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  • Patricia Faust

How Gratitude Affects the Brain














Love Thanksgiving? So Does Your Brain!

Thus is Thanksgiving week in the United States. Gratitude is then an obvious topic to reflect on. It is fortunate that we have Thanksgiving to bring attention to the practice of gratitude. In our very hurried and stress-filled lives we may not take the time to feel gratitude. So once a year our thoughts turn to gratitude and what it means in our lives.


As it turns out, there has been a great deal of research on the effect of being grateful on our body and our brain. There have been anecdotal reports of the benefits of gratitude but until research really digs in, there is always a question of the validity of those reports (that doesn’t sound too grateful!). It was the neuroscience research that confirmed the benefits of thankfulness on our body and brain.


Discovering a positive mindset

The stress response seems to be the norm for everyday function of our brain. Life is fast and it waits for no one. So we respond with the stress response which happens automatically due to the hardwiring in our brains that has been passed on to us from our primitive ancestors. Our brain is always on alert to threat and is more predisposed to look at the negative side of life. There are many things that happen to us everyday that are positive but we don’t notice them because we are always looking for the next threat to us. Now these actions are below our level of awareness. It takes some concerted effort to get our brain to move to the positive side of life. And that is where paying attention and expressing gratitude plays a role in establishing that positive mindset. When we start to place attention on the positive events in our life our brain responds by producing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine has been given the designation as the feel good chemical. We do feel better when dopamine is flowing but that also makes are brain wanting more – so it becomes the motivating neurotransmitter also. It is the attention that we pay to events – good or bad – that release neurotransmitters. Without that attention our brain doesn’t have enough stimulus to react.


What researchers have to say about gratitude

Gratitude is that attention that our brain needs to react. Just saying the words of thanks is not enough to elicit a dopamine response. You must feel the gratitude and be truly appreciative. This might take some practice. Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the Greater Good Science Center, said that gratitude is a recent idea for scientific studies. Initial studies of gratitude revealed self-reported feelings of well-being. Researchers then wanted to know if there were any physiological benefits of gratitude. Simon-Thomas cites a study where participants practiced gratitude for eight weeks. “Brain scans of study participants who practiced gratitude had stronger brain structure for social cognition and empathy, as well as the part of the brain that processes reward”, remarked Simon-Thomas.


Chinese researchers found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and lower anxiety and depression. NIH researchers demonstrated that showing more gratitude resulted in higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. The importance of this finding is that the hypothalamus controls a multitude of essential body functions, including eating, drinking, and sleeping. The hypothalamus also exhibits a huge influence on metabolism and stress. Alex Korb, PhD writes that gratitude has such an impact on the brain that it sets up a virtuous cycle. This means that the brain can not place attention on positive and negative stimuli at the same time. In addition, the brain loves confirmation bias: it looks for things that prove what it already believes to be true. Dopamine then strengthens that action. So if you start seeing things in your life that you are grateful for, your brain will start looking for more things to be grateful for. That’s the virtuous cycle and it sure beats the stress-cycle any day.


All of these experts and researchers have confirmed the anecdotal stories of feeling good when in a state of gratitude. This is truly a beautiful and effective way of turning around your mindset and your life. When you give thanks this Thanksgiving really pay attention to all the blessings in your life. And then continue to do that every day after you celebrate Thanksgiving day.


References:

Castillo,S. (November 13, 2014). The science of gratitude: it really is the little things. Retrieved November 18, 2015 from http://www.medicaidaily.com/science-gratitude-it-really-little-things-3104468


Conley,M. (November 23, 2011). Thankfulness linked to positive changes in brain and body. Retrieved November 18, 2015 from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/science-thankfulness/story?id=15008148


Korb,A. (November 20, 2012). The grateful brain. Retrieved November 18, 2015 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201211/the-grateful-brain

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