Slate reports that psychologists at UC Berkeley have been using Barack Obama’s speeches (among other stimuli) to study the causes and effects of a previously neglected emotional realm, dubbed “elevation.” Jonathan Chaidt of the University of Virginia, who coined the term, describes it thusly:

Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.

It’s that sense of transport, that lump in the throat, that great oratory can evoke. It is, almost literally, an uplifting feeling.

Done badly, it rings hollow and artificial, and only serves to affirm our cynicism. Done well, however, it appeals to something deep within us.

Scientifically speaking, apparently it involves the hormone oxytocin stimulating the vagus nerve. People with high vagus nerve activity, says Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner,

…respond to stress with calmness and resilience, they build networks, break up conflicts, they’re more cooperative, they handle bereavement better.

Needless to say, this sounds precisely like what we (at least most of us) look for in leaders, and what we aspire to ourselves.

It’s not only aspirational. The researchers says it’s related to our sense of awe, the sort that might be triggered by looking at the Grand Canyon, or watching Michael Jordan play basketball, or contemplating the vast sweep of history, or reading a particularly mind-expanding piece of science fiction. And in any or all of these cases, to someone not participating in the moment, it can seem faintly ridiculous. But it appears to be an important part of what makes us self-aware creatures—and perhaps more importantly, social ones, capable of something as audacious as civilization.

One important caveat—the elevated emotional state doesn’t necessarily drive changes in behavior:

Haidt’s research shows that elevation is good at provoking a desire to make a difference but not so good at motivating real action. But he says the elevation effect is powerful nonetheless. “It does appear to change people cognitively; it opens hearts and minds to new possibilities. This will be crucial for Obama.”

A cynic might conclude that it’s a trait that could even make (at least some of) us actually more docile, more susceptible to manipulation by leaders. However, it’s important to note that research into this state is fairly limited thus far, and behavioral effects that are subtle or indirect may not yet have been discovered.

On the brighter side, however, as online commenter Geoffrey Scott notes, it explains the sense of inspiration we get not only from uplifting real-world leaders but from heroic figures even in fiction—King Arthur, Robin Hood, Superman. And as such it relates to core tenets of Enlightenment humanism. It points the way toward improving the world we all share. It leaves us wanting to be better than we are.

Even writer Grant Morrison, whose recent work I haven’t hesitated to criticize, recognizes the importance of this aspect of his creative work, and in particular his recent run on All-Star Superman:

I see Superman in this series as an Enlightenment figure, a Renaissance idea of the ideal man, perfect in mind, body and intention. …

[Humanist thinking tells] us that human beings have the unique ability, even the responsibility, to live up to their ‘ideals’. …we constantly look to role models and behavioral templates for guidance, even when those role models are fictional TV or, comic, novel or movie heroes, just like the soft, quick, shapeshifty little things we are. We can alter the clothes we wear, the temperature around us, and change even our own bodies, in order to colonize or occupy previously hostile environments. We are, in short, a distinctively malleable and adaptable bunch. …

We live in the stories we tell ourselves. It’s really simple. We can continue to tell ourselves and our children that the species we belong to is a crawling, diseased, viral cancer smear, only fit for extinction, and let’s see where that leads us.

…or we can own up to the scientific fact that we are all physically connected as parts of a single giant organism, imagine better ways to live and grow…and then put them into practice. We can stop pissing about, start building starships, and get on with the business of being adults.

Notwithstanding the odd bit about a “single giant organism” (hey, it’s Morrison), he’s onto something here. We’re talking about an emotional state that can open us to new ideas, can inspire us to be the best, most rational, most ethical human beings we can be. It connects our hearts to our heads.

That’s why I’m a philosophical humanist. That’s why I’ve always loved Superman, and science fiction. And that’s why I admire Obama. It all links up.

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2 Responses to “Elevation, from politics to popular fiction”
  1. Andrew says:

    Many things can change this way … going from one to another in a matter of days, some are upgraded while others suffer the exact opposite!

  2. phil from new york says:

    “The researchers says it’s related to our sense of awe, the sort that might be triggered by . . . watching Michael Jordan play basketball . . . . ”

    Not if you were a Knicks fan.

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