Higher Ground

What clinicians should know about the "vertical dimension"

Magazine Issue
January/February 2006
Higher Ground

Our life is the creation of our minds, and we do much of that creating with metaphor. We see new things in terms of things we already understand: life is a journey, an argument is a war, personal growth is flowering. With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind.

The metaphor that has most helped me to understand morality, religion, and the human quest for meaning is Flatland, a charming book written in 1884 by the English novelist and mathematician Edwin Abbot. Flatland is a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are all geometric figures. The protagonist is a square. One day the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plane—in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then re-entering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness, in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the North. The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square still finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.

In desperation, the sphere yanks the square up out of Flatland and into the third dimension, so that the square can look down on his world and see it all at once. He can see the inside of all the houses and the guts (insides) of all the inhabitants. The square recalls the experience:

An unspeakable horror seized me. There was darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing; I saw space that was not space: I was myself, and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, “Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.” I looked, and, behold, a new world!

The square is awestruck. He prostrates himself before the sphere and becomes the sphere’s disciple. Upon his return to Flatland, he struggles to preach the “Gospel of Three Dimensions” to his fellow two-dimensional creatures—but in vain.

We are all, in some way, the square before his enlightenment. We have all encountered something that we failed to understand, yet that we smugly believed we understood because we couldn’t even conceive of the dimension to which we were blind. Then one day something happens that makes no sense in our two-dimensional world, and we catch our first glimpse of another dimension. My claim is that the human mind perceives a third dimension, a specifically moral dimension that I will call “divinity.” I am not assuming that God exists and is there to be perceived. Rather, my research on the moral emotions has led me to conclude that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists. This is an ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not: that by our actions and our thoughts, we move up and down on a vertical dimension. An implication of this truth is that we are impoverished as human beings when we lose sight of this dimension and let our world collapse down to two dimensions. A further implication is that psychotherapists, who work hard to help people grow, may benefit from understanding this third dimension, on which many people are struggling to grow, whether they know it or not.

Disgust and the Ethic of Divinity

I am a social psychologist. I study the moral emotions, and the first emotion I worked on in graduate school was the emotion of disgust. Disgust is fascinating: it clearly evolved to be a guardian of the mouth, to protect us from eating foods that may be contaminated by dangerous bacteria and parasites. But then why does disgust play an important role in so many religions? Why is there so much legislation in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and most traditional societies about issues of “purity and pollution”—issues such as menstruation, food, bathing, disease, and the handling of corpses? My collaborators Paul Rozin and Rick McCauley developed a theory that took seriously the culturally widespread use of disgust as a social regulator, and we posited that disgust has become in part a guardian of the “soul,” of the human sense of being special, and different from other animals. It is as though there is a vertical dimension of social cognition, in which the animals are below us and the gods are above. Disgust happens whenever we see someone blur the lower boundary of the category of humanity. We turn away in disgust, and refer to people who disgust us as beasts, animals, or monsters. This vertical dimension was perfectly captured by the seventeenth-century New England Puritan Cotton Mather, who observed a dog urinating at the same time he himself was urinating. Overwhelmed with disgust at the vileness of his own urination, Mather wrote this resolution in his diary: “Yet I will be a more noble creature; and at the very time when my natural necessities debase me into the condition of the beast, my spirit shall (I say at that very time!) rise and soar.”

After graduate school, I spent two years working with Richard Shweder, a cultural psychologist at the University of Chicago. Shweder does his research in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, on the Bay of Bengal. Shweder’s research shows that when people think about morality, their moral concepts cluster into three groups, which he calls the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity. When people think in terms of the ethic of autonomy, their goal is to protect individuals from harm and grant them the maximum degree of autonomy, which they can use to pursue their own goals. When people think using the ethic of community, their goal is to protect the integrity of groups, families, companies, or nations, and they value virtues such as obedience, loyalty, and wise leadership. When people think in terms of the ethic of divinity, their goal is to protect from degradation the divinity that exists in each person, and they value living in a pure and holy way, free from moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred.

To learn more about the ethic of divinity, I went to India for three months in 1993, to interview priests, monks, and other “experts” on Hindu worship and practice. When I arrived in Bhubaneswar, I quickly found that the ethic of divinity is not just ancient history. Even though Bhubaneswar is physically flat, it has a highly variable spiritual topography with peaks at each of its hundreds of temples. As a non-Hindu, I was allowed into the courtyards of temple compounds; and if I took off my shoes and any leather items (leather is polluting), I could usually enter the antechamber of the temple building. I could look into the inner sanctum where the god was housed, but had I crossed the threshold to join the Brahmin priest within, I would have polluted it and offended everyone. Hindu homes had the same concentric structure as the temples: leave your shoes at the door, socialize in the outer rooms, but never go into the kitchen or the room or area where offerings are made to deities. These two areas are maintained as zones of the highest purity. Even the human body has peaks and valleys: the head and the right hand are pure, while the left hand and the feet are polluted. As I moved around Bhubaneswar, I felt like a square in Spaceland, trying to navigate a three-dimensional world with only the dimmest perception of its third dimension.

