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The Neurology of Gratitude – Key to Happiness

Gratitude

The Neurology of Gratitude
def. the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

Gratitude

How does gratitude lead to more experiences in your life in which to be grateful?

What is the neurology of gratitude? We know gratitude is a rich and nurturing feeling of peacefulness, well-being, and appreciation. Deeply felt gratitude is an all encompassing experience. We recognize it mentally and feel it emotionally and physically. Observing life informs us that those who don’t 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? How does gratitude effect our nervous system? Is there a neurology of gratitude?

Savoring our 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.1,2,3,4,5,6

The Reticular Activating System

Now we get to the neurology part – stay with me here – this brief treatment of how our brains work will be worth it! The reticular activating system (RAS) is a part of the brain stem (the transitional area between the brain and spinal cord) that controls wakefulness, arousal, motivation, sexual activity, circadian rhythm (melatonin regulates activity of the RAS), respiration, cardiac rhythm, and other essential body functions.7,8

General anesthetics inhibit the RAS, as do many psychoactive drugs. Damage to the RAS can result in permanent coma.

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 autism.9,10 It has been proposed that the RAS plays a critical role in memory and dysfunction or damage to the RAS may cause dementias, including Alzheimer’s.11

In summary, the RAS plays a critical role in consciousness.12

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.13

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.14 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.15,16 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 to getting more of what we want is practicing gratitude.

The RAS and “Law of Attraction”

Most of us have heard of  The Law of Attraction. It is a process of envisioning a desired outcome to bring it into being.

Does it work? Practice this does seem to make magical things happen – we seem to always be in the right place at the right time, a mentor appears, our path that had been so frustrating and difficult before is all of a sudden laid out before us, our networking required to accomplish our vision seems to arrange itself in support of our work, our relationships become seemingly spontaneously harmonious…

…the myriad effects seem magical, mystical, and even metaphysical. Are they? Maybe. Some research has shown that mental intention alone may influence physical reality…to some degree.18,19,20

What is known is that you’re experiencing your wondrous neurology. You have trained your reticular activating system to filter for every possible advantageous connection in the world around you that triggers feelings connected to your vision! You didn’t spontaneously alter reality to meet your needs – you trained your mind to connect with all the aspects of reality around you that can meet your needs.

Training Your Reticular Activating System

Training your reticular activating system makes your brain more efficient for “giving” you the information you need and in a useful format for you to work efficiently in making your life the way you want it.

Here are the steps you have to take to train your RAS effectively –

  • Practice in a relax state – this allows you to focus
  • Be very clear about what you want
  • Make sure you actually want what you think you want*
  • Make sure what you want is congruent to your values
  • Describe/articulate precisely the measurable aspects of what you want (who, what, where, when, how much, etc.)
  • Write it down – use precision, be complete, and concise**
  • Condition the vision of your desired outcome using all your senses – what does your vision look, feel, sound, smell, and taste like?
  • Condition your desired outcome using all of the positive emotions associated with its’ achievement
  • The stronger you sense and feel the emotions associated with your desired outcome the stronger your conditioning will be
  • Repeat the conditioning process regularly – preferably multiple times a day
  • You can use triggers – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – to trigger and reinforce your conditioning
  • Always keep working/taking action toward manifesting your desired outcome – diligence is the mother of good fortune
  • Acknowledge every event that furthers your vision – this reinforces the conditioning

*We often mistake wanting to own objects for what it is we really want. People often want a car – a newer, supposedly better, more expensive car. Why? What you may actually be wanting is a greater sense of freedom. Looking closer, not owning a car may give you a greater overall sense of freedom once all the variables are taken into account. Always ask yourself – what is the value or what is the feeling that I want? This will get you ever closer to what you actually want. Think outside the box.

**Describe your vision in ways that are measurable. “I am able to run 2 miles in 20 minutes  by November 14 of this year.”

By practicing this process you have, in effect, given your RAS very specific orders to preferentially filter anything from the sum of your environment that supports you fulfilling and experiencing your your preferred outcomes and vision.

Conscientiously and consistently practicing this process over time results in you experiencing connections, becoming aware of fortuitous circumstances, meeting people with whom they can form mutually beneficial alliances, and finding your environment seems to support the materialization of your vision.

And, if your vision is big enough, inspiring enough, and benefits enough people, you will probably experience others resonating with your vision and supporting your vision to become true!

