The Neurology of Disgust

Published: May 17, 2013

Growing up believing you are an abomination is strange. But, if you are gay and grew up in Kansas (or many other parts of the world) — like I did — it’s not all that uncommon. We’re told from a very young age that being gay is wrong and gross. The lesson that men who have sex with men are disgusting is repeated so frequently, your average kid quickly gets the message.

Sometimes the moral judgment is delivered directly — often times through someone with religious moral authority or family. Other times it comes more subtly through language cues. In my experience, the euphemisms for men who have sex with men seem to bleed together to form a powerful and often false identity, saying all men who have sex with men are feminine ("pansy", "fairy", "poof"), perverts ("pillow biter," "corn holer," "sword swallower"), and abominations ("queer," "bent").

There’s disagreement on the physical mechanisms for creating moral beliefs in the brain. But, I’m assuming it works the way most neuroscientists believe information is encoded in our brains — through establishing and strengthening neural pathways.

To incredibly over-simplify the process. The first time we heard "gay is disgusting" a specific set of neurons (the cells that make up our brains) lit up in a specific way. From that point forward, each time someone hears the gay-is-disgusting message that neural pathway gets reinforced. When it goes unchallenged, every repetition sears the belief into our brains.

No matter how the belief gets there, we know that specific parts of the brain activate when presented with stimuli related to a person’s ingrained moral judgments. In 2008, Dr. Schaich Borg, found that when people perceive a sexual moral transgression, activity occurs in the mPFC/PCC/TPJ network and other regions, including the inferior frontal gyrus, the left insula, the ventral and dorsal ACC, the left amygdala, and the caudate nucleus.

Many of these areas are associated with emotions. Put another way, when people say they’re disgusted by the thought of two men having sex, it’s not a thought. It’s a feeling.

After conducting further research, Dr. Jonathan Haidt discovered that moral judgments are rationalized after the emotional response. The thoughts come after the feelings. In addition, he found that even after all possible rationalizations are proven false, people continue to go with their emotions. Logic doesn’t matter; in this case, feelings rule the brain.

Understanding how moral judgments are processed is helpful, but when you’re the person being morally judged it offers little consolation.

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