And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Mathew 6:12 NASV)
Forgiving was a key tenet of Jesus’ teaching. For years, people treated it as purely a religious exercise, but now therapists and psychologists are understanding its importance and have embraced forgiveness as a vital counseling tool.
This led researchers in England to take a closer look at forgiveness from a scientific perspective. They found evidence forgiving others may be a key to restoring good mental health.
Researchers at the University of Sheffield Cognition and Neuroimaging Laboratory (SCANLab) — based in Sheffield, England — scanned people’s’ minds to gain a better understanding of the forgiveness process.
People use different parts of their brain to process specific activities — such as talking or hearing. When that happens the areas used need more blood. Through the use of scanners, scientists can detect this increase blood flow revealing which areas of the brain a person is using. Some refer to it as hot spots, as they appear as bright areas on the scan.
For their study, Farrow and his associates scanned volunteers’ brains as they read stories involving forgiveness. They specifically analyzed the brain patterns of three different groups:
- a mentally fit group;
- a group with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); and
- a third group with Schizophrenia.
The Healthy Group
In the first stage, they scanned the brains of the healthy people who served as the template. They noticed forgiveness was a complex process involving multiple areas of the brain.
Farrow speculated that since forgiveness is a highly emotional activity, the brain required different components to process it. He suggested one area made moral judgments on the offending person’s intentions, another empathized with the guilty party (understood their reasons) and other areas determined how forgivable the offense was.
Farrow also noticed there was a consistent pattern of brain activity in each person. This suggested forgiveness was not a random process but rather produces a predictable pattern of events.
Scans of the troubled groups
In the next stage, they repeated the procedure with people with PTSD and Schizophrenia.
After these individuals read the forgiveness narratives, both groups showed normalized brain patterns consistent with those of the healthy group particularly in “feeling empathy” and “making moral judgments.”
The only area of the brain where the change was not as pronounced — though there was an improvement — was in the area governing “forgiveness judgments.”
In fact, the brain scans for the PTSD group mimicked patterns of people with similar problems who had benefited from therapy. This suggested forgiveness is possibly an important step to restoring mental health.
- The gift of mercy and why it pays by Adrian Humphrey (National Post: May 12, 2007)
- First study to watch brain patterns when forgiving (www.innovations-report.de)