Other Gratitude Practices

Mindful Appreciation

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”  ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Spending time at some point in the day to catalog and to give deep appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving for the blessings all around you trains your body and nervous system to relax and mind to be aware of factors all around you that promote these wonderful feelings.

This practice seems most effective when you focus on very immediate and tangible things for which you can feel appreciation, gratitude, and thankfulness.

For instance –

“I am grateful for my eyes to see; I am grateful for this air I breath that gives me life; I am grateful for this day to experience and be of service to others; I am grateful for this day to learn and become more true to my self; I am grateful for the people in my life who love me and who give me the opportunity to love.”

Try this – you will be grateful.

Heart-Focused Appreciation

This technique was developed by the HeartMath Institute. This group has published extensive peer-reviewed research that substantiates their methoids as valid and reliable for creating relaxed states and promoting health and well-being.

Heart-focused appreciation is focusing feelings of appreciation/gratitude around your heart. Often, it will help to remember – with all your senses – specific people and events for which you have a deep and lasting sense of appreciation/grsatitiude. Breathing in a regular and measured fashion (~six seconds of inspiration and six seconds of expiration). Using deep diaphragmatic  (“belly”) breathing improves the results.

Practicing heart-focused appreciation on a regular basis results in being more relaxed in stressful situations and conditions your RAS to experience events that elicit appreciation/gratitude.

Gratitude in Prayer

Be grateful in your prayer.  Be grateful for your relationships, circumstances, beliefs, and values, the challenges you face for the opportunities within them – the myriad aspects of your life.

In this way you give thanks and you honor the great gift of your mind by using your reticular activating system to bring to your consciousness more of that for which you feel grateful.

In Summary

Your mind has awe-inspiring capacities to filter the world around you for the very things you condition/program it to “look” for. Practicing gratitude consciously, passionately, and regularly promotes you to experience more of everything in your life for which you feel grateful.

Use this information well to serve you and others.

Suggested Reading

Think and Grow Rich (Napoleon Hill)

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Sharon Begley)

The Heartmath Solution (Doc Lew Childre)

Handbook to Higher Consciousness (Ken Keyes)

A Note of Thanks
Thanks to Robert Dixon, a fine and thoughtful man, who made the initial connection between gratitude and reinforcement of RAS conditioning during a lecture I was giving on the process of creating joy in September of 2009.

Endnotes

1 Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J and Atkins S (2009) Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. J Psychosom Res 66, 43-48.

2 Zahn R, Moll J, Paiva M, Garrido G, Krueger F, Huey ED and Grafman J (2009) The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI. Cereb Cortex 19, 276-283.

3 Rozanski A and Kubzansky LD (2005) Psychologic functioning and physical health: a paradigm of flexibility. Psychosom Med 67 Suppl 1, S47-S53.

4 Emmons RA and McCullough ME (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol 84, 377-389.

5 McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tiller WA, Rein G and Watkins AD (1995) The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability . Am J Cardiol 76, 1089-1093.

6 McCraty R, Barrios-Choplin B, Rozman D, Atkinson M and Watkins AD (1998) The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 33, 151-170.

7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reticular_activating_system

8 Kinomura S, Larsson J, Gulyás B and Roland PE (1996) Activation by attention of the human reticular formation and thalamic intralaminar nuclei. Science 271, 512-515.

9 Buchwald JS, Erwin R, Van Lancker D, Guthrie D, Schwafel J and Tanguay P (1992) Midlatency auditory evoked responses: P1 abnormalities in adult autistic subjects. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 84, 164-171.

10 Drake ME, Phillips BB and Pakalnis A (1991) Auditory evoked potentials in borderline personality disorder. Clin Electroencephalogr 22, 188-192.

11 Arendt T (1991) [Syndrome of partial cholinergic deafferentation of the cortical mantle–a concept for describing the brain-behavior relationship in dementia diseases]. Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr 59, 81-91.

12 Turner BH and Knapp ME (1995) Consciousness: a neurobiological approach. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 30, 151-156.

13 Petty PG (1996) Consciousness. J Clin Neurosci 3, 16-20.

14 Newman J (1995) Thalamic contributions to attention and consciousness. Conscious Cogn 4, 172-193.

15 Heilman KM (1997) The neurobiology of emotional experience. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 9, 439-448.

16 There is an interesting video that demonstrates this phenomenon called The Awareness Test on the web. You will most likely experience the RAS’s ability to control selective attention and perceptual awareness while viewing the video.

18 Wholeness and the Implicate Order (David Bohm)

19 Conscious Acts of Creation (William Tiller)

20 Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab

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