Fostering the Prosocial Neural Network Through Gratitude

Fostering the Prosocial Neural Network Through Gratitude

By: Mohammad Khari

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.”
Roman Statesman

Since this issue is devoted to gratitude, let us start by looking at what it is. As defined by Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude, there are two key components leading to gratitude’s physical, psychological, and social benefits[1]: “It’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” And “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” We have a tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of happiness (Hedonic Treadmill) and we are constantly evaluating our experiences in terms of relatives—not absolutes (Reference Point). Contrary to these two mental models, gratitude practice can help us shift prosocial circuits to dominate the mindset–those that allow us to be more effective in interactions with ourselves and others.

Brain sciences, however, tell us that effective gratitude practices are more than the commonly practiced “count your blessings” type of reflections and go way beyond the “fake it till you make it” kind of attitude. Dr. Andrew Huberman goes over different studies done on gratitude (e.g. the one on neural correlates of gratitude, and the one on its health benefits for women) in this issue’s main podcast and lays down the structure to build an effective brain-friendly gratitude practice.

[1] Some key benefits of proper gratitude practice:

(1) resilience to trauma from prior experience; (2) inoculation from trauma later in life by shifting fear networks; (3) enhanced social relationships in personal and professional life; (4) shift in prosocial circuity in the brain and activation of circuits in heart and lungs associated with breathing; (5) and decrease in inflammatory cytokines, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), and interleukin 6 (IL-6) almost immediately.


He explains how these practices affect neuromodulators, serotonin[2] in particular, in two different parts of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex, which is mostly associated with empathy and understanding others’ emotions, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is mostly involved in planning, deep thinking, and evaluating different experiences. The latter is the brain region which sets the context and helps you make sense of your experience. The context provided by the prefrontal cortex makes it tolerable to sit in an ice bath, for example, because the perceived benefit shifts our mindset and tolerance. Gratitude is a mindset that activates the prefrontal cortex and sets the context for our daily life experiences.

[2] A chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout your body. Serotonin plays a key role in such body functions as mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting, and sexual desire (Source).

Tenets Of Effective Gratitude Practice

Gratitude practice is not simply writing down or thinking about things you are grateful for. You should consider the following factors as well:

    • Look for ways to arouse the autonomic nervous system for increased benefit: in states of heightened alertness, the intensity of emotion and effectiveness of gratitude practice are enhanced, e.g. intense breathing followed by writing things out or saying them out loud has a stronger effect and lasts longer.
    • Remember that the most potent form of gratitude practice is one in which you receive rather than express thanks.
    • Read or listen to stories (check out this Think Tank issue to see why stories are brain compatible): this helps us to make the association or to experience empathy or sympathy for someone who received help, e.g. stories of people saved during war. Neuroscience suggests that the most potent tool for building the gratitude circuit is a repeated “gratitude received” story:
      1. The story must be about you receiving, or someone you have observed,[3] expressing genuinely-given gratitude. Find someone whose story resonates with you–whether they are giving or receiving help; choose a book, podcast, movie, etc.
      2. Reflect and really think about a time in which you received help–write out (1) what the struggle was, (2) what the help was, and (3) how it made you feel.
      3. Write notes and read them or think about that story over and over–even for just 1-3 minutes.
      4. The more you read and reflect on the notes or take in stories, the faster you will sink into gratitude until its effects are almost immediate (after 60-90 seconds, making it sustainable to incorporate regularly, unlike meditation or similar practices).
      5. Repeat any of these practices 3 times a week–any time of day or night. Feel the shift of physiology of the immune system towards balance, neural circuitry away from anxiety and towards motivation, and all the good that comes with a shift into the space of gratitude.

[3] For more on this, refer to Simon Baron-Cohen’s work and Theory of Mind.

So, although the scientific evidence hints that gratitude should be a regular and consistent practice, in this issue we used the end-of-the-year spirit as an excuse to ask our readers to share their gratitude stories with us. We are grateful that many generously did so. Thanks to their contributions, we all have some stories to ponder on.

Mohammad Khari is an English lecturer at Ozyegin University, Istanbul. He holds a BA in English Literature, an MA in Philosophy of Art, and a CELTA. Mohammad has been reading and researching on the integration of neuroscience into pedagogy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *