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Mental Training for Gratitude and Altruism

Bran­don Keim writes a nice post on The Future Sci­ence of Altru­ism at Wired Sci­ence Blog, based on an inter­view with Jor­dan Graf­man, chief of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science at the National Insti­tute of Neu­ro­log­i­cal Dis­or­ders and Stroke.

Bran­don pro­vides good con­text say­ing that “Sci­en­tists, said Graf­man, are under­stand­ing how our brains are shaped by cul­ture and envi­ron­ment, and a mech­a­nism of these changes may involve fluc­tu­a­tion in our genes them­selves, which we’re only begin­ning to under­stand”. (more on this in our post Richard Dawkins and Alfred Nobel: beyond nature and nur­ture).

And gives us some very nice quotes from Dr. Graf­man, including

  • One of the ways we dif­fer­en­ti­ate our­selves from other species is that we have a sense of future. We don’t have to have imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion.… But how far can we go into the future? How much of our brain is aimed at doing that? […]”
  • Other great apes have a frontal lobe, fairly well devel­oped, but not nearly as well devel­oped as our own. If you believe in Dar­win and evo­lu­tion, you argue that the area grew, and the neural archi­tec­ture had to change in some way to accom­mo­date the abil­i­ties asso­ci­ated with that behav­ior. There’s no doubt that didn’t occur overnight; prob­a­bly a slow change, and it was one of the last areas of the brain to develop as well. It’s very recent evo­lu­tion­ary devel­op­ment that humans took full advan­tage of. What in the future? What in the brains can change?”
  • The issue becomes — do we teach this? Train peo­ple to do this? Chil­dren tend to be self­ish, and have to be taught to share.”

The UC Berke­ley mag­a­zine Greater Good tries to answer that ques­tion with a series of arti­cles on Grat­i­tude. I espe­cially enjoyed A Les­son in Thanks, described as Psy­chol­o­gist Jef­frey Froh infused middle-school classes with a small dose of grat­i­tude and found that it made stu­dents feel more con­nected to their friends, fam­ily, and their school.”. Quotes:

  • “In our study, we fol­lowed 221 mid­dle school stu­dents for five weeks. We ran­domly assigned 11 class­rooms to one of three con­di­tions: grat­i­tude, has­sles, and a con­trol group. Stu­dents in the grat­i­tude con­di­tion were asked to record up to five things they were grate­ful for since the pre­vi­ous day.”
  • Express­ing grat­i­tude was not only asso­ci­ated with appre­ci­at­ing close rela­tion­ships; it was also related to feel­ing bet­ter about life and school. Indeed, com­pared with stu­dents in the has­sles and con­trol groups, stu­dents who counted bless­ings reported greater sat­is­fac­tion with school both imme­di­ately after the two-week exer­cise and at the three-week follow-up. They made state­ments such as: “I go to a great school,” “I am grate­ful for my edu­ca­tion, and “I am thank­ful for my aca­d­e­mics and for mak­ing the National Junior Honor Society.

Another impor­tant actor is this field of, let’s call it, “moral fit­ness”, is the Mind & Life Insti­tute: you can read some quotes from Adam Engle, one of its founders, fol­low­ing the link, such as

  • From early on it became clear that they needed to engage West­ern neu­ro­sci­en­tists in order to be cred­i­ble and become a real East-West bridge with poten­tial to reach main­stream soci­ety. You can see below a par­tial list of par­tic­i­pants in their most recent meet­ing, 2 weeks ago”
  • They are very happy that Sharon Begley’s book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain has become a non-fiction Best­seller, since it is based on one of the Mind & Life Dia­logues (more on Books on neu­ro­plas­tic­ity)”
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