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The Neurology of Giving Thanks

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By Dr. Mark Force, DC 

The Gift of Thanksgiving 

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks and to have a appreciation and gratitude for all that we have in our lives that we want. Part of the sweetness of Thanksgiving is our opportunity to share appreciation and gratitude and give thanks for the blessings of life with friends and family. A time that we can come together as family and friends and community and share an intimate gratitude and goodwill. 

We know that Thanksgiving can feel good in very deep and gratifying ways. But, is there more? How does appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving benefit us beyond putting us in a good mood? What is the neurology of thanksgiving? As it turns out, savoring the feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and thanksgiving has some very profound effects on how our brain and body functions, improves our health and well-being, reinforces social values, determines what we experience in life, and even leads to how successful we are in achieving our vision for our life.

The Reticular Activating System 

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a part of the brain stem (the transitional area between the brain and spinal cord). The RAS controls wakefulness, arousal, motivation, sexual activity, circadian rhythm (melatonin regulates activity of the RAS), respiration, cardiac rhythm, and other essential body functions.  

General anesthetics work through inhibiting the RAS, as do many psychoactive drugs. Damage to the RAS can result in permanent coma. Dysregulation of the RAS can result in hypervigilance, an over-amplified response to stressors in the environment, anxiety, and panic disorder and may play a role in autism.  It has been proposed that the RAS plays a critical role in memory and dysfunction or damage to the RAS may cause dementias, including Alzheimer’s.

The RAS plays a critical role in consciousness. It is generally assumed that the RAS’s role in consciousness is not in regard to the generation of consciousness, which seems to be a higher cortical (brain) function, but rather as a gatekeeper as to what sensory information reaches the frontal cortex where consciousness (self and general awareness) seems to generate. In this way, the RAS mediates selective attention and perceptual awareness.  Research indicates that the frontal cortex and higher cortical functions determine how the RAS is “programmed” to filter sensory information and control what sensory information from our nervous system reaches those parts of the brain where we are aware.

In the paper, Creating Joy, I covered the process of creating a self-determined life, in accord with your nature and values, that naturally brings you joy. Essential to creating the self-determined life are conscious and constant focus on a reasonable vision, consistent and disciplined action, and congruence of thought, feeling, speech, and action with your vision. So part of the process is focusing very intently and repeatedly on a desired outcome using all of your senses and anchoring your intentions into your consciousness with strong, positive emotions.

This is a very effective means of “programming” and conditioning the RAS to give priority to any information from your environment that has any possible connection to the vision that you have imprinted upon it. In effect, you have given the RAS orders to preferentially filter anything from the sum of your experiential environment that supports you experiencing your vision. As a result, after using this practice conscientiously and consistently over some time, most people will begin to experience connections, become aware of fortuitous circumstances, meet people with whom they can form mutually beneficial alliances, and find that their environment seems to be supporting the materialization of their vision. And, if your vision is big enough, inspiring enough, and achieving the vision will be beneficial to many, you will likely experience that others will resonate with and support the vision becoming manifest and, possibly, you will eventually experience crystallization of a group of people willing to act in support of your vision becoming true.

This phenomenon goes by various names, but a very common one is the “law of attraction.” Many people attach mystical and magical mechanisms and meaning to this phenomenon and some research has actually shown that mental intention alone may influence physical reality.  But, the real magic is in how complex, gifted, inspired, and powerful the mind can be once it is directed effectively. 

Using Appreciation, Gratitude, and Thanksgiving Effectively 

When you experience appreciation and gratitude and practice thanksgiving, you reinforce the RAS to filter more effectively in order to concentrate the triggers from the environment that recreate those states that produce the experience of appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving. You have trained your brain to find anything in your environment that your mind has told it will trigger you to have more appreciation and gratitude and practice thanksgiving. So, practicing thanksgiving and having gratitude and appreciation for anything that you have experienced that you like and desire and want more of in your life reinforces your nervous system to farm the world around you for you to have more of what will cause you to be grateful, thankful, and appreciative.

