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Forgiveness Research and the Gratitude Factor

New research says our brain's grey matter plays a role in forgiveness.

Those who have the ability to be forgiving are often viewed as people taking the high moral ground. Many times we see them as peacemakers. Yet, we learned from new research that there is a neuro-antomical basis to forgiveness. SISSA, Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy noted that there are "Neuroanatomical correlates of forgiving unintentional harms" as published in Scientific Reports ( on April 6, 2017. The researchers reported:

"We found that local grey matter volume in the left anterior superior temporal sulcus, a region in the functionally defined theory of mind or mentalizing network, was associated with the degree to which participants relied on information about innocent intentions to forgive accidental harms. Our findings provide further support for the key role of mentalizing in the forgiveness of accidental harms and contribute preliminary evidence for the neuroanatomical basis of individual differences in moral judgments."

Giorgia Silani, Ph.D., Department of Applied Psychology, University of Vienna, led the study in which the team recruited 50 healthy community members (32 female; 41 right-handed) with an age range of 18 to 35. They answered a questionnaire in which there were "four variations of 36 unique scenarios for a total of 144 stories." The participants used a judgement scale, one to seven, in answering two questions:

  • How responsible should the individual involved in this story be considered?
  • How morally acceptable is the individual's behaviour?

Magnetic resonance of all participants was used to obtain data on brain functioning and structure. Analysis revealed that "interindividual differences in the severity of moral judgments about unintentional harmful behaviors are associated with volumetric differences in the left aSTS, [left anterior superior temporal sulcus] a region implicated in reasoning about others’ mental states, such that the greater the grey matter volume, the less accidental harm-doers are condemned." 

Indrajeet Patri, first author, is a Harvard University post doctoral fellow at SISSA.

What do researchers say about forgiveness in general? 

Keep in mind that the study focused on "unintentional harmful behaviors." While we may not be aware of the grey matter in our brains, we are aware of the our own feelings about anger and forgiveness, we have been made aware that anger can be harmful both to ourselves and others. When thinking about forgiveness, there is the one who asks forgiveness and the one who accepts the apology. But even if the apology is not accepted, when we are angry at someone, we are still ultimately responsible for forgiving the other person — even if they are wrong. Refusing to forgive and holding a grudge is dangerous to our health.

According to Karen Swartz, M.D., practicing psychiatrist and clinical programs director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center:

"If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, not having a good immune response. You’re constantly putting your energy somewhere else."

She explains the concept of forgiveness training in four simple steps, "a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques."  
•    Identify what the problems are.
•    Work on relaxation techniques.
•    Challenge your own responses.
•    Change your thoughts from negative to positive.

Dr. Swartz also noted that help with overcoming anger may come from a mental health professional, a close friend, or a trusted religious adviser.

Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, Fred Luskin, Ph.D., says "forgiveness boils down to a simple choice: whether to dwell over past hurts or try to see the good in others."  As in this video, The Choice to Forgive, he asks us to consider our intention, "to dwell on what went wrong — or see the goodness behind every act given you."

Rewiring your brain in three minutes a day
In talking with Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D. of the Inner Mammalian Institute, she says that you can rewire your brain to see good in the world. She discusses the concept in her book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns by Changing Your Brain Chemistry. 

She explained in earlier interviews that positive energy "gets ignored because it has no place to flow until you build a new pathway. And you can do this by focusing on the good three minutes a day for 45 days or three times a day at one minute intervals," she said. Dr. Breuning added that there is catch. One must keep up the gratitude focus for 45 days even if it seems fake or foolish. 

"If you miss a day, start over from Day One. You must go 45 days straight because that is what it takes to get a new trail established. Trailblazing takes a lot of focused energy. Make your energy available for gratitude. You'll be so happy that you did."

Once you've created that new neural pathway for gratitude "you will be less likely to take the old road of negativity." Train Your Brain for Gratitude.

The gratitude factor

Changing one's thoughts from negative to positive is a challenge. In addition to rewiring one's brain, an attitude of gratitude is helpful.

Professor Robert Emmons at the University of California, Davis, reminded me when we spoke during several interviews that:

"Gratitude is an attitude not a feeling that can be easily willed. Even if you are not satisfied with your life as it is today, if you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. It is like improving your posture and, as a result, becoming more energetic and self-confident. . . .Attitude change often follows behavior change. By living the gratitude that we do not necessarily feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live."

He said that there are at least four gratitude boosters. These include: Smiling, saying "thank you," sending thank-you notes, and making gratitude visits. Gratitude as Attitude Sparks Love. 

In relationships, forgiveness is liberating. It frees us from a negative attachment to a person who has hurt us — even if that person is someone we love. This liberates us from the cycle of negativity and anger allowing us to open our hearts to gratitude, happiness, and love once again. Focusing on forgiveness, training one's brain for gratitude, or accepting gratitude as an attitude clears a path for embracing forgiveness and promoting positive relationships and a certain peace of mind. 

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson


Patil, I. et al. Neuroanatomical correlates of forgiving unintentional harms. Sci. Rep. 7, 45967; doi: 10.1038/srep45967 (2017)

Swartz, Karen, MD, The Healing Power of Forgiveness, July 8, 2014, "A Johns Hopkins psychiatrist on how letting go of grudges is good for your health."