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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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11 Responses

  1. Making a practice of expressing gratitude can be a wonderful way to change your life.

  2. Hi Sharpbrains folks!

    I think you’ll really enjoy this book that I’ve started reading, Why Good Things Happen to Good People….

    It’s on why gratitude, altruism, etc. are actually good for a person.


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