Quantcast
Connect with us

When you’re grateful, your brain becomes more charitable

Published

on

‘Tis the season when the conversation shifts to what you’re thankful for. Gathered with family and friends around a holiday feast, for instance, people may recount some of the biggies – like their health or their children – or smaller things that enhance everyday life – like happening upon a great movie while channel-surfing or enjoying a favorite seasonal food.

Psychology researchers recognize that taking time to be thankful has benefits for well-being. Not only does gratitude go along with more optimism, less anxiety and depression, and greater goal attainment, but it’s also associated with fewer symptoms of illness and other physical benefits.

ADVERTISEMENT

In recent years, researchers have been making connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism. How does being thankful about things in your own life relate to any selfless concern you may have about the well-being of others?

As a neuroscientist, I’m particularly interested in the brain regions and connections that support gratitude and altruism. I’ve been exploring how changes in one might lead to changes in the other.

Volunteers’ brain activity was tracked while in an MRI scanner to try to untangle the relationship.
University of Oregon, CC BY-ND

Shared pathway for gratitude and altruism

To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, my colleagues and I first asked volunteers questions meant to tease out how frequently they feel thankful and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. Then we used statistics to determine the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism. As others have found, the more grateful people in this group tended to be more altruistic.

The next step was to explore more about how these tendencies are reflected in the brain. Our study participants performed a giving activity in the MRI scanner. They watched as the computer transferred real money to their own account or to the account of a local food bank. Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, outside their control. We especially wanted to compare what happened in the brain when a participant received money as opposed to seeing money given to the charity instead.

ADVERTISEMENT

Deep in the front part of your brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex helps process risk and reward.
Christina Karns, CC BY-ND

It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very 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 wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances. It holds abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, one’s representation of oneself and even social processing.

Beyond identifying the place in the brain that was especially active during these tasks, we also saw differences in just how active this region was in various individuals.

We calculated what we termed a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity-gain” versus “self-gain” situations. The participants I’d identified as more grateful and more altruistic via the questionnaire had a higher “pure altruism” scores – that is, a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.

ADVERTISEMENT

In other studies, some of my colleagues had zeroed in on this same brain region. They found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were mirrored by participants’ brains’ responses to charitable donations, including in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

So is this brain reward region the key to kindness? Well, it’s complicated.

Practice makes grateful, makes altruistic?

The human brain is amazingly flexible. The absence of hearing in someone who’s born deaf opens up brain real estate that would have processed sound to instead deal with other sensory information, like touch. Neuroscientists call this plasticity.

ADVERTISEMENT

In recent years I’ve been testing the idea that the plasticity of the mature brain can be used to enhance the experience of well-being. Could practice change how emotions that support social relationships – like gratitude, empathy and altruism – are typically programmed into the brain? Through 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 giving and receiving. I randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of the things they were thankful for. Over the same period, the other group wrote about engaging topics from their lives that weren’t specific to gratitude.

Just writing it down had an effect.
fotografierende/Unsplash, CC BY

Gratitude journaling seemed to work. Just keeping a written account about gratitude led people to report experiencing more of the emotion. Other recent work also indicates that gratitude practice makes people more supportive of others and improves relationships.

ADVERTISEMENT

Importantly, the participants in our study also exhibited a change in how their brains responded to giving. In the MRI scanner, the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased their “pure altruism” measure in the reward regions of the brain. Their responses to charity-gain increased more than those to self-gain.

The pink in these scans shows the region that responded more to giving after practicing gratitude for three weeks.

Altering the exchange rate for what’s rewarding

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is connected to other brain systems that help you experience reward. These high-level systems in your frontal lobes are constantly assessing the value of your decisions. This part of the brain helps you place various things in a hierarchy of how rewarding you find them to be. It may help you determine which decisions, goals and relationships to prioritize.

Here’s an analogy: When I was 13, my aunt gave me an amazing opportunity to travel with her to Britain. When I started saving up my babysitting money, it cost US$1.65 to buy one British pound sterling. But by the time of the trip, it cost nearly $2.00 to buy one British pound. A £10 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

I imagine the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is like the office where you exchange dollars to pounds or vice versa. For the people with more grateful and altruistic tendencies, it seems the ventromedial prefrontal cortex assigns more value to charitable donations than to receiving money for themselves.

Practicing gratitude shifted 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. After the brain calculates the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.

So in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really can be true that giving is better than receiving. As you sail through the holidays – whether with a Thanksgiving banquet spread out for our friends and family, a busy shopping day on Black Friday or a pile of Christmas presents – taking time to practice gratitude can help make giving the most rewarding of activity of all.The Conversation

ADVERTISEMENT

Christina Karns, Research Associate in Psychology and the Center for Brain Injury Research and Training; Director of Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project, University of Oregon

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and legal efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. And unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from billionaires and corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click to donate by check.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news sites, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.



Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

2020 Election

Trump campaign mocked after unveiling new red hats: ‘Do you have arm bands as well?’

Published

on

President Donald Trump's 2016 "Make America Great Again" hats have been replaced with new "Keep America Great" hats.

Trump re-election campaign manager Brad Parscale modeled one of the hats on Twitter.

Here is some of what people were saying:

https://twitter.com/LazarusLeBaron/status/1165430924093165568

Here I made an arm band design for you pic.twitter.com/inTyqVi2wo

— Christopher Goodwin (@LazarusLeBaron) August 25, 2019

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

‘This will not end well’: Far-right extremism expert warns of Trump’s intensifying authoritarianism

Published

on

An expert on the far-right in America warned of President Donald Trump's "genuinely dangerous levels" of authoritarianism on Saturday.

Author David Neiwert posted a long Twitter thread on the commander-in-chief's "Social Dominance Orientation" -- and warned it will not end well.

Neiwert is the author of the 2017 book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.

Here is the thread he posted:

https://twitter.com/DavidNeiwert/status/1165428067138846720

https://twitter.com/DavidNeiwert/status/1165428524808724480

https://twitter.com/DavidNeiwert/status/1165429018486702081

Continue Reading
 

2020 Election

‘The Mooch’ attended Biden fundraiser in the Hamptons — because Trump ‘has lost his mind’

Published

on

Former White House press secretary Anthony Scaramucci attended a fundraiser for former Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday.

CBS News reporter Ben Mitchell posted a photo of Scaramucci at the event, and subsequently interviewed "The Mooch."

Scaramucci said he was still a registered Republican, but added that Trump "has lost his mind."

Spotted at a Biden event in the Hamptons: Fmr. Trump WH Comms Director Anthony @Scaramucci pic.twitter.com/PWVTZ8Qm15

Continue Reading
 
 

Thank you for whitelisting Raw Story!

As a special thank you, from now until August 31st, we're offering you a discounted rate of $5.99/month to subscribe and get ad-free access. We're honored to have you as a reader. Thank you. :) —Elias, Membership Coordinator
HELP US UNCOVER CORRUPTION!
close-link
close-image