Over the past 25 years, Neuroscience is exponentially growing elucidating the positive influence meditation has on our health. Cultivating constructive qualities of mind such as lovingkindness, compassion, gratitude, and empathy, continue to provide very rich data of the neuro-hormonal activations that occur essentially priming our systems with good health. Multiple brain regions are involved in the generating the embodied process of these mental states. Studies are often cross-linking, reporting many of the same brain area activations that stimulate the nervous system, giving us the elixir of well-being.
Last year, the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Research Institute released a research paper, Neural Correlates of Gratitude. Eminent Neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Demasio was one of the researchers, which brought my attention to this article.
The study hypothesized that brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment, and theory of mind would be activated. These areas are seen to be activated in the above mentioned mind states as well. In eliciting the quality of gratitude, various scenarios drawn from the Holocaust were told to the participants. Stories ranged from being given food, a place to sleep, and someone saving their life. Participates were asked to put themselves into that experience (which is an empathic experience) and rate their level of gratitude, 1-rating lower level of gratitude and 4-rating high.
There were 26 participants, none of which had any connection to the Holocaust. The overall rating was 2.6. The participants stated they felt as if they could live in the experience that the Holocaust survivor had lived and the gratitude that must have been felt. As researchers hypothesized, the area of the Prefrontal Cortex, the seat of moral cognition, was activated, as well as, regions associated with prosocial behavior, interpersonal relationships, and social support.
Gratitude considered a virtue in all religions, does appear to have a place in the brain. With the stimulus of imagining a scenario to elicit gratitude, we can activate the center of moral cognition affiliated with positive emotion and mental well-being. While many of us know the felt sense of practicing gratitude, this study, demonstrates the neurological correlates. Also remembering, our brains are neuroplastic, therefore, what we fixate on wires neurons, for better or worse.
We are wired to experience gratitude as this study suggests. Our brain circuitry has gifted us with a byproduct of gratitude when we have benefited from the goodwill of another, imagined or real. Not only that, but he next byproduct of this experience is resiliency, emotional stability, and well-being. Amazing, how we are gifted again.
With gratitude and may all being know gratitude.
Sherri Aikin is a Fellow of Integrative Medicine, Nurse Practitioner, Sex Counselor, Mindfulness Facilitator, and Life Coach.
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