Science Reveals a Crucial Difference In Your Brain on Thanksgiving vs. Black Friday

Science Reveals a Crucial Difference In Your Brain on Thanksgiving vs. Black Friday
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Getty Images

Thanksgiving can be a beautiful holiday, full of tradition, friends and family, not to mention forkfuls of turkey thigh and apple pie so high that taking another bite can feel like an act of pure and glorious masochism.

So it's unfortunate that the holiday has been co-opted by an uglier one: Black Friday. It's a strange juxtaposition to follow up a day of thanks with one of greed, but like with everything we do, we wouldn't do it unless our brains rewarded us. Our brains reward us when we feel gratitude on Thanksgiving, as they do when we purchase items on sale on Black Friday.

But there's one key difference with the way our brains reward us on Black Friday versus Thanksgiving: While discount-diving incites pleasure, it comes in the form of a fleeting rush. The act of gratitude, however, causes a deeper emotional response that may actually last longer.

Your brain on buying

In a 2007 fMRI study, neuromarketing scientists found the brain's pleasure center lit up when people anticipated making purchases. Purchasing items at a price we consider a bargain, other research has shown, gets us even more excited than buying in general, activating the amygdala, a brain region involved in anxiety and fear responses. So when we see a sign for 50% off, our emotions actually flare up and we react without thinking — nearly the opposite effect of giving thanks, which sparks careful reflection.


Credit: YouTube via NBC

Why can't people who, just a day prior, were acting in a conscientious manner resist joining a crowd?

Herd mentality is incredibly persuasive. It only takes 5% of a crowd to rile up the other 95%. Decades of behavioral research suggests that anonymity plays a big role in poor group behavior, according to Harvard neuroscientist Mina Cikara. When we join a crowd, we tend to shirk samaritan duties, assuming someone else will step up (Kitty Genovese being the classic psych 101 example). We also justify loosening our own moral standards when we see everyone else acting like brutes — it's called pluralistic ignorance, said Cikara.

"Groups can be very positive too," Cikara told Mic. "If everyone around you is giving to charity, you'll give to charity. But on Black Friday, what you have is people coming together already prepared to claw each others' eyes out for a TV."

Your brain on gratitude

Scientists first used fMRI to study gratitude in 2008. Researchers roughly defined gratitude as feelings regarding someone else's behavior towards you, when you deem that behavior socially valuable.

By measuring brain activity of participants experiencing different emotions, researchers found that gratitude, like other complex emotions, causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions involving social concepts, emotional responses, logic and sensory processing. But gratitude also lights up parts of the brain's reward pathway and the hypothalamus, which controls the release of hormones that regulate bodily processes.

Basically, thinking about other people doing nice things brought on warm feelings and sparked brain activity critical to sleep, orgasms, mood regulation and metabolism.

Those warm feelings are more complex than the feelings of simple pleasure — like those you get on Black Friday — alone.

Despite the claim plastered all over the Internet that gratitude triggers a dopamine release (often described as the key signal of simple pleasure), several scientists told Mic they weren't aware of research that specifically established a dopamine-gratitude connection, and that with gratitude, it really is more complex.

"In our view," said Roland Zahn, a psychiatrist at King's College London who led the 2008 fMRI study, "there is not one reward system, but there are different types of rewarding emotional ingredients represented in different subcortical areas [in response to gratitude]. One important ingredient of gratitude is feeling attached to others."

Similarly, Glenn R. Fox, a neuroscience postdoc at the University of Southern California, said he's found that gratitude involves multiple brain regions beyond those involved with "rewarding" aspects of recognizing a benefit, including areas associated with perspective-taking, self-referential processing and moral awareness. The medial prefrontal cortex in particular receives input from the reward center (nucleus accumbens), but also does a lot more.

"[The medial prefrontal cortex] is heavily involved in processing other people's mind states, and is recruited for thinking about moral dilemmas," said Fox. "We know that gratitude is a moral and social emotion, so this result makes sense; we just need a lot more research to learn how different neurotransmitters and circuits contribute to it."

Years of psychology research back up the neuroscience findings. In a seminal 2003 study, scientists saw the benefits of simply writing down what you're grateful for. After 10 weeks, people who kept a gratitude journal were more optimistic, had fewer physical ailments and exercised more than people who wrote down things that annoyed them.

Other psychology studies have linked gratitude to reduced depression and increased personal well-being across different measures. Scientists have even explored gratitude as a direct antidote to materialism.

In short: Gratitude consistently corresponds to personal benefits, e.g., balanced moods and better sleep, and heightens our awareness of moral behavior. Overall, that's a pretty deep impact compared to the short-lived high from shopping.

"It might be that gratitude is different [from other thrills, like riding a roller coaster or shopping], not in whether it uses different reward systems in the brain, but in whether we have access to a potential reward all the time," said University of Oregon psychologist Christina Karns. "In other words, practicing gratitude might mean that you have your reward fix in your pocket all the time."

So this holiday, as you're faced with flash sales and bargain prices, just remember: The best deal may be simply to think about the people in your life, and give thanks.

GE Scientists and Mic are partnering to share the latest advances in brain research and technology through BrainMic, a Spotlight Series that explores the universe in our heads, now through December 2014. Click here to read more from this series on BrainMic >>