by Dr. Rachel Herz
What you find disgusting most often depends on your circumstances and mood at any given time as much as past experience. For instance, what happened to last week’s oohs and ahs and much love when this lady’s abdomen still had her baby in there?
What is that squirmy, shuddery, skeevy feeling you get when your neighbor asks you to hold his dirty dentures? That’s disgust! And the face you’re making right now is the same one you would make if I asked you to taste quinine – tonic water without sweetener or gin. The origin of disgust is the innate rejection of bitter taste, which is good, because most things that taste bitter also tend to be poisonous, certain leafy greens notwithstanding. But what’s weird about the emotion of disgust – that feeling you got about the dentures – is that it’s not innate. Rather, disgust is the instinct that has to be learned. It’s influenced by myriad psychological, social and cultural factors. Emotional disgust is also unique to humans. Your dog doesn’t care if she steps in dog poop; in fact, she probably loves it. It may be adaptive that we feel disgusted by poisons and other people’s rot and body fluids, but we also get disgusted by so-called abnormal sex and foul behavior, which might not always be so smart. Basically, disgust comes down to what something means to us. If we think that someone or something is disgusting, it is repulsive, but if we are in love with our neighbor then holding his dentures wouldn’t be so bad. Personally, I like the scent of my dear dog’s breath. This may all seem a bit shocking, so for an easier way to explore the how, why and what of disgust and to give a synopsis of my book, That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, at the same time, I’ll give a quick tour of this unusual emotion through the lens of one of our greatest pleasures: food.
First, what we consider food to be is due to the culture in which we live. I think that nattō, the fermented, sticky, stringy soybean dish that the Japanese love for breakfast, smells like a tire fire. Not that a tire fire is the worst smell ever. It just doesn’t smell like anything I’d ever chow down on. But Asians think of cheese, one of my food faves, as inedible and literally the equivalent of “rotted cow excretions.” Technically they aren’t wrong. On that note, despite my cheese cravings, casu marzu, a gooey, Sardinian sheep cheese that is writhing with live maggots which jump up to six inches – that means on your face as you’re trying to eat it – is repulsive beyond belief to me. Yet it is a delicacy on that lovely Mediterranean island. And if that wasn’t enough for you, how about a mixture of fermented saliva from an untold number of donors who chewed corn maize to a paste and then spat into a jug and buried the contents in the ground to percolate for about a month. Yum. You’ve just taken a hit of chicha, the delicious Ecuadorian brew.
Besides a pantry of foods across the globe that are variously considered disgusting or delicious, how you eat that food can get you labeled as a boorish lout or, worse yet, a disgusting heathen. Holding your knife and fork bent inwards and facing down over your plate may be how you think prisoners eat, but in Briton it’s polite. While a loud belch at the end of the meal is a gracious compliment to your host in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, if at the same dinner you help yourself to a serving of lamb using your left hand, you could be expelled from the table for your egregious offense. This is because the left hand is reserved for toilet duties and therefore taboo for communal interactions, especially with food. Westerners don’t care about this, which brings me to few more points about disgust. Toilet training is universally the first lesson in disgust that children are taught, which is why infants and toddlers are undisgustable; disgust is about keeping the outside, especially contamination from other people, away from our insides, and disgust is relative. Most vegetarians think any kind of meat, no matter how prepared, is disgusting. Speaking of relativity, how about a little placenta paté with your foccacia bread? One British family prepared this appetizer and served it on national television to celebrate their granddaughter’s birth. Not only is this an example of eating organ meat, which generally doesn’t make the top 10 list of animal parts to eat, but it breaches the line of cannibalism, because it’s human organ meat. You may now join the vegetarians in thinking this is “relatively” disgusting. You may be wondering, who wouldn’t?
Here’s one: Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious psychopath who ate body parts from his victims for dinner. Psychopaths are surprisingly inured to disgust. This is what separates them from other violent offenders. People with the degenerative genetic disease, Huntington’s Chorea, are also blind to disgust, even before they start developing any symptoms of the illness. Conversely, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are hypersensitive to disgust even though they can’t tell by looking at you that you’ve been asked to hold those dentures. The main part of the brain that connects these disorders and disgust is also involved in lust, as well as taste (e.g., food) which brings me to one of the most intriguing things about disgust: we are lured by it.
Blood splattering horror movies like Jaws (1975) are among the top grossing films ever made. And sex – from the most bland swapping of bodily fluids, to eating raw fish off someone’s naked body (sushi sex), to aphrodisiacs like oysters – is erotically alluring, possibly delicious, but also disgust-provoking. We even find disgust funny. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), with its famously side-splitting food fight scene heralded the “gross-out” genre in film. What made the scene where Bluto bashes his fists against his cheeks to emit an explosion of mashed potatoes and other comestibles hilariously disgusting is that it broke the rules of “normal” society and also depicts Bluto in the throes of an animalistic eating display. Animals slurp and slobber and eat like Bluto; civilized humans don’t. And herein lies the worm at the core: we are disturbed and disgusted by anything that reminds us that we are actually animals, which means that just like squirrels and cockroaches we can be squished and will inevitably die. Disorder and chaos also remind us of the fact that we have not yet found a solution to that nagging death problem, which is why our reactions to rule-breaking and our sense of morality is intertwined with disgust. If you found out that a geneticist cloned some cells from her leg and that they grew into something that looked like a steak so she decided to grill it and eat it for dinner, you’d almost certainly think she was disgusting, even if she never did it again, never told anyone about it, never worried about and it never had any impact on her professionalism as a scientist. This is an example of how feeling disgusted affects our sense of what is right and wrong. When we are disgusted, we are more condemning, even when it logically doesn’t make any sense. Take heed if you ever find yourself feeling queasy after your chili lunch during jury duty; you might unfairly convict the defendant.
Disgust is also peculiarly contagious and magical. If a famous baker made a cake of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, chocolate and nuts, but it looked like an unflushed toilet bowl, most of us would decline taking a slice. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. If it looks like something disgusting it must be something disgusting. It’s also the case that if someone who really repulsed you wore a fabulous Gucci sweater, even only once, you might have a hard time trying it on afterwards, even if you were assured it had been thoroughly dry cleaned and it truly looked like new. We superstitiously believe disgusting essences from other people can infiltrate and pollute inanimate objects and that they can literally rub off on us. People won’t swim in a pool if they’ve found out that mental patients have taken a dip in it. This also tells us how disgust can influence our social behavior and the ways we treat others. Disgust can hold a mirror up to ourselves and our society in a not too flattering way. But in fact, we are very lucky to be disgusted.
Disgust is a luxury of abundance. If we have the choice between eating a cockroach and a filet mignon, then sure a cockroach is disgusting. But if you were starving to death and a cockroach were the only edible nutrient around, you wouldn’t hesitate much. So raise a toast to disgust for your good fortune! Remember that the next time you feel disgusted and you might appreciate this perverse and fascinating emotion a bit more.