This Is Your Brain On Gratitude


do what you love

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share an article with you from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Evidence is mounting that gratitude makes a powerful impact on our bodies, including our immune and cardiovascular health. But how does gratitude work in the brain?

A team at the University of Southern California has shed light on the neural nuts and bolts of gratitude in a new study, offering insights into the complexity of this social emotion and how it relates to other cognitive processes.

There seems to be a thread that runs through subtle acts of gratitude, such as holding a door for someone, all the way up to the big powerful stuff like when someone gives you a kidney,” says Glenn Fox, a postdoctoral researcher at USC and lead author of the study. “I designed this experiment to see what aspects of brain function are common to both these small feelings of appreciation and large feelings of gratitude.

In their experiment Fox and his team planned to scan participants’ brains while they were feeling grateful to see where gratitude showed up.

The researchers found that grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). 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.

A lot of people conflate gratitude with the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing. What we found was something a little more interesting,” says Fox. “The pattern of [brain]activity we see shows that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is really built around how others seek to benefit us.

In other words, gratitude isn’t merely about reward—and doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.

In further studies, Fox hopes to investigate what’s going on in the body as gratitude improves our health and well-being.

It’s really great to see all the benefits that gratitude can have, but we are not done yet. We still need to see exactly how it works, when it works, and what are the best ways to bring it out more,” he says. “Enhancing our knowledge of gratitude pulls us closer to our own human dignity and what we can do to benefit each other.


How the Brain Encodes Time and Place (Video)

MIT researchers have now identified a brain circuit that processes the “when” and “where” components of memory.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Percentage of known neuron-, astrocyte- and oligodendrocyte-enriched genes in 32 modules, ordered by proportion of neuron-enriched gene membership. (credit: Michael Hawrylycz et al./Nature Neuroscience)

Percentage of known neuron-, astrocyte- and oligodendrocyte-enriched genes in 32 modules, ordered by proportion of neuron-enriched gene membership. (credit: Michael Hawrylycz et al./Nature Neuroscience)

Allen Institute researchers have identified a surprisingly small set of just 32 gene-expression patterns for all 20,000 genes across 132 functionally distinct human brain regions, and these patterns appear to be common to all individuals.

Evidence is mounting that gratitude makes a powerful impact on our bodies, including our immune and cardiovascular health. But how does gratitude work in the brain? A team at the University of Southern California has shed light on the neural nuts and bolts of gratitude in a new study, offering insights into the complexity of this social emotion and how it relates to other cognitive processes.

Subjective memory complaints (SMCs) are associated with cognitive impairment nearly two decades later among older women, a prospective study of aging has demonstrated.

Older adults that improved their fitness through a moderate intensity exercise program increased the thickness of their brain’s cortex, the outer layer of the brain that typically atrophies with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study. These effects were found in both healthy older adults and those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

When it comes to the brain, “more is better” seems like an obvious assumption. But in the case of synapses, which are the connections between brain cells, too many or too few can both disrupt brain function. Research, recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, reports  that an immune-system protein called MHCI, or major histocompatibility complex class I, moonlights in the nervous system to help regulate the number of synapses, which transmit chemical and electrical signals between neurons. MHCI could play an unexpected role in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, type II diabetes and autism.

Researchers have developed a simple technique to measure an individual’s visual processing speed–the speed at which an individual can comprehend visual information–in order to identify whether or not they may have cognitive issues.

Sleep is usually considered an all-or-nothing state: The brain is either entirely awake or entirely asleep. However, MIT neuroscientists have discovered a brain circuit that can trigger small regions of the brain to fall asleep or become less alert, while the rest of the brain remains awake.

The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.

Today  I want to expand on a previous post entitled Does addiction exist?  Despite decades of research on the effects of addictive drugs on the brain, neuroscience cannot yet predict who will become addicted, or how to cure it.

This begs the sobering question – Is everything we think we know about addiction wrong?

This short video really nails the lie that addictive drugs alone (e.g. alcohol, cocaine, heroin and nicotine) are the sole culprit in creating addiction and it does so by giving powerful examples of how our environment and in particular the people around us, and how we engage with them that is actually the deciding factor as to whether-or-not we become addicted.

Probably the most important message to be taken from this video is the realization that for an addiction therapy to be effective it must rely less on medication and more on compassion and inclusion, a fact known to all good addiction therapists for a long time. I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail in future posts including drug-free tips on how to beat addiction.



What Makes You Tick: Circadian Rhythms (Video)

How do you know when it’s time to wake up or go to sleep? More powerful than any alarm are your circadian rhythms. In this animation we take a look at how these rhythms work and what controls them, inspired by the TeenSleep project being carried out at the University of Oxford to look at how later start times at school might affect achievement.

