fMRI illuminates brain changes in those who show more gratitude

Around this time of year, people are reminded it’s better to give than receive. According to recent research using functional MRI (fMRI) to examine brain function, this is true when it comes to giving thanks. Gratitude may be good for mental health and increase overall feelings of altruism.

A study, published online Dec. 14 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, examined journaling behaviors of 33 individuals between 18 and 27 years old. Sixteen participants were in a gratitude group, who answered questions in a journal focusing on gratitude, and 17 were in the active-neutral group, who were encouraged to journal, but without a focus on gratitude.

All participants were first scanned while viewing financial transactions, where money was donated to a food bank or given to the individual.

"We found that across the whole group at the first session, people who reported more altruistic and grateful traits showed a reward-related brain response when the charity received money that was larger than when they received the money themselves," said study lead Christina M. Karns, PhD, director of the University of Oregon's Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project.

After three weeks of journaling, the 33 individuals completed a gratitude-related questionnaire and underwent another fMRI.

"We found that activity recorded in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex shifted in the people in the gratitude-journaling group," Karns said. "This group, as a whole, increased that value signal toward the charity getting the money over watching themselves get the money as if they were more generous toward others than themselves."

Karns hopes to continue studying altruism and the brain by exploring if the changes related to journaling are long-lasting.