Pathways of Thankfulness: Gratitude in the Brain

Gratitude is something you show in relation to others. Dalai Lama

Crisp November gently beckons fire-side chats, warm knitted scarfs and fragrant kitchens redolent of home scents.  This month, a thankful attitude lifts spirits and encourages kind actions.  Despite its psychological benefit, gratitude is elusive, not inherent and difficult to define. Some psychologists contend that gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself.  What defines meaning in our brain and how does gratitude carve out its neural pathways? 

Gratitude has been associated with increased resilience to trauma, closer interpersonal relationships and a general sense of enhanced psychological wellbeing.  

The expression of gratitude may serve to communicate reciprocal engagement and to prevent being seen as “free-loader” which could end in social punishment.

Gratitude signals to society that a grateful person is fair and motivates prosocial behavior in the future.  Gratitude felt may be small (holding a door for someone) or enormous (donating an organ).  It can be focused towards a material gift or a spiritual blessing. Researchers at the University of Southern California developed a study involving inducing gratitude in participants while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and shed some light on the mysterious neurobiological correlates of gratitude. 

The study selected first-person stories of survivors of the Holocaust drawn from a history archive and had professional actors breathe life into them by narration.  The participants were immersed in the context of the Holocaust and vividly experienced the emotive scenarios themselves.  Once they were engaged in the time period, they imagined receiving a series of gifts that were meant to elicit varying degrees of gratitude.  After each gift, participants rated how much gratitude they felt.  These ratings were associated with brain activity collected in the MRI.

Neural Correlates of Gratitude, Fox et al, 2015

Neural Correlates of Gratitude, Fox et al, 2015

Gifts given varied from those that fulfilled a high amount of need but given with little effort. For example, during the early phase of the war, a local bakery leaves its unsold and old bread outside in the alley for you to eat. Other gifts came at a high degree of effort, but did not fulfill an important need. An example of this would be a gift in which a bed is offered to you in a concentration camp, but the bed is infested with rodents and insects. Finally, many of the gifts were given with high need and high effort, such as a fellow prisoner risking her life to steal food from the SS quarters and bring it to you while you are sick in the bunks.  The varied examples allow for a precise examination of gratitude’s bearing on the brain.

Several regions involved in moral cognition showed high activity during the reflective, gratitude-inducing period.    Specifically, activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC) was associated with high ratings of gratitude.  Studies have shown that reward from the relief of removing a stressor, self-processes and fairness in economic decisions all activate this brain region. Experiencing gratitude might divert the MPFC’s general role of evaluating a situation to calculating the mental states of others. 

Simply, gratitude is an empathy amplification.

Medial Prefrontal activity correlating with participants' gratitude ratings.

Medial Prefrontal activity correlating with participants' gratitude ratings.

"Experiencing gratitude might divert the MPFC’s general role of evaluating a situation to calculating the mental states of others.  Simply, gratitude is an empathy amplification."

Gift-giving is social. It is related to understanding of others, and it stands to reason that the MPFC drives the thoughts behind the gifts which ultimately lead to gratitude.  The overlap of “self” and “other” regions in the MPFC suggest gratitude emerges from an understanding of other’s minds in conjunction with our own needs.  Indeed the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), one of the regions in theory of mind, elicited activity in the present study suggesting that gratitude is implicated in moral cognition.

Crucially, feeling grateful is a powerful social emotion which lies at the intersection of the MPFC and the limbic system, a set of brain regions responsible for emotional processing.  Researchers suggest the MPFC is a neural hub, connected to parasympathetic function and is critical for generating significance from an experience. In other words,

We derive meaning from thought flushed with powerful emotion. 

In the context of the Holocaust, these results showcase that even a small gift of compassion, sacrifice and profound human dignity can strengthen social bonds.

Gratitude however, needs to be consciously learned, cultivated and applied. Below are some ideas that will help preserve the November attitude and turn it into lasting gratitude.

ResearchBlogging.orgFox GR, Kaplan J, Damasio H, & Damasio A (2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in psychology, 6 PMID: 26483740