The interviews I conducted helped me to see a little better. My main goal was to find out whether purity and pollution were really just about keeping biological “necessities” separate from divinity, or whether these practices had a deeper relationship to virtue and morality. For many of the people I interviewed, purity and pollution practices were really just means to the end of spiritual and moral advancement. For example, when I asked why it was important to guard one’s purity, the headmaster of a Sanskrit school (a school that trains religious scholars) responded in this way: “We ourselves can be gods or demons. It depends on karma. If a person behaves like a demon, for example he kills someone, then that person is truly a demon. A person who behaves in a divine manner, because a person has divinity in him, he is like a god. We should know that we are gods. If we think like gods we become like gods, if we think like demons we become like demons.”

The headmaster, who of course had not read Shweder, gave a perfect statement of the ethic of divinity. Purity is not just about the body, it is about the soul. If you know that you have divinity in you, you will act accordingly: you will treat people well, and you will treat your body as a temple. In so doing, you will accumulate good karma, and you will come back in your next life at a higher level—literally higher on the vertical dimension of divinity. If you lose sight of your divinity, you will give in to your baser motives. In so doing, you will accumulate bad karma, and in your next incarnation you will return at a lower level—as an animal or a demon. This linkage of virtue, purity, and divinity is not uniquely Indian; Ralph Waldo Emerson said exactly the same thing: “He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God.”

Sacred Intrusions

When I returned to Flatland (the United States), I didn’t have to think about purity and pollution anymore. Yet once I had learned to see in three dimensions, I saw glimmers of divinity scattered all about. I began to feel disgust at the American practice of marching around one’s own house—even one’s bedroom—wearing the same shoes that, minutes earlier, had walked through city streets. I adopted the Indian practice of removing my shoes at my door, and asking visitors to do likewise, which made my apartment feel more like a sanctuary, a clean and peaceful space separated more fully than before from the outside world. I began to notice the language of “higher” and “lower” that people used to talk about morality. I became aware of my own subtle feelings upon witnessing people behaving in sleazy or “degraded” ways, feelings that were more than just disapproval; they were feelings of having been brought “down” in some way myself.

In my academic work, I discovered that the ethic of divinity had been central to public discourse in the United States up until the time of the First World War, after which it began to fade. For example, advice aimed at young people in the Victorian era routinely spoke of purity and pollution. In a widely reprinted book from 1897 entitled What a Young Man Ought to Know, Sylvanus Stall devoted an entire chapter to “personal purity” in which he noted that: “God has made no mistake in giving man a strong sexual nature, but any young man makes a fatal mistake if he allows the sexual to dominate, to degrade, and to destroy that which is highest and noblest in his nature.” To guard their purity, Stall advised young men to avoid eating pork, masturbating, and reading novels. By the 1936 edition, this entire chapter was removed.

But as science, technology, and the industrial age progressed, the Western world became “desacralized.” At least that’s the argument made by the great historian of religion Mircea Eliade. In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade shows that the perception of sacredness is a human universal. Regardless of their differences, all religions have places (temples, shrines, holy trees), times (holy days, sunrise, solstices), and activities (prayer, special dancing) that allow for contact or communication with something otherworldly and pure. In order to mark off sacredness, all other times, places, and activities are defined as profane (ordinary, not sacred). The borders between the sacred and the profane must be carefully guarded, and that’s what rules of purity and pollution are all about. Eliade says that the modern West is the first culture in human history that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world. It is this world that religious fundamentalists find unbearable, and are sometimes willing to use force to fight against.

Eliade’s most compelling point, for me, is that sacredness is so irrepressible that it intrudes repeatedly into the modern profane world in the form of “crypto-religious” behavior. Eliade noted that even a person committed to a profane existence has “privileged places, qualitatively different from all others—a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the “holy places” of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.”

When I read this, I gasped. Eliade had perfectly pegged my feeble spirituality, limited as it is to places, books, people, and events that have given me moments of uplift and enlightenment. Even atheists like me have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature. We just don’t infer that God caused those feelings.

