Thank you message in the grotto of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church; added by those for whom prayer or miracles were granted/Wikipedia photo by Infrogmation

Understanding gratitude neurons


By Kimberly Burnham

Kimberly Burnham
Kimberly Burnham

The late fall is a time when Americans tend to focus on gratitude and the things and people we are grateful for. Today I am asking myself, “How mindful are you of the food on your table and the people you share this season with? Who is in your life that you wish to express your gratitude to? What challenges have you successfully overcome this year?”

Two years ago I spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with family. Last year I spent it in Denver with my sister. This year I am spending it in Spokane with family. Two years ago I could not have predicted how my life would change, how I would have the chance to bicycle across the United States taking in the beauty of this land. I could not have predicted that I would move to Spokane. I am grateful for an amazing life and so much love.

Sometimes that feeling of gratitude comes out of religious observance, what we learn in a house of worship, sometimes it comes from a sense of something greater than ourselves like God or the universe, a lake or a community. Gratitude can be a perspective, a way of life, or an attitude. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, the most important decision you ever make is whether you live in a friendly universe or a hostile universe — in a positive universe or a negative universe.

I see a positive and supportive universe and am grateful for my health, friends, and family and perhaps most of all the ability to see the beauty and love around me. The interesting thing about gratitude is that it can reflect a perspective and it can also contribute to a greater sense of well being and health.

Researchers in a 2014 study among people with multiple sclerosis and psychiatric disorders published in Health Quality Life Outcomes  noted, “Feelings of gratitude and awe facilitate perceptions and cognitions that go beyond the focus of illness and include positive aspects of one’s personal and interpersonal reality, even in the face of disease.” A. Bussing and A. G. Wirth went on to say, “Gratitude/Awe could be regarded as a life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in life—despite the symptoms of disease. Positive spirituality/religiosity seems to be a source of gratitude and appreciation in life, whereas patients with neither spiritual nor religious sentiments seem to have a lower awareness for these feelings.”

How is your life and health regulated by gratitude?

In Nature Reviews Neuroscience famed mind-body expert Antonio Damasio from The Brain and Creativity Institute noted the importance and connection between feelings and body states saying, “Feelings are mental experiences of body states. They signify physiological need (for example, hunger), tissue injury (for example, pain), optimal function (for example, well-being), threats to the organism (for example, fear or anger) or specific social interactions (for example, compassion, gratitude or love). Feelings constitute a crucial component of the mechanisms of life regulation, from simple to complex. Their neural substrates [nerves] can be found at all levels of the nervous system, from individual neurons to subcortical nuclei [for example the limbic system] and cortical regions [for example the cognitive center or frontal lobe].

Are your brain cells and nerves grateful today and year round? What body states are you feeling and regulating, with your perspective?

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