The idea that positive thoughts have power and change lives isn’t new. Until recently, however, the majority of doctors and scientists thought it was a bit “woo-woo” or flaky. Using brain scans and imaging techniques, the medical community has begun to see definite impacts on brain waves as a result of gratitude and positive thoughts.
Gratitude in the Brain
A recent study in NeuroImage and referenced in NY Magazine suggests that the brain rewiring that occurs as a result of gratitude lasts for an incredibly long time. To conduct this study, researchers out of Indiana University studied 43 participants who were already undergoing counseling to treat anxiety or depression.
The participants were broken into two groups. The first group of 22 people were asked to include “gratitude intervention” as part of their weekly therapy sessions. They spent 20-minutes writing a letter expressing gratitude to the recipient (although they were not required to send the letter.) They did this for four weeks, a total of one hour spent focusing on gratitude.
The second group functioned as the control group. Instead of including the gratitude letters, the participants in this group attended their weekly counseling sessions as usual.
In both cases, three months after their counseling sessions ended, the participants were asked to complete a “pay it forward” task while getting a brain scan. The pay it forward task was set up by researchers. Each participant was given a specific amount of money by imaginary benefactors whose names and pictures were provided to the participants. Participants were told that each benefactor would appreciate any or all of their gift being paid forward as a token of the recipients’ appreciation.
Although study participants knew this was an exercise, they were also told that the one of the transactions, chosen at random, would actually take place at the conclusion of the study. Based on the neural patterns, researchers concluded that the more money participants gave away, the stronger their feelings of gratitude. This correlated to increased activity in areas of the brain associated with empathy or thinking about others’ point of view.
Participants also completed a brain scan months later. Researchers found that the initial rewiring was still in place. They believe the effects of gratitude are so long lasting because one of the main regions activated is known to be involved in predicting the effects of one’s own actions on others.
These results seem to indicate that the effects of gratitude can spiral out to have far reaching effects. One person’s gratitude causes them to be kind to another. That person feels gratitude and is kind to someone else. And on it goes.
Although the research is still emerging, it seems clear that gratitude changes brain waves and has long lasting impacts.