Elevation and Love

My time in India did not make me religious, but it did lead to an awakening. Shortly after moving to the University of Virginia in 1995, I was writing yet another article on how social disgust is triggered when we see people moving “down” on the vertical dimension of divinity. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had never really thought about the emotional reaction to seeing people move “up.” I had referred in passing to the feeling of being “uplifted,” but had never even wondered whether “uplift” is a real, honest-to-goodness emotion. I began to interrogate friends, family, and students. I found that most people had the same feelings I did, and the same difficulty articulating exactly what they were. People talked about an open, warm, or glowing feeling. Some specifically mentioned the heart. Some people mentioned feelings of chills, or of getting choked up. Most people said that this feeling made them want to do good deeds themselves or become a better person in some way. Whatever this feeling was, it was beginning to look like an emotion worthy of study. Yet there was no research of any kind on this emotion in the psychological literature.

If I believed in God, I would believe that he sent me to the University of Virginia for a reason. At UVA a great deal of crypto-religious activity centers around Thomas Jefferson, our founder, whose home sits like a temple on a small mountaintop (Monticello) a few miles away. Jefferson wrote the holiest text of American history—the Declaration of Independence. He also wrote thousands of letters, many of which reveal his views on psychology, education, and religion. After arriving at UVA, having an Eliade-style crypto-religious experience at Monticello, and committing myself to the cult of Jefferson, I read a collection of his letters. There I found a full and perfect description of the emotion I had just begun thinking about.

In 1771, Jefferson’s relative Robert Skipwith asked him for advice on what books to buy for the personal library he hoped to build. Jefferson, who loved giving advice almost as much as he loved books, happily obliged. Jefferson sent along a catalogue of serious works of history and philosophy, but he also recommended the purchase of fiction. In his day, plays and novels were not regarded as worthy of a dignified man’s time, but Jefferson justified his unorthodox advice by pointing out that great writing can trigger beneficial emotions:

When any . . . act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise.

Jefferson went on to say that the physical feelings and motivational effects caused by great literature are as powerful as those caused by real events. He considered the case of a contemporary French play, asking whether the fidelity and generosity of its hero does not “dilate [the reader’s] breast and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does [the reader] not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example?”

This extraordinary statement is more than just a poetic description of the joys of reading. It is also a precise scientific definition of an emotion. In emotion research, we generally study emotions by specifying their components, and Jefferson gives us most of the major components: an eliciting or triggering condition (displays of charity, gratitude, or other virtues); physical changes in the body (“dilation” in the chest); a motivation (a desire of “doing charitable and grateful acts also”); and a characteristic feeling beyond bodily sensations (elevated sentiments). Jefferson had described exactly the emotion I had just “discovered.” I began to call this emotion “elevation,” a word Jefferson himself had used to capture the sense of rising on a vertical dimension, away from disgust.

For the past seven years I have been studying elevation in the lab. My students and I have used a variety of means to induce elevation and have found that video clips from documentaries about heroes and altruists, and selections from the Oprah Winfrey show, work well. In most of our studies, we show people in one group an elevating video, while people in the control condition see a video designed to amuse them. So far we have found that elevation makes people feel warm, calm, and loving feelings. It makes people want to become better themselves—it motivates them to rise on the dimension of divinity. It seems to open people up, releasing the milk of human kindness.

In our most exciting discovery, my student Jen Silvers found that elevation seems quite literally to release milk: she brought lactating women into the lab with their babies. One half of the women watched an elevating video; the other half watched a comedy video. The women who were elevated were much more likely to nurse their babies in the minutes afterwards, or to leak milk into a nursing pad. Why? Because elevation may trigger the production of the hormone oxytocin, and oxytocin is the direct trigger for milk release. So those warm fuzzy feelings you get in your chest when you see someone do something kind, loving, or beautiful may reflect real physiological changes in your heart and lungs brought on by oxytocin.

Awe, Transcendence, and the Satanic Self

Virtue is not the only cause of movement on the third dimension. The vastness and beauty of nature similarly stirs the soul. Immanuel Kant explicitly linked morality and nature when he declared that the two causes of genuine awe are “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” The New England transcendentalist movement was based directly on the idea that God is to be found in each person and in nature, so spending time alone in the woods is a way of knowing and worshiping God. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a founder of the movement, wrote: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

There is something about the vastness and beauty of nature that makes the self feel small and insignificant, and anything that shrinks the self creates an opportunity for spiritual experience. Sages (and psychologists) have long written about the many ways in which people feel as though they have multiple selves or intelligences which sometimes conflict. This division is often explained by positing a soul—a higher, noble, spiritual self—which is tied down to a body—a lower, base, carnal self. It’s as though the soul were a helium balloon tied to a brick. The soul escapes the body only at death, but before then, spiritual practices, great sermons, and awe at nature can give the soul a taste of the freedom to come.

Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence. My friend Dacher Keltner, an expert on emotion at the University of California at Berkeley, proposed to me a few years ago that we review the literature on awe and try to make sense of it ourselves. We found that scientific psychology had almost nothing to say about awe. It can’t be studied in other animals or created easily in the lab, so it doesn’t lend itself to experimental research. But philosophers, sociologists, and theologians had a great deal to say about it. As we traced the word “awe” back in history, we discovered that it has always had a link to fear and submission in the presence of something much greater than the self.

Keltner and I concluded that the emotion of awe happens when two conditions are met: a person perceives something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually vast, such as a grand theory, or socially vast, such as great fame or power); and the vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures. Something enormous can’t be processed, and when people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks while in the presence of something vast, they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive. They often (though not always) feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well. By stopping people and making them receptive, awe creates an opening for change, and this is why awe plays a role in most stories of religious conversion.

In what is still the greatest work on the psychology of religion, William James analyzed the “varieties of religious experience,” including both rapid and gradual religious conversions, as well as experiences with drugs and nature. James found such extraordinary similarity in the reports of these experiences that he thought they revealed deep psychological truths. One of the deepest truths, James said, was that we experience life as a divided self, torn by conflicting desires. Religious experiences are real and common, whether or not God exists, and these experiences often make people feel whole and at peace. In the rapid type of conversion experience the old self, full of petty concerns, doubts, and grasping attachments, is washed away in an instant, usually an instant of profound awe. People feel reborn and often remember the exact time and place of this rebirth, the moment when they surrendered their will to a higher power and were granted direct experience of deeper truth. After such rebirth and revelation, fear and worry are greatly diminished and the world seems clean, new, and bright. The self is changed in ways that any priest, rabbi, or psychotherapist would call miraculous.

Yet the self is one of the great paradoxes of human evolution. Like the fire stolen by Prometheus, it made us powerful but exacted a cost. In The Curse of the Self, the social psychologist Mark Leary points out that many other animals can think, but that none, so far as we know, spend much time thinking about themselves. Only a creature with language has the mental apparatus to focus attention on the self, to think about the self’s invisible attributes and long-term goals, to create a narrative about that self, and then to react emotionally to thoughts about that narrative. Leary suggests that this ability to create a self gave our ancestors many useful skills, such as long-term planning, conscious decision-making, self-control, and the ability to take other people’s perspectives. These skills are all important for enabling human beings to work closely together on large projects, and so the development of the self may have been crucial to the development of humanity’s extreme sociality. But by giving us each a world inside our own heads, a world full of simulations, social comparisons, and reputational concerns, the self also gave us each our own personal tormenter. We all now live amid a whirlpool of inner chatter, much of which is negative, most of which is useless.

Leary’s analysis shows why the self is a problem for all major religions: the self is the main obstacle to spiritual advancement, in three ways. First, the constant stream of trivial concerns and egocentric thoughts keeps people locked in the material and profane world, unable to perceive sacredness and divinity. This is why Eastern religions rely heavily on meditation, an effective means of quieting the chatter of the self. Second, spiritual transformation is essentially the transformation of the self, weakening it, pruning it back—in some sense, killing it—and often the self objects. Give up my possessions and the prestige they bring? No way! Love my enemies, after what they did to me? Forget about it. And third, following a spiritual path is invariably hard work, requiring years of meditation, prayer, self-control, and sometimes self-denial. The self does not like to be denied, and is adept at finding reasons to bend the rules or cheat. Many religions teach that egoistic attachments to pleasure and reputation are constant temptations to leave the path of virtue. In a sense, the self is Satan, or, at least, Satan’s portal. For all these reasons, the self is a problem for the ethic of divinity. It stands in the way of spiritual and moral progress.

Divinity in Therapy

What does all of this have to do with psychotherapy? Here are three thoughts, three possible ramifications of these ancient ideas for the modern therapeutic community.

First, nearly all Americans are religious to some degree, yet psychologists are much less religious than the average American. This means that there may often be a mismatch between the “dimensionality” of the client and the therapist. Secularly trained therapists might not recognize the striving to “rise” on the dimension of divinity. (Even secular clients may have such feelings without understanding them.)

Second, the modern psychological emphasis on self-esteem, self-knowledge, and self-development more generally might be counterproductive. Particularly for religious clients who would like to weaken their grasping, petty selves, encouragement to strengthen the self and satisfy the self’s needs might be in conflict with other ways of growing and improving.

And third, this perspective on divinity may help therapists to find new tools, such as the emotions of elevation and awe, that may be powerful adjuncts to the therapeutic process. Might talking about role models and moral exemplars create windows of opportunity? Might self-transcendent emotions create brief “melting moods” in which the client finds him or herself “washed and soft of heart and open to every nobler leading”—that is, to leading upwards on the dimension of divinity?

From the book The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with BasicBooks, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.


Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt, PhD, is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of two books: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006) and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), which became a New York Times bestseller.