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Are Empathy and Gratitude Linked to Each Other?

Neuroscience supports the connection between empathy and gratitude.

Polina Zimmerman/Pexels
Source: Polina Zimmerman/Pexels

The word ‘empathy’ was first described in neuroscientific literature by Dr. Paul MacLean in 1967. The definition first used then was, ‘the capacity to identify one's own feelings and needs with those of another person.’ Today, a second definition of empathy offered by the Oxford Dictionary is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ Since 1967, decades of research have offered various interpretations of what empathy entails as a trait among humans.

Can the precise meaning of empathy really be known? While philosophical debates may linger over empathy definitions, this article seeks to highlight the overlap in neuroscientific evidence between what part of the brain is impacted by empathy and also gratitude.

A 2018 article discussing empathy in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences shows there is a clear role played by the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) in emotional empathy and associated positive emotions. Such positive emotions include pride, joy, happiness, motivation and wonder.

A 2019 experiment discussing gratitude in the journal Emotion shows there is a clear role played by the MPFC as well, influenced by how grateful study participants were. This particular 2019 study established the neuroscientific connection between gratitude and life satisfaction, looking specifically at the MPFC region.

There is clearly an overlap between the MPFC’s activation role in both empathy and gratitude.

Studied extensively in the past two decades, gratitude has been shown to be a ‘gateway’ to other positive emotions including joy, pride, motivation and wonder. The MPFC may be the fundamental connection between these very unique and rewarding feelings among humans.

Interestingly, a 2020 study in Aging and Mental Health published in October, shows that loneliness may be connected to an individual’s sense of empathy and compassion. In other words, the more compassionate and empathic a person is, the less lonely they feel as they grow older. Life satisfaction, empathy, compassion, feeling less lonely and more connected to others, gratitude—and more positive emotions—may all be linked in the prefrontal cortex, specifically the MPFC.

The MPFC is part of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). What is the overall purpose of the PFC? Executive function. Executive function serves a person in fundamental ways, including decision-making (from small to big matters of importance), interpreting reality, planning of complex cognitive behavior, personality expression and moderating social behavior.

Located within the PFC, the MPFC is likely the reservoir where gratitude and empathy serve to enrich our minds and in turn reward us with some of the most desirable feelings among humans—joy, satisfaction, feeling meaningfully connected, and more. Future studies might look into the neuroscientific overlap between other fundamental emotions—including love and hope—with gratitude.

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