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Gratitude on the Brain

The effects gratitude has on our brain and our hearts.

· Random Thoughts

This week in the United States of America, we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. I love this holiday for so many reasons. I love good food (my mom makes really good food), and I love time with my family. The third reason I love this holiday is right there in the name. It is a time of giving thanks.

When first trying to come up with how science fits into this day, I thought of how turkey makes you sleepy. I thought of the pilgrims learning the crop knowledge of the Native Americans. No, none of those were any good. Then my mom mentioned that she had just read some article about how being grateful makes for better relationships.

I was instantly skeptical. I’m always hesitant when scientific studies are based on human responses. Humans aren’t always completely truthful. Sometimes our emotions are deceiving even to ourselves. Other times it can be difficult for us to fully put our emotions into words. But I love my mom, and I wanted to take her suggestion under full consideration. So I did a little googling.

It turns out there have been quite a few experiments done concerning gratitude. Some were less concrete, looking at journals that people kept and how they said they felt. But there were also ones that were based on cold hard facts. I love facts.

In multiple neurological experiments, the brain was imaged using an MRI. The researchers put the participants through a number of different situations that were meant to elicit different emotions and responses varying from guilt to gratitude to pride to stress.

Each different situation activated the superior and inferior frontal gyri, the areas associated with self-awareness and speech processing. These were simply the regions used to process the situation and respond using words. But specifically, when gratitude was felt, the hypothalamus was stimulated.

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The hypothalamus is a small region located at the base of the brain. This region is important for the release of many different hormones. It is the region of the brain that regulates homeostasis. It keeps you feeling normal, whether that is temperature or sleep cycles. This region also releases the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is sometimes referred to as the “love-hormone”. So the act of gratitude helps to activate our brain to maintain our normal body status and to increase love for those around us. This world could use a little more love.

These studies also found that all emotions that were positive towards social interactions, including but not limited to gratitude, activated the mesolimbic pathway. This pathway facilitates reinforcement or reward-related learning. It releases dopamine. This is an interesting finding when you pair it with one of the study’s other findings. This particular study had half of their participants write letters of gratitude once a week for 3 weeks, months before the MRI studies. Those participants who wrote letters were more likely to have greater neural responses when showing gratitude. This points to the idea that once you begin to be grateful, you are more likely to be grateful in the future. It is a habit that you are starting.

Our God cares about our health, an often quoted verse from Corinthians (6:19) reminds us that our body is a temple. God also wishes true happiness for us. “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy...” (Psalm 126:2)

When you put those two ideas together it is understandable that when God created us, he made it good for the body to be grateful. It is good for the body to appreciate the gifts of this life.

It makes even more sense that the thing we should be grateful for is how much our God loves us. In the Old Testament it says, "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever." (1 Chronicles 16:34)

No matter what has happened in your life, there are so many things to be grateful for. If you have family, if you have a home, if you have air to breathe, if you have food to eat, if you woke up this morning. All of this is possible because of our God.

On this Thanksgiving, many will gather around tables and share what they are thankful for that day. It’s a beautiful tradition, but this shouldn’t be a once a year thing. Thanksgiving is a common theme throughout the entirety of the Bible, one that seems to be quite important.

If it is important enough to be discussed so much, it should be important enough to talk about each day.

My mother is just full of wisdom because she instilled this in me at a young age. Every morning when she would drive me to school, she would ask me what I was thankful for that day. It was our morning routine, and it was a true blessing. Starting off my day in gratitude, giving myself a nice little hormone boost, it was wonderful. I hope that you will continue to reflect on what you are thankful for long after the 4th Thursday of November.

To end today’s blog, I wanted to share what I am thankful for.

All of you.

In the 1st book of Corinthians, Paul says, “I always thank my God for you because of His grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

I echo his sentiment this day. I am thankful to God for each and every one of you reading this. Thank you for taking time out of your day to spend it here with my thoughts. I pray that you may be blessed with many more things to be thankful for today.