Gratitude on the brain

Everyone seems to be talking about gratitude these days.

Many who practice gratitude recognize in themselves that identifying and expressing gratitude makes them feel good. There is also a growing body of research (recently even fMRI studies) which supports what people recognize in themselves; that acknowledging feelings of gratitude can have many benefits for health and wellness. Gratitude is good for both our body and our brain.

In this blog post, we highlight several recent empirical studies which have implications for how we can activate our brain with regular practice of gratitude. This, then, has strong implications for brain health and behavior. When we learn how to build and strengthen our own internal resources, we become better able to shape our reactions to our world. 
Two recent studies highlighted in this post illustrate how practicing gratitude affects brain activity. In one study, participants seeking therapy for anxiety or depression were randomly assigned to two groups. The first was standard therapy, and the second also included a gratitude writing intervention, meaning they spent 20 minutes writing a letter expressing gratitude to an individual for three weeks. Three months later, all participants were instructed to “Pay It Forward” by completing a task while getting an fMRI.  All were given a gift of money in the experiment (accompanied by information about the donor) and were asked to pass this gift on to a charity (designated by this experimental benefactor). While the participants were aware that this was just an exercise, they were also told that money from randomly chosen participants would go to the designated cause. The researchers chose giving a gift as a proxy for gratitude, yielding interesting results. The researchers found that activity in certain brain regions (specifically areas within frontal, parietal, and occipital regions) correlated with how grateful they felt. The scans also showed that gratitude was distinct from activation patterns typical for related constructs (e.g. empathy, taking into account others’ viewpoints).  Perhaps most striking was that the effects were seen on a subsequent scan, suggesting that when we train our brain, so to speak, there can be sustained effects. 
The second study we highlight also involved imaginary scenarios while participants lie in a fMRI machine to investigate brain activity when one is experiencing gratitude. In this study, first-person narratives of Holocaust survivors who were rescued were shared with the participants, who were then instructed to imagine that they were in that scenario. After immersing themselves in the backgrounds and receiving a deeper understanding of the vignettes, they were asked to imagine that they were in these situations and then presented with a series of gifts (e.g. material gifts, assistance). They were then asked to rate the degree of gratitude they would feel if they were given each gift. Their brain activity was matched with their gratitude ratings.

What they found was that the neural correlates of gratitude lie in two regions, primarily: the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex. The lead researcher commented“these areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others,” suggesting a complex emotion. 

The researchers chose this methodology to assess gratitude based on prior research using narrative text while undergoing brain scans to elicit realistic emotional response. This, combined with the finding of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California that the common and profound experience of gratitude amongst Holocaust survivors for assistance they had received from others (e.g. food, shelter) could elicit gratitude in an experimental setting.

The overarching objective of these and other related studies is to contribute to greater understanding into promoting brain health and wellness. These results can essentially be shared with the world (we have subsequently read this write-up of the results as well). Without a doubt, as our knowledge in this area advances, the implications for how we can utilize this knowledge and promote brain health and well-being will expand as well.

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