Improve Brain Systems Underlying Mental Well-Being with Gratitude Meditation

Improve Brain Systems Underlying Mental Well-Being with Gratitude Meditation

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

“benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions.” – Alice Walton

There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that meditation has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Its positive effects are so widespread that it is difficult to find any other treatment of any kind with such broad beneficial effects on everything from mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how meditation could do this. One possibility is that mindfulness practice results in beneficial changes in the nervous system.

The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

These neuroplastic changes, however, result from the summation of individual changes occurring to the nervous system in real time produced by the immediate behavior. In order to better understand the process by which behavior affects the nervous system, it is important to look initially at the short-term changes produced by behavior. Loving-kindness meditation has been shown to produce improvement in the regulation of emotions and also changes the areas of the nervous system involved in emotion regulation. To better understand the processes involved it is important to look at the short-term effects of focusing on gratitude on the nervous system.

In today’s Research News article “Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:, Kyeong and colleagues recruited meditation-naïve adults. They were measured before testing for depression, competence, relatedness, and autonomy. The participants laid in a brain scanner and were instructed to think deeply in a gratitude condition and a resentment condition while their heart rate was recorded and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f-MRI) was performed. In the gratitude condition the participants were instructed to think about and visualize their mother for 4 minutes and tell her in their mind how much they love and appreciate her. In the resentment condition the participants were instructed to think about and visualize a person who made them angry. The two conditions were presented in counterbalanced order to two randomly assigned groups.

They found that the heart rate was significantly lower during the gratefulness condition indicating the positive emotional effects of gratitude. In addition, they found that the functional connectivity of brain areas was significantly related to heart rate in the gratefulness condition but not the resentment condition. Hence, experiencing gratefulness connects central and peripheral mechanisms of emotion. They found that the functional connectivity of neural systems were altered during and after the two conditions. But, the gratitude condition altered the functional connectivity of brain areas associated with emotions and motivation.

These results suggest that the immediate focusing on gratitude produces momentary alterations of brain systems associated with the regulation of emotions and self-motivation. When carried out over a period of time this could sum to produce relatively permanent changes in these neural systems. This may be the mechanism by which loving-kindness meditation improves emotional well-being. These results are a useful start at unravelling the processes by which mental contents can produce relatively permanent alterations of the nervous system and thereby produce relatively permanent changes in the individual’s mood and regulation of that mood.

So, improve brain systems underlying mental well-being with gratitude meditation.

“Being distracted exacts a cost on our well-being, If we become more mindful of our everyday activities, we can learn well-being and become happier.” – Ritchie Davidson

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

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Study Summary

Kyeong, S., Kim, J., Kim, D. J., Kim, H. E., & Kim, J.-J. (2017). Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Scientific Reports, 7, 5058.

A sense of gratitude is a powerful and positive experience that can promote a happier life, whereas resentment is associated with life dissatisfaction. To explore the effects of gratitude and resentment on mental well-being, we acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging and heart rate (HR) data before, during, and after the gratitude and resentment interventions. Functional connectivity (FC) analysis was conducted to identify the modulatory effects of gratitude on the default mode, emotion, and reward-motivation networks. The average HR was significantly lower during the gratitude intervention than during the resentment intervention. Temporostriatal FC showed a positive correlation with HR during the gratitude intervention, but not during the resentment intervention. Temporostriatal resting-state FC was significantly decreased after the gratitude intervention compared to the resentment intervention. After the gratitude intervention, resting-state FC of the amygdala with the right dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and left dorsal anterior cingulate cortex were positively correlated with anxiety scale and depression scale, respectively. Taken together, our findings shed light on the effect of gratitude meditation on an individual’s mental well-being, and indicate that it may be a means of improving both emotion regulation and self-motivation by modulating resting-state FC in emotion and motivation-related brain regions.

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