Thank your brain for gratitude: Neuroimaging research demonstrates how the brain translates altruism into feelings of thankfulness

A brain network that gives rise to feelings of gratitude has been uncovered in new research published in JNeurosci. The study could spur future investigations into how these “building blocks” transform social information into complex emotions.

Previous neuroimaging research in which participants imagined themselves as survivors of the Holocaust who received food, shelter and clothing from strangers identified the medial prefrontal cortex and perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC) as brain regions associated with gratefulness. However, it remains unclear how these parts of the brain translate such altruism into gratitude.

Xiaolin Zhou and colleagues addressed this question by having participants play a social interactive game in which their partner would decide whether to pay different sums of money to in order to prevent the participant from receiving a pain stimulation. By manipulating the pain intensity and cost to the partner to help the participant, the researchers found that partner cost activated brain regions involved in mentalizing while levels of pain reduction were encoded in regions involved in reward representation. Connectivity analyses revealed that these regions feed information to pgACC, which tracked feelings of gratitude over time. Their findings indicate that gratitude may arise from the integration of relevant social information in pgACC.

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