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How Gratitude Affects the Brain

by admin on April 28, 2016

A recent study by Fox, Kaplan, Damasio and Damasio (2015) identified how testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust stimulated gratitude in participants and how this affects the brain. Within the literature, there is a lack of studies on the emotion of gratitude. However, as explained by Antonia Damasio, senior author of the current study, gratitude is an important emotion that maintains healthy social behaviour and rewards generosity.

The study was conducted at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, by lead author Dr. Glen Fox. Using audio recordings of Holocaust survivors, their stories where presented to participants, in order to stimulate feelings of gratitude. Although the Holocaust was viewed as a horrible and awful time, surprisingly, Dr. Fox found numerous stories of gratitude expressed by the survivors, for help they received during their time in the Holocaust.

Participants within the study were between the ages of 18 and 28, with no connection to the Holocaust previous to the current study. All participants completed four phases, each phase designed in attempts to mimic the experiences faced during the Holocaust (The rise of Nazism and Persecution, Internment, The Final Solution and Final Months and Liberation). Each phase consisted of an introductory documentary video, followed by stories presented in second person derived from testimonies provided by Holocaust survivors. Following this, questions about each of the stories were presented, reflecting on a feeling of gratitude within the participants. An example of a story presented is as follows: “An allied soldier gives you his glasses. You can see for the first time since the war began”. During these presentations, MRI scanners were used to map activation of brain regions during the task.

Results of the study found that areas responsible for subjective value judgments, morality, economic decision making and feelings of reward, such as the ventral and dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex, were activated during times that the participants reported feelings of gratitude.

Previous studies have suggested that gratitude has positive effects on well-being, promoting healthy social and empathetic behaviour.

Learning Discoveries Psychological Services provides Neurofeedback training to restore the functioning of the cerebral cortex and others areas of the brain. When the brain functions in a neurotypical manner, states of gratitude and feelings of reward can be accessed more easily and consistently, resulting in beneficial outcomes for various mental and physical disorders.

Fox, G. R., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in psychology6. doi:  10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491


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Rosemary Boon

Registered Psychologist

M.A. (Psych),
Grad. Dip. Ed. Studies (Sch. Counsel),
Grad Dip. Ed. B Sc, Dip. Nut.

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