Find it hard to FORGIVE? Your “aSTS” may need “a fill-up”

Why do some of us find it easier to forgive?

When we feel that somebody has wronged us personally, we make a  moral judgment.  From a neuropsychological viewpoint, the act of judging a moral situation is incredibly complex and has a lot to do with intentionality – did the perpetrator really mean to do those awful things?

Making a mature moral judgment about a wrongful act involves not only considering the damage done, but also the perpetrator’s intention and mental state. When there is a clear contradiction between the two, however, intention seems to take precedence over the result of the action.

A study shows that a specific area in the brain called the anterior superior temporal sulcus (aSTS) plays a key role in forgiving those who create unintentional harm.

Indrajeet Patil, the study’s primary author, details this further and puts the new research into context:

“Behavioural studies have already shown that when the intention and outcome of an action are conflicting, as in the case of sometimes serious accidental harm, people tend to focus mainly on the intentions when formulating a judgment. And this is more or less a universal feature of mature moral judgments across cultures.”

” . . . very few studies have taken on this issue from an anatomical point of view, to gain an understanding of whether differences in the volume and structure of certain areas of the brain might explain variations in moral judgment. This research attempted to explore precisely this aspect.”

Studying the neuroanatomical basis of forgiveness

To do this, the researchers asked 50 participants to complete a moral judgement task. The volunteers were presented with 36 unique stories and four potential outcomes for each of them.

Each scenario comprised four parts:

  • Some background information
  • A foreshadowing segment, in which it was suggested that the outcome would be either neutral or harmful
  • Information on the neutral or intentionally harmful mental state of the agent
  • The consequence, which revealed the agent’s action and the resulting outcome.

“Participants read each story and were asked to give their moral judgment by answering questions regarding “acceptability” and “blame.” . . . “the participants were asked: “How morally acceptable was [the agent]’s behavior?” and “How much blame does [the agent] deserve?” The volunteers gave answers based on a scale from 1 to 7.”

“While answering the questions, the participants’ brain activity was analyzed using voxel-based morphometry – a neuroimaging technique that allows for a holistic examination of brain changes while simultaneously preserving a high degree of brain region specificity.”

“The researchers also used neuroimaging to localize the neural areas responsible for the so-called theory of mind (ToM). ToM, or “mentalizing,” is a person’s ability to correctly attribute mental states – such as beliefs, intentions, and desires – to others based on their behavior. Mentalizing also refers to the person’s ability to explain and predict other people’s behavior based on these inferences.”

People with a more developed aSTS are more inclined to forgive

The results revealed a connection between the differences in moral judgement severity about unintentional harm and the volume of the left aSTS brain region.

More specifically, the more developed the aSTS was, the less blame was attributed to the wrongdoers. “The greater the gray matter volume [in this area], the less accidental harm-doers are condemned.” 

Patil further explains the findings:

“The aSTS was already known to be involved in the ability to represent the mental states (thoughts, beliefs, desires, etc.) of others. According to our conclusions, individuals with more gray matter at aSTS are better able to represent the mental state of those responsible for actions and thus comprehend the unintentional nature of the harm. In expressing judgment they are thus able to focus on this latter aspect and give it priority over the especially unpleasant consequences of the action. For this reason, ultimately, they are less inclined to condemn it severely.”

If you find it hard to forgive, your challenge NOW is to forgive your anterior superior temporal sulcus (aSTS) for not having more grey matter.  

The researchers were led by Giorgia Silani from the University of Vienna in Austria, and the study was carried out in collaboration with scientists from Trieste University in Italy and Boston College in Massachusetts. The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

11 Simple Ways to Forgive, Heal, and Move on

“When you’ve been hurt by someone, it’s not always easy to let it go. But holding on to a grudge will only make you feel worse—and not just emotionally. Resentment can cause your blood pressure to spike and trigger the release of stress chemicals that can make you physically sick. And the truth is: It doesn’t really do any good anyway.”

“The paradox is, when you’ve been wronged, forgiveness is the only thing that provides relief from the pain. Sound like a bitter pill to swallow? Read on to learn how forgiving others (and yourself) can help you release the heavy burden of resentment and experience more freedom.”

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Forgiving by Peggy

1. Understand forgiveness

“Before you attempt to force forgiveness on your most tender hurts, consider what it is you’re asking of yourself:

  • Forgiving doesn’t mean that you condone what happened or that the perpetrator is blameless. It is making the conscious choice to release yourself from the burden, pain, and stress of holding on to resentment.
  • Forgiving doesn’t mean that you condone what happened or that the perpetrator is blameless. It is making the conscious choice to release yourself from the burden, pain, and stress of holding on to resentment.”

