“Thank you” doesn’t just bring light to people’s faces. It also lights up different parts of the brain.
In honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share this 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.
You might also like to read When You Are Grateful, Your Brain Becomes More Charitable