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Thanksgiving: Effects of Gratitude on Your Brain

🕑 2 minutes read
Posted November 15, 2016

Gratitude certainly plays an evolutionary role in strengthening connections with your community that may support or even save you in times of need. Neurologically speaking, it also boosts overall happiness levels.

Gratitude is a Whole Brain Experience

When the brain experiences gratitude, it activates parts of the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex responsible for the sense of reward, moral cognition, subjective value judgments, fairness and positive emotions. Higher levels of gratitude also result in increased activation of the hypothalamus, a brain structure important for essential bodily functions like eating, drinking and sleeping (which would explain some of the physical benefits described). Last, it has been shown that focusing on what you are grateful for triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

Rewiring for Positivity

GratitudeAnd that’s not all. The more you stimulate these neural circuits of thanks, the stronger and more automatic they become. According to Hebb’s Law, “neurons that fire together wire together,” there is a physical dimension to this change. The accretion of frequent and persistent focus improves both the firing rate and smooth communication between neurons. Consistent attention to a thought or idea transforms the strength of its neural network. If you create a habit of looking for what is good in the world rather than identifying problems, you will train your brain to search for the positive rather than negative.

British poet, William Wordsworth, presciently summarized this in a line of poetry he wrote nearly two hundred years ago: “Your mind is the garden, your thoughts are the seeds. The harvest can either be flowers or weeds.”

Finding Flowers Among the Weeds

Here is the kicker, though: the mind naturally leans toward negative thoughts. As Dr. Rick Hanson describes it, our brains are “Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.”  So without conscious effort, our minds are drawn to negative thoughts and weeds can sprout.  By intentionally repeating thoughts of gratitude, you reinforce and reaffirm them.  In turn, they grow stronger and deeper roots, even prompting an upward spiral of well being.

As we approach Thanksgiving, try to think of one thing you’re grateful for everyday to kickstart a habit of gratitude. For our part, we’re thankful for the good work you do every day and for your support of iLs throughout the year.

Thank you! (Our prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and hypothalamus are all lighting up with activity!)


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