Want a More Altruistic Brain? Try Daily Gratitude Journaling

Gratitude journaling cultivates "pure altruism" in the brain, fMRI study finds.

Posted Dec 18, 2017

Courtesy of Christina Karns
Image captured with functional MRI shows the location in the brain's ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) where an increase in neural altruism occurred for a group of women who wrote about gratitude daily for three weeks in an online journal in a study conducted at the University of Oregon. The same response was not seen in a group of women whose journal entries did not touch on gratitude.
Source: Courtesy of Christina Karns

In lieu of exchanging gifts under the Christmas tree this year, my family decided over Thanksgiving that each of us would donate money to a specific charity or non-profit organization in honor of one another. It's been fun to scour the internet for various causes that I know will resonate with each particular individual. Anecdotally, I can corroborate that the "warm glow" of confirming a gift donation to charity feels much different than pushing "Buy now with 1-click" for myself on Amazon. 

In addition to stocking stuffers and a donation to the ASPCA in her honor, there is one present I decided to buy my 10-year-old daughter...It's a hand-blown glass "Wishing and Gratitude Globe" designed to be a 'piggy bank for wishes, dreams, blessings, and thank yous' written on rolled up scrolls.

My motivation to purchase this gift was inspired by a new study from the University of Oregon which found that taking a few minutes each day to express gratitude in a written journal increased neural responses to altruistic behavior. The UO paper, "The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A Functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice," was published, December 12, in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The goal of this first-of-its-kind study was to use fMRI neuroimaging to determine if individual altruistic traits could be cultivated on a visible neural basis using a targeted gratitude-journaling intervention.

The good news: Regardless of how much gratitude or altruism someone displayed at the outset of the experiment, writing in a gratitude journal for at least 10-minutes every night (between dinner and bedtime) for three weeks increased positive neural responses to altruistic behavior. 

For the first phase of this study, 33 women (ages 18-27) were evaluated using a battery of different tests to assess a baseline of gratitude and altruism. These included the GQ-6 gratitude questionnaire, which is designed to measure someone’s propensity to experience gratitude in daily life, Principles of Care and Giving to Help People in Need, and others.

Then, each of the participants underwent an fMRI brain scan. While participants were inside the brain scanner, each person viewed transactions in which money was either donated to a local food bank or deposited into their personal bank account.

The brain scans revealed that higher self-reported gratitude and responses to altruism were associated with more “neural pure altruism” in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and nucleus accumbens. The researchers speculate that the VMPFC supports changes that occur during gratitude. Regarding altruism, this change was more significant when benefits were received by others versus oneself.

In a statement, Christina M. Karns, director of UO's Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project in the Department of Psychology, said: "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."

For the second phase of this double-blind study, Karns et al. randomly assigned half of the participants to a "gratitude-journal" group and the other half to an "active-neutral" control journal group for three weeks. During this time, the gratitude journaling group was prompted to express gratitude in a journal for at least 10 minutes a night after dinner. The "active-neutral" group did not write about gratitude in their journals. 

After three weeks of both types of journaling, participants returned for a second fMRI brain scan and viewed similar transactions of money either being donated to the food bank or deposited into their bank account. 

"We found that activity recorded in the VMPFC shifted in the people in the gratitude-journaling group," Karns explained. "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."

The authors are quick to point out that more research is needed to determine if the changes in "neural currency" brought about by three weeks of gratitude journaling persist over longer periods of time. "I would like to do a longer-term study with more people to see how this holds up in the real world," Karns said. "I would love to have a large enough sample to see if there are gender differences and how they manifest. Does this feeling last? How often do you have to journal to be most effective?" Please stay tuned for future findings on this topic by Karns and colleagues. 

William E. Moore III, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, was a co-author of the study along with senior author Ulrich Mayr of OU.

References

Karns, Christina M., William E. Moore, Ulrich Mayr. "The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A Functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (First Published: December 12, 2017) DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00599

Bekkers, René, and Mark Ottoni‐Wilhelm. "Principle of Care and Giving to Help People in Need." European Journal of Personality (2016) DOI: 10.1002/per.2057

Weng, Helen Y., Andrew S. Fox, Alexander J. Shackman, Diane E. Stodola, Jessica ZK Caldwell, Matthew C. Olson, Gregory M. Rogers, and Richard J. Davidson. "Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering." Psychological Science (2013) DOI: 10.1177/0956797612469537

More Posts