A Grateful Heart, a Giving Mind

Gratitude is having a moment.

For centuries, the humble concept of gratitude—the cornerstone of the world’s major religions—was overlooked by psychologists and scientists, until recently.

Today, thanks to research in social psychology, health psychology, and social neuroscience research, gratitude is in the public and scientific eye. Studies have linked a grateful disposition to better health and well being. As religions have preached for centuries, and as ancient philosophers have mused, being thankful makes us feel better about ourselves.

But scientists such as UO’s Christina Karns wanted to go deeper. The psychology research associate had long been fascinated by the brain’s plasticity, or its ability to change. She was curious whether an “attitude of gratitude” went beyond making someone feel good. If gratitude was practiced, she wondered, how would it change the brain? Her study, published in a recent issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that writing a gratitude journal for three weeks changed the brain’s response to altruism—that is, focusing on gratitude ends up benefiting not only them, but also society at large.

To examine altruism, Karns and her team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (called fMRI) to measure a blood-oxygen signal related to brain activity. The 33 participants—all women between 18 and 28—had a brain scan at the beginning and the end of the study. The women also answered questions related to gratitude and altruism. In the MRI scanner, each person was shown images of financial transactions—some were altruistic and some benefited only the participant. The subjects were divided at random into two groups—one kept a daily gratitude journal; the other group kept a journal focused on other topics. After three weeks, Karns again measured brain responses to the financial transactions.

Her study found that people who had done gratitude journaling had an increased altruism response in the part of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The control group did not.

Previous research had shown positive effects with keeping a gratitude journal, Karns says, “but no one had shown a changed altruism response in the brain, and just three weeks of gratitude practice seemed to be enough.” Karns is continuing her investigation of pro-social emotions in her current research, which uses an electroencephalogram (EEG)—a measure of the electrical activity of brain cells—to measure how quickly the brain responds to opportunities for altruism.

Karns says her current research brings together her interests not only in brain plasticity, but in positive psychology, philosophy, and moral emotions. When she first came to the UO, she worked with Helen Neville, director emeritus of the Brain Development Lab, examining neuroplasticity in the auditory cortex of congenitally deaf subjects. Karns wanted to determine whether “a lifetime without hearing meant that other sensory modalities had more influence over the auditory cortex.” She found that they did—the deaf subjects’ brains used the auditory cortex for touch and vision, rather than for hearing.

Her thinking then took a creative turn. “If even the lowest level of the sensory cortex is that plastic, think what training and practice can do to parts of our brain that are more plastic throughout our lifetime, such as the frontal lobe?” she asked. (The frontal lobe supports executive reasoning, but also social and emotional processing.) “Why not apply principles [that pertain to the lower-level cortex] to those more complex domains?”

At the University of California, Berkeley, Karns had become familiar with the work of psychologist Dacher Keltner, whose research focused on prosocial emotions—emotions that benefit the whole. Keltner is the founder of the Greater Good Science Center and author of the 2009 book, Born to be Good—The Science of a Meaningful Life. Karns attended a talk given by Keltner at the UO, and when the center announced it was taking grant applications for studies on gratitude, Karns applied and received a two-year grant.

Karns is also a senior scientist with the UO Brain Development Lab, where she uses brain measures to assess positive parenting interventions with families in local Head Start programs. She teaches undergraduate psychology courses; in her class at the Robert Clark Honors College, “Why we do good things—the psychology, philosophy and neuroscience of morality,” students applied different philosophical lenses to real-life moral issues.

For her part, Karns says that these days she concentrates on actively expressing gratitude. For instance, she is grateful to the undergraduate students who assisted her in her research, to UO psychology department head Ulrich Mayr, who developed the giving task she used in her research, and to the collaborators, researchers, and philosophers who have inspired her work in gratitude.

“I have the privilege of being in academia, where you can think and read and be a scholar. You can try and bring ideas together,” she says. “I’ve always been an interdisciplinary thinker. You puzzle about things. What does it mean that this prefrontal part of the brain develops so slowly? And what does it mean that we’re teachers, and we are teaching young people at a period when that part of their brain is really open?”



Alice Tallmadge is a contributing editor to Oregon Quarterly.

Photograph by Jack Liu

Illustration by Teafly Peterson