Gratitude is an important aspect of human sociality, and is valued by religions and moral philosophies. It has been established that gratitude leads to benefits for both mental health and interpersonal relationships. It is thus important to elucidate the neurobiological correlates of gratitude, which are only now beginning to be investigated. To this end, we conducted an experiment during which we induced gratitude in participants while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging. We hypothesized that gratitude ratings would correlate with activity in brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind. The stimuli used to elicit gratitude were drawn from stories of survivors of the Holocaust, as many survivors report being sheltered by strangers or receiving lifesaving food and clothing, and having strong feelings of gratitude for such gifts. The participants were asked to place themselves in the context of the Holocaust and imagine what their own experience would feel like if they received such gifts. For each gift, they rated how grateful they felt. The results revealed that ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, in support of our hypotheses. The results provide a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefitting from the goodwill of others.
Keywords: Holocaust testimony; affective neuroscience; altruism; fMRI; pro-social behavior.