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05/17/2013 10:13 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

The Neurology of Disgust

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

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.

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. Philip M. Miner

If you've had the experience of being a teenage boy, you know that your body wasn't particularly shy about revealing its sexual attractions. So, there I was with undeniable evidence I was attracted to men and stuck with the belief I was disgusting and broken. An abomination.

I'm happy to report, like so many members of the LGBT community, I stopped believing I was broken. I'm not sure what mental processes occurred to un-brainwash myself, but they seem to have occurred. There are hints as to what may have happened. Dr. Wim De Neys of Leuven University, Belgium, discovered that part of the frontal lobe activates when we realize stereotypes aren't true and a separate part of the frontal lobe activates in order to override the stereotype (this second part doesn't always occur).

So, it might be that the evidence provided by my body was strong enough to finally talk my brain out of its moral disgust. Or maybe it was the years of experience living as a gay man that did the job. I don't know. I do know it was incredibly painful and difficult and I'm glad it happened.

The good news is moral beliefs aren't consistent across cultures or classes. Meaning, they aren't innate, they are learned.

To spare future generations of LGBT kids a painful childhood, we have to eliminate the belief that homosexuality is disgusting. The best way to do that is for gay people to be out and show the world the truth: there's nothing inherently wrong or disgusting with homosexuality. If more people experience this first hand, there will be fewer people who harbor this destructive moral judgment.

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