2. Feel your pain

“Hurts can run deep, even if at first glance they don’t seem to make a big impact. It’s important to give yourself permission to acknowledge and honor the pain that’s very real for you.”

“Notice where you feel it in your body and ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Maybe you need to feel supported, take more time, or do something kind for yourself. Allowing space for the pain in this way can help you know whether you’re ready to release it from your heart and mind.”

3. Name it

“Whether you’ve hurt yourself or have been hurt by another, allow yourself to be honest and simply name the feelings that are there. They might include guilt, grief, shame, sorrow, confusion, or anger. As you consider the act of forgiveness, any of these feelings can arise. A study at UCLA found that when you name your emotional experience it turns the volume down on your amygdala, the emotion center of the brain, and brings resources back to your pre-frontal cortex, the rational part of your brain. So, by naming the feeling you can create space and not get overwhelmed.”

4. Let it out

“Keeping hurt feelings bottled up only causes additional stress to your mind and body. Even if the memory is difficult to confront, see if you can share how you’re feeling. You can write about it in a journal or talk about it with a friend or a professional counselor. Sharing helps you expand your perspective, and perhaps even see what happened through a different lens.”

5. Flip your focus

“If possible, see if you can flip your focus from being the victim to putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. For example, consider the life the person lived that led them to this hurtful action. This is difficult to do, but remember, you’re not condoning any action. This exercise is just about trying to see that, as humans, we are deeply impacted by our own traumas and life experiences, which greatly inform how we show up and act in the world. If you are able to do this, compassion naturally tends to flow from this more understanding perspective.

6. Take action (start small)

“Whether you are forgiving yourself or another person, taking action can help to facilitate healing and make you feel more empowered. It’s best to start with smaller misdeeds to get into practice and feel what’s possible. . . .  Having an uncomfortable conversation can be difficult and even scary, but often a sense of empowerment emerges from the self-compassionate action of listening to yourself and doing something that supports you.”

7. Remember, you’re not the first or last

“When you’ve been hurt, it’s common to feel like you’re the only one who has ever been wronged in this way. In fact, it’s likely that this transgression (or something similar to it) has been made many, maybe even millions of times before throughout human history. Making mistakes is part of our shared human experience. Remembering you are not alone in experiencing this kind of pain can help to loosen your grip on your resentment.”

8. Have patience; forgiveness is a practice

Forgiveness isn’t a quick-fix solution. It’s a process, so be patient with yourself. With smaller transgressions, forgiveness can happen pretty quickly, but with the larger ones, it can take years. As you begin with the smaller misdeeds and then move onto the harder ones, be kind to yourself, take deep breaths, and continue on.”

9. Stop blaming

“We all know it can feel good now and again to complain to a friend—misery loves company, right? Well, not exactly. Researcher Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong, says, “Blaming is a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” It gives us a false sense of control but inevitably keeps the negativity kicking around in our minds, increasing our stress and eroding our relationships.”

10. Practice more mindfulness

“A recent study surveyed 94 adults who had been cheated on by their partners, and found a correlation between traits of mindfulness and forgiveness. In other words, it can be said that the more you practice mindfulness, the more you strengthen your capacity for forgiveness.”

11. Find meaning and strength through your pain

“As you practice working with the pain that’s there, you grow key strengths of self-compassion, courage, and empathy that inevitably make you stronger in every way. As psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, even in the most horrific and painful circumstances, we have the freedom to create meaning in life, which is a powerful healing agent.”

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Forgiven by Peggy


Try this short practice once a day and feel your forgiveness muscles growing.

  1. Think of someone who has caused you pain (to start, maybe not the person who has hurt you most) and you’re holding a grudge against.
  2. Visualize the time you were hurt by this person and feel the pain you still carry.
  3. Hold tightly to your unwillingness to forgive.
  4. Observe what emotion is present. Is it anger, resentment, sadness?
  5. Use your body as a barometer and notice physically what you feel. Are you tense anywhere, or do you feel heavy?
  6. Next, bring awareness to your thoughts; are they hateful, spiteful, or something else?
  7. Really feel this burden associated with the hurt that lives inside you, and ask yourself: “Who is suffering? Have I carried this burden long enough?  Am I willing to forgive?”
  8. If the answer is no, that’s OK. Some wounds need more time than others to heal.
  9. If you are ready to let it go now, silently repeat: “Breathing in, I acknowledge the pain. Breathing out, I am forgiving and releasing this burden from my heart and mind.”

Continue this process for as long as it feels supportive to you.

“Not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Mindful magazine,








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