The human brain is amazingly plastic. It adapts when we learn new skills – and sometimes, when we stop using and forget old ones.

Recently, a group of researchers from Germany and Canada did a study looking at how much this plasticity extends to people’s ability to improve their social skills. The researchers enrolled adults between the ages of 20 and 55 in a program that trained different social abilities, then looked at how the participants’ brains changed over time.

The researchers focused on two broad categories of social abilities: affective and cognitive social abilities.

Affective social abilities have to do with how people approach social situations on an emotional level. These include things like feeling compassion, managing complex emotions, and being motivated to help other people.

Cognitive social abilities, meanwhile, have to do with how people understand social situations on a more cerebral level. For example, cognitive social skills include being able to take others’ perspectives and having self-awareness.

In the study, the researchers developed training programs that targeted both affective and cognitive social skills. After nine months, they took brain scans of all the participants.

The researchers found that the training correlated with structural changes in several different parts of the brain. In particular, the training in affective and cognitive social skills correlated with changes in parts of the brain previously linked to these two types of social skills.

On top of that, the changes in people’s brain structure corresponded to actual improvements in their social skills. For example, brain changes arising from training in cognitive social abilities actually correlated with people’s ability to take the perspectives of others.

These findings indicate that, to a significant extent, social abilities are plastic. Training both cognitive and affective social skills can lead to brain changes that really do correlate with improved social skills.

So far the social training program in the study has only been used in a research setting. However, the authors of the paper suggest that this work could lead to social training programs based on scientific evidence that can be implemented in a variety of places, including “clinical, educational, and corporate settings.”

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