“I feel good! I knew that I would!” An essay on Elevation, from Roger Ebert’s journal

I’ve been saying for years that I never cry during sad moments in the movies, only during moments about goodness. At the end of “Terms of Endearment,” I didn’t cry because of Debra Winger’s death, but because of how she said goodbye to her sons. Now I’ve have discovered a scientific explanation for why I feel the way that I do, and there is even a name for my specific emotion.

I wasn’t seeking an explanation, and I’m not sure I really wanted one. And, for that matter, I don’t really cry, at least not in the wiping-my-eyes and blowing-my-nose fashion. What I experience is the welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift: Yes, there is a good person, doing a good thing. And when the movie is over, I don’t want to talk with anyone. After such movies I notice that many audience members remain in a kind of reverie. Those who break the spell by feeling compelled to say something don’t have an emotional clue.

2MargeAndNorm.jpgIt doesn’t require a tearjerker to create this aura. “Fargo” is far from a tearjerker, but at the end, when Marge Gunderson snuggles up to her husband Norm and tells him how proud she is about his design for the wildlife stamp, it made me feel so warm. And it was at the very end of “Do the Right Thing,” when the quotations from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X appeared on the screen, that I felt: Yes, that is the choice. And I hope we make the right one.

This feeling doesn’t come only from movies. John Prine’s “Hello in There” evokes it–not because of the story of the old man and his wife, Loretta, but because of Prine’s writing of it and so many other songs showing the instinctive empathy of a great poet. Another experience evoking it was watching Michael Jordan’s performance in a game in the 1997 NBA finals. He had food poisoning. He had lost six pounds in two days. The doctors told him to stay in bed. He dragged himself onto the court. He was dripping with sweat. On the bench, he draped a towel over his head. He scored the game-high 38 points, and sank the winning three-pointer. I wasn’t moved by the victory. That’s only basketball. I was moved by his bravery.


You see how it is. One day in December I came upon an article at Slate.com by Emily Yoffe, headlined “Obama in Your Heart.” it Involved a study about “the emotions of uplift.” It was conducted by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, who had studied physical responses in test subjects who are deeply moved–most recently, during that night at Grant Park. A specific human emotion is involved. It is called Elevation. Yoffe wrote:

Elevation has always existed but has just moved out of the realm of philosophy and religion and been recognized as a distinct emotional state and a subject for psychological study. Psychology has long focused on what goes wrong, but in the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in “positive psychology”–what makes us feel good and why. University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, writes, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

Studies have indicated that Elevation is triggered by the stimulus of our vagus nerve, described by Wikipedia as the only nerve that starts in the brainstem and extends down below the head, to the neck, chest and abdomen, where it contributes to the innervation of the viscera. It must be involved in what we call “visceral feelings,” defined as “relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.”

The vagus nerve would certainly account for what I feel, which is as much physical than mental. For years, when asked “how do you know a movie is great?” I’ve had the same reply: I feel a tingling in my spine. People look at me blankly. I explain that I feel an actual physical sensation that does not depend on the abstract quality of the movie, but on–well, my visceral feelings.


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