Christina M. Karns, director of the University of Oregon's Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project in the Department of Psychology in Eugene, and colleagues led the research. Their findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The research aimed to evaluate whether or not personal altruistic traits could be strengthened by taking part in a writing intervention.
All participants were assessed using questionnaires and MRI brain scanning at the beginning of the study. During their MRI, participants observed a transaction of money being donated to either themselves or a food bank.
"We found that across the whole group at the first session, people who reported more altruistic and grateful traits showed a reward-related brain response when the charity received money that was larger than when they received the money themselves," notes Karns.
The MRI measured "the metabolism of oxygen in active brain cells." The results revealed that in an area deep inside the brain that has previously been associated with altruism — called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — there was an increase in altruism-related activity.
To test whether or not journaling impacted altruism, the researchers randomly assigned the 33 women aged between 18 and 27 years to two groups. One included 16 women who wrote in an online journal each day by responding to questions connected with gratitude, and the other one included 17 women who also completed an online journal but received prompts not centered on gratitude.
After 3 weeks, all participants repeated the questionnaires and functional MRI scan while viewing transactions being received by the food banks or themselves.
Ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity shift
Previous research indicated that practicing gratitude and positive thinking benefits health and well-being. The new study goes one step further to determine whether the "downstream benefits of gratitude" also provide an advantage to others in society.
Karns and colleagues' findings support the notion that the region of the brain that is involved with feelings of reward is flexible, which allows it to alter in values of a "neural currency" that is related to feelings of altruism. "Our findings suggest that there's more good out there when there is gratitude," says Karns.
"We found that activity recorded in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex shifted in the people in the gratitude-journaling group."
Christina M. Karns
She adds, "This group, as a whole, increased that value signal toward the charity getting the money over watching themselves get the money as if they were more generous toward others than themselves."
Although this study was only conducted in women to decrease variables linked to gender, Karns explains that in the future, the team would like to focus on a larger sample of people to see whether "there are gender differences and how they manifest."
Furthermore, the researchers would like to find out whether the feelings of altruism last, and the best duration of writing for journaling to be most effective.