The Neuroscience of Gratitude

In The Impact of Gratitude on Health and Well-Being, Linda Graham, MFT offered a lot of practical benefits for people who practice gratitude daily.  Here she looks more deeply at the neuroscience of gratitude.  How does gratitude impact the brain?

MRI imaging is not yet sophisticated enough to scan a complex emotional behavior like gratitude. I.e., gratitude is not one basic emotion like anger or sadness or shame, with its own discrete physiological markers of identifiable facial expressions or scannable neural firing pattererns.  In a seminar on Gratitude sponsored by the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley, neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson led us through the basic self-directed neuroplasticity – training the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better – of stimulating and strengthening the neural substrates of a practice like gratitude.

Attention

Neuroplasticity is heightened for what’s in the field of focused awareness.  “Neurons that fire together wire together.”  Therefore, sustained attention on what we are grateful for, on the process of giving and receiving itself, strengthens the circuits in the brain for gratitude.  “Directing attention skillfully is therefore a fundamental way to shape the brain – and one’s life – over time.” In a conversation just two days prior to this seminar, I heard Rick suggest “making your receiving of the giving the object of your attention” as an excellent way to deepen one’s experience of gratitude.

Negativity Bias

There are lots of good reasons why “taking in the good” is counter-intuitive to how our brains have evolved for the survival of our species; why, in Rick’s phrase, our brains have a bias like Velcro for the negative, Teflon for the positive.

Let be.  Let go.  Let in.

Mindfulness is a great aid in simply being with any negativity that is arising, letting it go without taking it personally, and then letting is the good that is already there, ready to be recognized.

Taking in the good 

When we intentionally take in the good we are building resources in our neural circuitry to act as a buffer against stress, negativity, trauma, and to promote our brain’s (thus mind’s) flexibility and resilience.

  • Seek out positive experiences or the recognition of them; let positive facts become positive experiences;
  • Savor the positive experience for 10-20-30 seconds; let it register in your awareness and encode in your neural circuitry;
  • Soak the sensations of the positive experience into your body so that they can register deeply in implicit emotional memory.

Taking in the good then becomes the neural substrate for:

  • Personal gratitude as part of our character, a personal virtue that is foundational for a meaningful life.
  • Gratitude that motivates us to give back, to re-pay in some way all that we have received. Gratitude is thus a key component of the altruism that sustains a compassionate society.
  • Gratitude that, as any practice that opens the heart, acts as a gateway to the sacred.  Awe, reverence, wonder, so naturally opens our hearts to gratitude – whether in the vastness of nature, the magic of a resonant conversation, the benevolence of Being itself.

I’ve seen many times gratitude practice can be the most reliable access we have to the goodness of our true nature and the goodness of the true nature of others.  Gratitude practices taps us into the energy field of life itself, from which comes all joy, compassion, forgiveness, etc.When life is hard, gratitude can be hard. In the face of difficult circumstances, we can succumb to a pervasive negativity.  We can succumb to a sense of entitlement.  We can become busy, distracted, forgetful. We can have a hard time surrendering to the dependency and inter-dependency we have with others.  We can be traumatized by life events and not have the inner resources to cope.

Even so, gratitude can be the practice that lifts us out of all of that.  James Baraz writes,

“Gratitude in our darkest times is more than a matter of remembering our blessings so we can hold the hard stuff in a bigger perspective.  With understanding, we see that often it is the suffering itself that deepens us, maturing our perspective on life, making us more compassionate and wise than we would have been without it.  How many times have we been inspired by those who embody a wisdom that could only come from dealing with adversity?  And how many valuable lessons have we ourselves learned because life has given us unwanted challenges?  With a grateful heart, we’re not only willing to face our difficulties, we can realize while we’re going through them that they are a part of our ripening into wisdom and nobility.”