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Reasons to be grateful: you can boost your amygdala for a better life

There are quite a lot of references and links at the end

The Guardian had alternative headlines for this:
On paper: Happy people caught in a ‘cycle of positivity’, scientists find
Online: Brain scans of happy people help explain their ‘rose-tinted’ outlook
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/nov/16/brain-scans-happy-rose-tinted

Dawn.com has a clear, concise writeup of this (http://www.dawn.com/2011/11/18/brain-scans-explain-happy-peoples-happiness.html):

Brain scans of volunteers who scored high on a standard test for happiness showed activity in regions that reinforced their happy dispositions and set them up for a “cycle of positivity”, scientists said. The positive outlook on life was not a reflection of naivety or ignorance of the world`s threats and dangers, they said, but an enhanced response to positive events and the opportunities surrounding them.
Psychologists Wil Cunningham and Tabitha Kirkland at Ohio State University uncovered the effect while scanning the brains of 38 volunteers as they looked at a series of pictures designed to evoke positive, negative or neutral feelings.
The negative images included an unhappy person sitting in a chair and someone being threatened with a gun, while positive images included a basket of kittens and a bunch of flowers. Among the neutral images were patterns and household objects*.
The scientists focused on part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped region used in early processing of information about the world around us and emotional reactions to it.
The scans showed that all the volunteers` brains reacted the same way to negative and neutral images, with negative pictures causing more arousal in the amygdala than neutral ones.
But the most striking result was in the happiest volunteers, who had scored five and above on a seven-point happiness test. When they saw positive images, the activity in their amygdalas rose much higher than it did in the less happy people.
The findings were reported at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC.

I’ve lifted that from Dawn.com without any guilt: it’s probably based very closely on a press release from the Society for Neuroscience. Lots of other news outlets posted the same story in pretty much the same words.

OK, so our attitude to life and our wellbeing are driven by our patterns of amygdala responsiveness, right? Well, maybe, but this reminded me of a well-known finding in positive psychology research: Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough’s 2003 ‘Gratitude’ research (reference at the end) They found, as described in the abstract (shortened here):

The effect of a grateful outlook on psychological and physical well-being was examined. Participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 experimental conditions (hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison) [they kept diaries in which they noted things in different categories – hassles, gratitude, etc –  according to their experimental group]; they then kept weekly or daily records of their moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life appraisals. […] The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

So, reflecting on ‘blessings’ or ‘things to be grateful for’ (positive things, though rather more experientially meaningful than a basket of kittens) increases wellbeing – and having an amygdala which responds strongly to positive things (well, kittens and flowers) is associated with higher reported levels of happiness – could there be some link here?

In the following argument, I admit that I’m confusing C&K’s ‘positive things’ with E&M’s ‘things to be grateful for’, which may not be justified, but I’m hoping they’re close enough to provide the basis for some speculation.
Note that Emmon’s & McCullough’s study is experimental, so we have some idea of causation, while Cunningham & Kirkland’s is observational, which is why I said ‘is associated with’ in the last paragraph. The usual assumption, when you read about ‘this brain activity is associated with that behaviour’ is that the relationship is deterministic, and, in this case, happy people are happy because they have happy brains, and certainly the way these stories appear in the press generally suggests that. But it looks here as though the relationship could be the other way round: could embarking on a gratitude programme be the thing that boosts your positive amygdala response? And might that lead to a positive cycle between gratitude/happiness and a happy amygdala? Or, of course, it’s possible that the amygdala is pretty trivial here: yes, it responds more strongly in gratitude-loaded people, but that strong response isn’t driving anything, it’s just dependent on other, more important things, such as a conscious focus on things to be grateful for.
What I’d like to see (here’s a possible PhD project, kids – or maybe 3rd year project if you’re at a rich university with easy access to fMRI: are there any of those?) is a study tracking amygdala response à la W&K in people who are going through an E&M-style ‘gratefulness’ programme. You might predict that the decision to practice gratefulness would boost the positive amygdala response: a reverse of brain-led determinism. It might be that W&K are onto this already; they have papers in press with words like ‘tuning’, time’ and ‘trajectory’ in the titles.
We’ve got one famous example of this kind of thing already: the study on the hippocampuses of London taxi drivers (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006).

Some sources:
Cunningham’s and Kirkland’s home pages, which give details of other research and published papers:
http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/cunningham/
http://osu.academia.edu/TabithaKirkland

There’s a ref below to a chapter by Emmons & Shelton, discussing gratefulness much more widely, but also containing some details of the experimental research, in Snyder & Lopez’ (2002) Handbook of Positive Psychology.

References:
Emmons, R A., Shelton , C. M. (2002) Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. In: Handbook of Positive Psychology. Snyder, C. R.; Lopez, Shane J.; New York , NY , US : Oxford University Press. 459-471.
Available at http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/Class/Psy418/Josephs/Wynne%20Folder/33-Gratitude.pdf

Emmons Robert A., McCullough Michael E. (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2) 377–389
Available at: http://agarrido.cl/rgarrido/Psicolog%B4+%A2a%20Positiva/Bibliograf%B4+%A2a%20Sesi%B4+%A2n%20IV/COUNTING%20BLESSINGS.pdf

Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. (2006) London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis Hippocampus 16(12),1091-101.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17024677  gives you the abstract, which is pretty clear, thorough and helpful, and – as usual – shows that the actual findings are more complex than the myth. Some parts of the hippocampus shrank in the taxi drivers, and “we found that the ability to acquire new visuo-spatial information was worse in taxi drivers than in bus drivers”. Did you know that? Me neither.

*How weedy is this? Miserable-looking person? Basket of kittens? I could think of much more negative and positive stimuli than this. Maybe this is a response to (perfectly proper) ethical concerns – you can’t show people anything which might be so negative that they’re moved to tears: that would be experimental abuse – and so you shouldn’t use anything really positive either – that would be out of proportion to the negative stimulus. This may be being too fussy: everyday there’s something in the newspaper which makes me feel terribly sad. On the other hand, if you can get observable differences with trivial stimuli like this, it looks likely to be a powerful and significant (in both senses) effect.

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