The Neurology of Gratitude
Deeply felt gratitude is an all encompassing phenomenon. We recognize it mentally and feel it emotionally and physically. Our observing life informs us that those who do not practice gratitude are unhappy and unhealthy – no matter how much they have, it is never enough. Conversely, we are inspired and emotionally nourished by those who practice gratitude in their lives deeply and consistently – they savor their lives and share their enthusiasm with everyone around them.
We know that gratitude can feel good in very deep and gratifying ways. But, is there more? How does appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving benefit us beyond putting us in a good mood? What is the neurology of gratitude?
As it turns out, savoring the feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and thanksgiving has profound effects on our brain and body functions, improves our health and well-being, reinforces social values, determines how we experience life, and even leads to how successful we are in achieving our life vision.
The Reticular Activating System (RAS)
The RAS is a part of the brain stem that controls wakefulness, arousal, motivation, sexual activity, circadian rhythm (melatonin regulates activity of the RAS), respiration, cardiac rhythm, and other essential body functions. The RAS plays a critical role in consciousness. Dysfunction of the RAS can result in hypervigilance, an over-amplified response to stressors in the environment, anxiety, and panic disorder and may play a role in impaired memory and autism.
Now, here comes the most important part of this little neurology lecture! It is generally assumed that the RAS’s role in consciousness is not in regard to the generation of consciousness, which seems to be a higher cortical (brain) function, but rather the RAS acts as a gatekeeper for what sensory information reaches the frontal cortex where consciousness (self and general awareness) generates.
How we feel and think about our experience will train our RAS what to let into our consciousness and what to filter out. In this way, the RAS controls your attention and perceptual awareness. Research indicates the frontal cortex and higher cortical functions determine how the RAS is “programmed” to filter sensory information and control what sensory information from our nervous system reaches those parts of the brain where we are aware. In this way our minds can program what the RAS filters for the mind to be aware of from our environment.
So, we don’t perceive actual reality – we perceive that part of reality we have trained our RAS to send to our consciousness. We have the ability to train our mind to filter for what we are looking for – what we want – and the key is practicing gratitude. By practicing gratitude, we train our brain to find in the world around us the very things for which we feel grateful.