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November 28, 2021

Your Brain on Gratitude Meditation

Gratitude meditation IS yoga, and this is not a platitude. It is proven. The research can visualize and quantify effects parallel to those described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Today there are 1000+ published studies and papers on gratitude listed on pubmed.gov. Most of these studies were published in the last 5 years. Interestingly, there has been a sharp upward curve in the last two years. This represents a huge increase in interest in gratitude among the scientific community.

This post will focus on one study only. However, it has outcomes typical of the bulk of gratitude research, and directly relates to yoga.

Your Heart Rate and Brain on Gratitude

A small study (n = 17, PMID: 28698643) published in Scientific Reports in 2017 looked at the “Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling.

Perhaps not surprisingly, gratitude meditation had a significant positive effect on heart rate (it lowered it). It also had a positive effect on something neuroscientists call “Functional Connectivity”.

Functional connectivity analysis looked at the effects of gratitude on the default mode, emotion, and reward-motivation networks. In other words, it measures your general state of reactivity, motivation, and emotion regulation. All were improved with gratitude meditation.

How this relates to yoga

One of the most famous sutras of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a foundational text of yoga philosophy, is this: yoga chitta vritti nirodha. The translation is something like “yoga is calming the mind through meditative techniques”. Another common translation is “Yoga is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind”.

This study’s gratitude meditation technique showed via fMRI a slowing down of the reactivity of the mind. Yes, this is a secondary measure, not exactly a measurement of thoughts. But in our eyes, it literally demonstrated yoga in action.

How to practice a gratitude meditation

The specific technique was as follows:

1. Slow and deep breaths, focusing on respiration, to relax and calm oneself for one minute.
2. 4 minutes focusing on a mental image of their mother with audio-visual instructions to participants to tell their mothers, in their mind, how much they love and appreciate her.

Although the focus on mothers is not universally appropriate, what is interesting is how this positive effect is NOT a gratitude journal. This is consistent with the full body of scientific literature on gratitude, showing that focusing on one thing, especially something with more of a narrative, is more effective than making a list when it comes to gratitude. (Particular stories are likely to come to mind when you think of your loved one).

See a more general overview of gratitude practices in last week’s blog post. And if you try this technique, or have another gratitude practice that works for you, let us know in the comments below.

Yoga Anatomy Academy aims to be a source of evidence-based yoga knowledge, linking high quality science with practical steps to make yoga practice more effective, accessible and still connected to its philosophical roots.

For more research-backed neuroscience knowledge, check out our online course Happiness and Resilience: Neuroscience Implications for Yoga and Meditation.

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