discovered that empathy is different from compassion."
Gesine Borcherdt: Was this also the approach between the monks and the neuroscientists?
Tania Singer: Yes, the cooperation with Matthieu Ricard is the best example of how something completely new can emerge from two different worlds. With him, we discovered that empathy is different from compassion. I already knew that with empathy we activate networks in the brain that also map our pain. We suffer with the other person, literally. I thought: ‘Okay, we need to train empathy. Everyone needs to get better at it. So now I'm going to get myself an expert to train empathy every day.’
At the time I thought compassion and empathy were the same. I pushed Matthieu into the scanner – we call it the ‘oven’ – and asked him to do a compassion meditation. But on the pictures, the networks activated in him were completely different from those of empathy – they were those related to positive feelings, love and reward. I said: ‘Matthieu, what are you doing? You're supposed to imagine those poor orphanage children from the BBC video and feel compassion for them! But it looks as if you're thinking about a piece of cake! I don't get it.’ He replied: ‘But you didn't say I should suffer with them! You said to do a compassion meditation.’ I asked: ‘But if you don't suffer with them, what are you doing then?’ He explained that he simply felt this deep love and warmth and above all this motivation to want to help. I was completely confused. I said: ‘You are a monk and special; so in order for me to know if you even have empathy networks like everyone else, can you please just empathise with these children and not go into compassion? So not doing what you've been taught in Buddhism, but rather just empathising?’ He did. And suddenly I saw these huge empathy networks light up – and then came the real realisation for both of us. I asked into the scanner: ‘Matthieu, do you want to get out now? You've been in there for 40 minutes!’ He shouted: ‘No, please don't, I'll burn out in here while just doing empathy. I'm so stressed. It's unbearable. I want to do the loving-kindness and compassion meditation, if only so that I can feel better again.’ When he did that, I saw the other network again.
Gesine Borcherdt: What has emerged from this realisation – except that compassion and empathy are not the same?
Tania Singer: We have invented new meditations that I teach to help doctors and nurses, for example, to stay resilient and not go into this empathic stress. And Matthieu is teaching monks in the East 'empathy versus compassion' meditation. Before, this didn't exist in Buddhism, empathy by that definition did not exist at all. That means we both learned a tremendous amount. It was an aha experience that wouldn't have occurred without our interdisciplinary project. This turned into decades of research. It's just one example of how synergies really occur, rather than simply following the motto, ‘Well, now the Westerners are coming and measuring ancient knowledge.’ We have created something new, something that is clarifying and profitable for both worlds. I wish to see something like that with art, too.
Gesine Borcherdt's interview with Tania Singer was recorded on 12 January 2022, introduced by Ruth Kißling, curator of the Robert Irwin exhibition. The starting point for the conversations on art, perceptual practices and neuroscience was a series of experiments that Robert Irwin, James Turrell and experimental psychologist Dr Edward Wortz conducted in an anechoic chamber as part of LACMA's Art and Technology programme in 1969. The objective of the experiments, which bore a lot of similarities to meditation practices, was to gain a practical understanding of perceptual mechanisms and comprehend to which extent the perception of art is shaped by one's own experience.
Prof Dr Tania Singer is a neuroscientist, psychologist, meditation expert and Scientific Head, Social Neuroscience Lab of the Max Planck Society. She focusses on human social behaviour in her research that builds bridges to other sciences such as economics or the natural sciences, as well as art and Far Eastern contemplative cultural practices.
Gesine Borcherdt is an art critic and curator who among other areas of interest, looks into art and perception, and how the cross-pollination of art and meditation affects our brain.
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