It’s the season when the conversation shifts to what you’re thankful for .
Gathered with family and friends around a Christmas party, for example, people can talk about some of the important things, such as their health or their children, or smaller things that enhance everyday life, such as watching a great movie while changing their lives. channel or enjoy the favorite food of the season.
Researchers in psychology recognize that taking time to say thank you has health benefits. Not only is gratitude accompanied by more optimism, less anxiety and depression, and greater goal achievement, but it is also associated with fewer symptoms of illness and other physical benefits.
In recent years, researchers have been making connections between the inner experience of gratitude and the outer practice of altruism.
How does being grateful for things in your own life relate to any selfless concerns you may have for the well-being of others?
As a neuroscientist, I am particularly interested in brain regions and connections that support gratitude and altruism. I have been exploring how changes in one can lead to changes in the other.
Shared path to gratitude and altruism
To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, my colleagues and I first asked volunteers questions to determine how often they feel grateful and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. others.
We then used statistics to determine the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism.
As others have discovered, the most appreciative people in this group tended to be the most altruistic.
The next step was to explore more about how these trends are reflected in the brain.
Participants in our study performed a donation activity on the MRI scanner. They observed how the computer transferred real money to their own account or to a local food bank account.
Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, out of their control. We especially wanted to compare what happened in the brain when a participant received money instead of seeing money given to charity.
It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving runs deep, both literally and figuratively.
A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is key to supporting both. Anatomically, this region is set up to be a center for processing risk and reward value; it’s tightly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a dose of pleasant neurochemicals under the right circumstances.
It contains abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, self-representation, and even social processing.
Beyond identifying where in the brain was especially active during these tasks, we also saw differences in how active this region was in various individuals.
We calculated what we call a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity gain” versus “personal gain” situations.
The participants I identified as more appreciative and more altruistic through the questionnaire had higher “pure altruism” scores – that is, a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity making money. It felt good for them to see that the food bank was working well.
In other studies, some of my colleagues had focused on this same region of the brain. They found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were reflected in the responses of the participants’ brains to charitable donations, including in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
So is this reward region of the brain the key to kindness? Well, it’s complicated.
Does practice make you altruistic?
The human brain is surprisingly flexible. The absence of hearing in someone born deaf opens up a space in the brain that would have processed sound to instead deal with other sensory information, such as touch. Neuroscientists call this plasticity.
In recent years I have been testing the idea that the plasticity of the mature brain can be used to enhance the experience of well-being.
Could practice change the way that emotions that support social relationships, such as gratitude, empathy, and altruism, are generally programmed into the brain? By practicing gratitude, could people become more generous?
My colleagues and I decided to test whether by changing the amount of gratitude people felt, we could alter the way the ventromedial prefrontal cortex responds to give and take.
I randomly assigned the study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, a group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of what they were grateful for. During the same period, the other group wrote about interesting topics in their lives that were not specific to gratitude.
The gratitude journal seemed to work. Just keeping a written account of gratitude led people to report that they experienced more emotion. Other recent work also indicates that the practice of gratitude makes people more supportive of others and improves relationships.
Importantly, the participants in our study also showed a change in the way their brains responded to giving. On the MRI scan, the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased their measure of “pure altruism” in the reward regions of the brain.
His responses to the benefit of charity increased more than those of his own benefit.
Altering the exchange rate for what is rewarding
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is connected to other brain systems that help to experience reward.
These high-level systems in your frontal lobes constantly evaluate the value of your decisions. This part of the brain helps you put various things in a hierarchy of how rewarding you find them to be. It can help you determine which decisions, goals, and relationships to prioritize.
Here’s an analogy: When I was 13, my aunt gave me an incredible opportunity to travel with her to Great Britain.
When I started saving my money for babysitting, it cost me $ 1.65 to buy a pound. But at the time of the trip, it cost almost $ 2 to buy a pound sterling.
A 10-pound British souvenir that would have cost $ 16 a few months ago would now cost me $ 20. In other words, the value of each dollar bill fluctuated with the exchange rate.
I imagine that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is like the office where dollars are exchanged for pounds or vice versa. For people with more appreciative and altruistic tendencies, it appears that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex places more value on charitable donations than on receiving money for themselves.
Practicing gratitude changed the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity became more valuable than receiving money yourself. Once the brain calculates the exchange rate, it is paid in the neural reward currency, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal achievement.
So in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really may be true that giving is better than receiving.
While you rest during the holidays, whether it’s with a Thanksgiving feast for friends and family, a busy day of shopping on Black Friday, or a pile of Christmas presents, taking the time to practice gratitude can help you make the activity more rewarding of all.