How The Human Brain Works (Video)

An animated tour around the human brain.

Weekly Neuroscience Update


The brain’s immune cells are hyperactive in people who are at risk of developing schizophrenia, as well as during the earliest stages of the disease, according to a new study. The findings suggest that inflammatory processes play an important role in the development of the disease, and raise the possibility that it could be treated with drugs that block or reduce this cellular response.

A new study suggests that receiving rewards as you learn can help cement new facts and skills in your memory, particularly when combined with a daytime nap.

Protein deposits associated with dementia influence brain activity during sleep.

Hearing loss accelerates cognitive decline in elderly adults, but the use of hearing aids counters this acceleration. A new scientific longitudinal study shows that those who use hearing aids have about the same cognitive level as those with no hearing loss.

The brain cells of patients with bipolar disorder, characterized by severe swings between depression and elation, are more sensitive to stimuli than other people’s brain cells, researchers have discovered.

Neuroscientists have determined some of the specific characteristics of electrical stimuli that should be applied to the brain to produce different sensations in an artificial upper limb intended to restore natural motor control and sensation in amputees.

A research study has debunked the widely-held belief that the hippocampus, a crucial part of the brain that consolidates new memories and helps connect emotions to the senses, is larger in females than in males.

In order to retain a piece of information for a short time, working memory is required. The underlying processes are considerably more complex than hitherto assumed, as researchers report in the journal “Cell Reports”. Two brain states must alternate rhythmically in order for a piece of information to be successfully maintained.

A study led by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers suggests that awakening several times throughout the night is more detrimental to people’s positive moods than getting the same shortened amount of sleep without interruption.

Early life stress is a major risk factor for later episodes of depression. Scientific research into this link has revealed that the increased risk following such childhood adversity is associated with sensitization of the brain circuits involved with processing threat and driving the stress response. More recently, research has begun to demonstrate that in parallel to this stress sensitization, there may also be diminished processing of reward in the brain and associated reductions in a person’s ability to experience positive emotions.


Weekly Neuroscience Update


Scientists have successfully completed what is believed to be the most complex human brain-to-brain communication experiment ever. It allowed two people located a mile apart to play a game of “20 Questions” using only their brainwaves, a nearly imperceptible flash of light, and an internet connection to communicate.

A new study reveals clues to how thoughts take shape.

University of Pennsylvania researchers have made another advance in understanding how the brain detects errors caused by unexpected sensory events. This type of error detection is what allows the brain to learn from its mistakes, which is critical for improving fine motor control.

A new study shows that music can improve the quality of sleep of adults with sleep disorders.

From “brain games” designed to enhance mental fitness, to games used to improve real-world problems, to games created purely to entertain, today’s video games can have a variety of potential impacts on the brain. A new article argues that it is the specific content, dynamics, and mechanics of individual games that determine their effects on the brain and that action video games might have particularly positive benefits.

Training people to be compassionate rather than empathic might help to solve problems such as depression, burnout and narcissism, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

How does the brain determine which direction to let its thoughts fly? Looking for the mechanisms behind cognitive control of thought, researchers have used brain scans to shed new light on this question.

The risk of suffering a stroke is significantly reduced for up to two months after receiving a flu vaccine, a major new study has shown.

A new study sheds light on why people with schizophrenia misinterpret social cues in others, often leading to unpleasant paranoid and persecutory thoughts.

A malfunctioning enzyme may be a reason that binge drinking increases the odds of alcoholism, according to a study by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

A new study finds that the part of the brain responsible for seeing is more powerful than previously believed. In fact, the visual cortex can essentially make decisions just like the brain’s traditional “higher level” areas.

The brain’s wiring patterns can shed light on a person’s positive and negative traits, researchers report in Nature Neuroscience.

Combining MRI and other data helps machine-learning systems predict effects of neurodegenerative disease.

The way our brain responds to others’ good fortune is linked to how empathetic people report themselves to be, according to new research.

Finally this week, a team of researchers have discovered that images of brain activity scanned by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can act as a signature pattern to accurately identify certain individuals.

7 Myths About The Brain You Thought Were True

Think you know the brain? Think again! This video breaks down some of the most persistent myths surrounding your brain.

Inside The Sleeping Brain

Why do we sleep? We spend a third of our lives in slumber, but science has yet to determine exactly why we have do it. Here’s a look at how sleep works, why we’re not getting enough sleep, what happens if you DON’T sleep, and an idea about where sleep came from in the first place


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