New Paper: Neural Underpinnings of Inspiration Elicited by Exceptional Role Models


September 2018.

Moral elevation is the feeling that results when observing another person engaging in exceptionally moral (e.g., selfless) behaviour. People usually report feeling inspired and uplifted, and we previously showed that these feelings lead to increased helping (Schnall, Fessler & Roper, 2010; Schnall & Roper, 2012). Our latest paper investigated the complex interplay of gaze patterns, construal level, and brain activation during the experience of moral elevation.

We found that when considering morally uplifting (but not skilful) stimuli, people avert their gaze and verbalize abstract construals: They “zoom out” from immediate context. The more they avert gaze, the greater is the activation in dorsal-posterior cingulate cortex (dPCC), an area involved in visual attention control. Furthermore, abstract construals were associated with greater activity in inferior-posterior posteromedial cortices (ipPMC), which forms part of the default mode network. Importantly, dPCC and ipPMC activation sequentially mediated relationship between people’s gaze and abstract construal. These findings suggest that when people think about examples of moral virtue, dPCC activity encourages “zooming out”, which in turn facilitates ipPMC activity and big-picture thinking.

Yang., X. F., Pavarini, G., Schnall, S., & Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2018). Looking up to virtue: Averting gaze facilitates moral construals via posteromedial activations. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 13, 1131-1139.