Autonomic and prefrontal events during moral elevation

Biol Psychol. 2015 May;108:51-5. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.03.004. Epub 2015 Mar 23.


Moral elevation, or elevation, is a specific emotional state triggered by witnessing displays of profound virtue and moral beauty. This study set out to characterize the physiology underlying elevation with measurements of heart rate (HR), respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) activity. During elevation, HR and RSA increased. These findings illustrate that elevation involves an uncommon combination of both sympathetic and parasympathetic activation, which is present in circumstances where arousal and social engagement are both required. In addition, we show evidence of content-dependent alterations of mPFC activity during elevation peaks. Altogether, this study shows that the induction of moral elevation recruits an uncommon autonomic and neural pattern that is consistent with previous understanding of socioemotional-induced allostasis.

Keywords: Elevation; Prefrontal cortex; Prosocial; Vagal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Hemoglobins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Hemoglobins