The Moral Affiliations of Disgust: A Functional MRI Study


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Abstract

Recent investigations in cognitive neuroscience have shown that ordinary human behavior is guided by emotions that are uniquely human in their experiential and interpersonal aspects. These “moral emotions” contribute importantly to human social behavior and derive from the neurobehavioral reorganization of the basic plan of emotions that pervade mammalian life. Disgust is one prototypic emotion with multiple domains that include viscerosomatic reaction patterns and subjective experiences linked to (a) the sensory properties of a class of natural stimuli, (b) a set of aversive experiences and (c) a unique mode of experiencing morality. In the current investigation, we tested the hypotheses that (a) the experience of disgust devoid of moral connotations (“pure disgust”) can be subjectively and behaviorally differentiated from the experience of disgust disguised in the moral emotion of “indignation” and that (b) pure disgust and indignation may have partially overlapping neural substrates. Thirteen normal adult volunteers were investigated with functional magnetic resonance imaging as they read a series of statements depicting scenarios of pure disgust, indignation, and neutral emotion. After the scanning procedure, they assigned one basic and one moral emotion to each stimulus from an array of six basic and seven moral emotions. Results indicated that (a) emotional stimuli may evoke pure disgust with or without indignation, (b) these different aspects of the experience of disgust could be elicited by a set of written statements, and (c) pure disgust and indignation recruited both overlapping and distinct brain regions, mainly in the frontal and temporal lobes. This work underscores the importance of the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortices in moral judgment and in the automatic attribution of morality to social events. Human disgust encompasses a variety of emotional experiences that are ingrained in frontal, temporal, and limbic networks.

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