This is how to use your mind to experience the “law of attraction.” Be grateful, appreciative, and thankful by thinking of those things that cause you to feel these positive emotions. These relationships, people, experiences, events, or material objects could be from the present, past, or envisioned future.

Essentially, you’re telling your RAS to recreate the internal emotional state you have created and your RAS to cull from the world around you anything and anyone that will fulfill that conditioning. So, indulge in thanksgiving and you will have more cause to be thankful; practice gratitude and you will experience more to be grateful for; be appreciative and you will receive reinforcement for your appreciation. 

Suggested Reading 

Think and Grow Rich (Napoleon Hill)

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Sharon Begley)

The Heartmath Solution (Doc Lew Childre) 

A Note of Thanks 

Thanks to Robert Dixon, a fine and thoughtful man, who made the initial connection between gratitude and reinforcement of RAS conditioning during a lecture I was giving on the process of creating joy in September of 2009. 

Just be. Being is enough. 

About Dr. Mark Force:

Dr. Mark Force, DCDr. Force has been practicing natural health care since 1984. He is the founder of The Elements of Health and author of Choosing Health: Dr. Force’s Functional Selfcare Workbook. Dr. Force is a certified diplomate and teacher for the International College of Applied Kinesiology and the International Academy of Medical Acupuncture and has published research papers, helped develop nutritional formulas, and been a technical contributor for manuals on interpretation of laboratory tests and clinical nutritional protocols

For more info visit:http://www.theelementsofhealth.com/

8711 E. Pinnacle Peak Scottsdale, Arizona 85255 480-563-4256

 

Endnotes 

1 Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J and Atkins S (2009) Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. J Psychosom Res 66, 43-48.

2 Zahn R, Moll J, Paiva M, Garrido G, Krueger F, Huey ED and Grafman J (2009) The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI. Cereb Cortex 19, 276-283.

3 Rozanski A and Kubzansky LD (2005) Psychologic functioning and physical health: a paradigm of flexibility. Psychosom Med 67 Suppl 1, S47-S53.

4 Emmons RA and McCullough ME (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol 84, 377-389.

5 McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tiller WA, Rein G and Watkins AD (1995) The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability . Am J Cardiol 76, 1089-1093.

6 McCraty R, Barrios-Choplin B, Rozman D, Atkinson M and Watkins AD (1998) The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 33, 151-170.

7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reticular_activating_system

8 Kinomura S, Larsson J, Gulyás B and Roland PE (1996) Activation by attention of the human reticular formation and thalamic intralaminar nuclei. Science 271, 512-515. The Elements of Health… …functional & natural healthcare Scottsdale, Arizona, USA theelementsofhealth.com

9 Buchwald JS, Erwin R, Van Lancker D, Guthrie D, Schwafel J and Tanguay P (1992) Midlatency auditory evoked responses: P1 abnormalities in adult autistic subjects. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 84, 164-171.

10 Drake ME, Phillips BB and Pakalnis A (1991) Auditory evoked potentials in borderline personality disorder. Clin Electroencephalogr 22, 188-192.

11 Arendt T (1991) [Syndrome of partial cholinergic deafferentation of the cortical mantle–a concept for describing the brain-behavior relationship in dementia diseases]. Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr 59, 81-91.

12 Turner BH and Knapp ME (1995) Consciousness: a neurobiological approach. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 30, 151-156.

13 Petty PG (1996) Consciousness. J Clin Neurosci 3, 16-20.

14 Newman J (1995) Thalamic contributions to attention and consciousness. Conscious Cogn 4, 172-193.

15 Heilman KM (1997) The neurobiology of emotional experience. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 9, 439-448.

16 There is an interesting video that demonstrates this phenomenon called The Awareness Test on the web. You will most likely experience the RAS’s ability to control selective attention and perceptual awareness while viewing the video.

17 You can download the Creating Joy PDF from the Newsletter archives on The Elements of Health website.

18 Wholeness and the Implicate Order (David Bohm)

19 Conscious Acts of Creation (William Tiller)

20 Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab 

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