Monday, June 25, 2012

Do you say Yuck when you mean Grrr?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, emotions

"Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I'm going out and eat worms," my mother used to sing to me when I was peevish. When I was little, it shocked me into silence. Later, I secretly liked it. Eventually, I ignored it. I have never knowingly eaten worms. I have eaten dog. In my mid twenties, one of my housemates was Cuban. He made us a delicious stew one day, then announced it was dog meat. We were a tough bunch of guys, I guess. Nobody hurled. We were mainly curious, where did he get it? From a black-market Vietnamese market in downtown Los Angeles, he told us.

Try this as an experiment. Clean your sink out real well beforehand, then make sure others are watching as you wash some grapes. Let one drop into the sink, seemingly by accident, then pick it out and eat it. How do they react? (This is assuming that you are capable of nonchalantly popping a grape into your mouth that you have just plucked from the sink.) What is it about a kitchen sink that immediately transforms food into toxic waste?

Did you ever stumble across a couple making love in a public place, like a little-frequented corner of a park? How did you react? Some people might stay and watch, but most folks tend to flee in confusion. It's strange, because some large number of Americans are paying a total of $15 billion yearly to watch sex videos online. That's quite a bit more than the total take of Hollywood movies! But the really curious point is that so many people would describe public sex as "disgusting." Really? Does it really engender the same feelings as if you were told you'd just eaten dog meat, or earthworm crunchies? or were offered the grape just plucked from the sink?

All this and more are discussed in entertaining and enlightening fashion in That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, by Rachel Herz. As I did above, Ms Herz begins by discussing food. One of her examples is natto, a slimy fermented soy paste that the Japanese (my wife included) just love. To me it is the only thing more disgusting than okra, except when the okra is in a good gumbo. I think gumbo was invented in self-defense, as a way to make okra useful in some fashion.

But food is only the beginning. I recall a cartoon showing a woman gardening, when a wisp of her hair is blown into her mouth. She uses a dirt-covered hand to get the hair out. Is hair really more dangerous to your health than garden soil? I have seen both girls and boys (who had long enough hair) chew on the end of a lock of hair, contemplatively, while reading. Then there are smells. If I tell you that the smell of Gorgonzola cheese is produced by the same bacteria that make feet smelly, can you still eat it? How do you react to the sudden smell of a long-unwashed person (maybe just returned from a camping trip)? Context is everything. In one context, the smell of a used undershirt is horrid, but in another it is a real turn-on, particularly if you are in love with the wearer of the shirt.

For four years, we have had continual news of the problems in the banking and mortgage sectors that brought about the current recession (Oh, you thought it was over?). One highlight was the downfall of Bernie Madoff, who made off with a ton of other people's money. What do people say? Frequently, it is "How disgusting!" Really, disgusting? Are the antics of Madoff or of two larcenous Treasury secretaries and a gaggle of felonious bankers really going to make you vomit? I doubt it. More likely, you have entertained fantasies of joining NRA and ferreting out their addresses…

What is genuine disgust really for? When you taste something bitter, you make a certain face as you spit it out. When you smell old gym socks, you make the same face, of you are older than about six. Perhaps when you surprise a loving couple in the park, you also make the same face as you flee. And seeing a baby eat a fly on America's Funniest Home Videos? Same face.

As the author informs us, only our reaction to bitter tastes is innate. Children react to bitter tastes, but as the video of the fly-eating baby shows us, other kinds of disgust have to be learned. We learn from those around us as we grow up. Disgust is part of our cultural equipment. The innate disgust reactions keep us from ingesting poisons. The learned reactions keep us from ingesting a wider array of potentially damaging substances.

Early in the book we find a Disgust Scale questionnaire. The average score is 40, and I scored a 46. I don't know the variance of the scoring, so I may be pretty close to ordinary, or I may be flamingly sensitive, but "ordinary" is more likely. The author states that our sensitivity to disgust usually decreases with age. I am pretty sure that is true for me. In one particular, though, I know I haven't changed. I still can't watch when I get an injection or have blood drawn. I am just too squeamish and afraid I might faint. But is that really disgust?

Of the six emotional expressions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust), only disgust is primarily a learned response. Bitter tastes elicit it, but all other "disgust triggers" are culturally learned. Much work on brain activity has shown that disgust is closely allied to both anger and fear. However, certain people, notably those with Huntington's Disease, cannot experience disgust, though they react appropriately to fear- or anger-inducing stimuli. Further, because we react with disgust to disgust in others, it is closely related to empathy. The author writes, "I have come to believe that disgust is about empathizing with yourself."

The root of disgust is an aversion to disease or damage. Perhaps it is the most recently evolved addition to our immune system. When we empathetically wrinkle our nose upon hearing "Yuck!" or seeing someone jerk away from a bad taste or smell, we are learning to avoid things that others have found dangerous. Disgust is a rather slow reaction. It takes processing, whether conscious or not. Fear is quick. Anything that looks vaguely like an attacking predator makes us jump right now! But we have to think a bit before using Purell or washing off the vegetables.

The author writes about desensitization to fear triggers such as spiders and harmless snakes. A similar process seems at work in "learned tastes" such as smelly cheeses or the more "pissy" beers (all beers disgust me, but then I don't drink alcohol any more), or even natto. It turns out that there is a large gray area in every cultural tradition. Some things are very taboo here but permitted there; others are eagerly sought out in one culture but cause disgust in another. It seems, beyond our innate aversion to bitterness (which we can also overcome to some extent), that there is almost nothing that is always a disgust trigger for every culture.

I think I'll take a step beyond the author, and conclude that disgust is more political than hygienic. There is a second way to learn disgust: to have first learned to hate "them," and then to find out what "they" eat or do that is "different." Do they eat the Frobjus fruit? Then we must never eat it! It must be truly awful or evil, just because "they" like it. Recall the big-endian and little-endian wars of Jonathan Swift's Lilliputians. Egg eating habits were a proxy for their ethnic prejudices. Think over how many characteristics of a "different" ethnic group you may find disgusting, at least a little bit. Maybe some kinds of food, maybe a smell (based on food), maybe a music preference. What is their basis? Usually, it is a codified preference that arose simply from cultural drift or from the necessity of using what a certain part of the world had to offer.

For example, lots of people in the culture I grew up in prefer a beef-and-potatoes diet. In some tropical areas, the staples are pork and taro; elsewhere, chicken and cornmeal. Nearly every culture has a preferred meat and a preferred starch. My wife's seaside cousins grew up eating fish and tofu with rice; tofu is the preferred protein source in Japan when you can't afford animal protein. I am surprised how many of my Western acquaintances profess to "hate" tofu, even while it is becoming more popular in the West. I happen to relish tofu. A further observation is that disdain for tofu seems to accompany a poorly-hidden dislike of Asians. I won't get into how being a couple of mixed race has narrowed our circle of potential friends…

Look in the mirror. What disgusts you? Are your reactions sensible? In many cases they are. In others, they could be holding you back from fulfilling experiences.

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