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Wired for Elevation: A Survival Tool for Self-Improvement

The mere act of witnessing character, virtue, beauty, and truth tickles our vagus nerve, which stimulates oxytocin production and evokes in us the desire to be better people living better lives.
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Human morality grew out of disgust. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that our human aspiration for spiritual uplift actually began as an adaptation against bestiality. Aware of how disgusting our lives would be without morality, humans adapted a survival tool for self-improvement and transcending our animal nature -- at least now and then. It is the moral emotion known as elevation.

Just as we feel disgust when witnessing others (or ourselves) moving down the moral purity scale, so do we feel a corresponding, uplifting emotion when we witness others behaving in virtuous, pure, or "superhuman" ways. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who began his career researching disgust, calls this elevation.

One of several self-transcending emotions -- others are awe and admiration -- elevation is among the more mysterious gifts of the mirror neuron system in the brain, whose function is to "bring the outside inside." The mere act of witnessing character, virtue, beauty, and truth tickles our vagus nerve, which stimulates oxytocin production and evokes in us, among other empathic behaviors, the desire to be better people living better lives.

This is the power of a "vagal superstar" like Barack Obama (as he is known in neuroscientific circles) to inspire multitudes to believe in a greater vision, not of him but of themselves. Elevation is not the same as happiness. As self-centered beings, we feel happy with our selfish victories and satisfactions. Elevation transcends that sensation and corresponds to moral beauty. Individuals with high vagus nerve activity (and thus more oxytocin) appear to be better at handling stress, building community, coping with bereavement, and breaking up conflict, according to psychologist Dacher Keltner.

Elevation also differs from admiration for nonmoral excellence. When test subjects see awesome performances of death-defying feats -- think of Phillipe Petit, the lunatic Frenchman, who tightrope-walked between the towers of the World Trade Center -- they report feeling chills and tingles, whereas elevation is a calmer feeling. We feel lifted by displays of goodness, though public displays of mass elevation can piss off those resistant to it (as we saw among Obama detractors driven crazy by so much uplift). Heroism and aspiration make us aspire; witnessing courage can help make you brave; feeling hope in a world freighted with obstacles, despair, recession, and naysayers helps to make human life not only bearable but packed with potential. We say to ourselves, if they can do it, why can't we?

There is a connection between the contagion of elevation and our idolatry toward unusually selfless people. Take Oprah Winfrey, who isn't selfless but is unusually big-hearted (and encourages others to be the same way). To test the theory of elevation, Haidt and an assistant gathered forty-two lactating women together in his lab at the University of Virginia. Half of the nursing mothers watched a poignant episode of Oprah involving a rehabilitated gang member. The remaining group of nursing women spent their time watching an ordinary episode of Seinfeld. The elevation difference between these two groups was dramatic. The Oprah-watching moms overwhelmingly leaked milk into their pads (the sign of oxytocin lifting them up) and nursed their babies afterward. Hardly any of the Seinfeld watchers so much as wetted a pad. Elevation had made the Oprah mothers more generous and loving.

Elevation is not grandiosity. Vagal activity shifts our attention to connection instead of feeling superior to others -- meaning strong enough to stand alone. When we behave reassuringly toward others in an I've-been-there-too-you're-not-alone kind of way, it's the vagus nerve doing the work. By inducing feelings of similarity between people, the vagus nerve calms down our fight-or-flight impulses. We have feelings of intimate connection spurred by the sight of other people's moral goodness. This is the uplift -- and the outpouring of love -- that believers seek in churches and temples (and secularists seek in nature and art). We needed to evolve such emotions to "turn off the I switch and turn on the We," as Haidt puts it. "Powerful moments of elevation seem to push a mental reset button, erasing negative feelings and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral elevation," he writes. The collective supersedes the self, at least while we're feeling uplifted.

Wonder and awe appear to serve a similar evolutionary function to elevation. The Greeks believed that Zeus gave human beings two qualities necessary for survival: a sense of justice and a taste for reverence (or awe). Goosebumps (piloerection) are the body's response to awe, apparently, a visceral response to the sense of self-expanding beyond our physical limits to merge with the larger collective. Awe is always prompted by contact with something greater than oneself. Two conditions must be met for awe to occur: first, we must perceive something vast (physically, conceptually, or spiritually vast, or oversized by fame); and, second, the vast thing cannot be accommodated to a person's existing mental structures. Religions have been our traditional method for promoting such peak experiences, and for maximizing their ennobling powers. Atheist or believer, we all share the need for self-transcending emotions to counteract disgust.

There's a story I love about elevation. During World War II, the poet Anna Akhmatova read poetry over the radio waves of Leningrad -- where food was so scarce that human flesh was being peddled in the streets -- in a heroic attempt to help elevate her countrymen using the power of language and beauty. I picture Akhmatova in that radio station, struggling to remind the starving masses that sacredness still existed in the world. She read them poems about valor and love, and a light they had nearly forgotten, extinguished in them through suffering. Those who survived to remember this moment of courage, determination, and poetry spoke of it later in awestruck tones.