Deb's Reviews > That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion

That's Disgusting by Rachel Herz
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's review
May 10, 2012

it was amazing
Read in May, 2012

*The appeal of disgust.*

Oozing scabs.
Rotting meat.
Lying politicians.

Disgusted? We're all quite familiar with the intense emotion of disgust, but why do we have it? Disgust—the only emotion we have that has to be learned—is all about rejection. Disgust evolved in humans as a way to protect us from death (both physically and psychologically) and anything else that threatens our way of life. As the author explains:
“Disgust evolved from a simple mechanism that helped us avoid swallowing poison to one that warns us of death by the slow process of disease, and is ultimately about the uniquely human awareness of our fragile and finite mortality. Anything that triggers reminders of these issues, from slugs, to skeletons, to the shattering of our worldview, can elicit disgust in us. All disgusts motivate avoidance, but what the specific feelings of disgust are cannot be pinned down. Disgust can be obvious, visceral, and simplistic, or abstract, philosophical, and complicated.” (p.232)

It turns out that disgust is quite a complicated emotion. It takes many forms—body disgust, disease-contamination disgust, mutilation-deformity disgust, animal, sexual, and moral disgust—and it is both universal and uniquely personal. It is also highly influenced by character, culture, and context. To experience this powerful emotion, we need an intact network of brain structures (the insula, first and foremost), as well as the the capacity for self-awareness, complex thinking and interpretation, and an understanding of social order and cues.

After reading this book, you'll understand why babies are unfazed by sitting in a dirty diaper (not to mention often delighted to play with their own poo), why you're disgusted by the saliva of a stranger, aroused by your lover's, and indifferent to your own, and why you're probably revolted by even the thought of certain acts (such as having sex with and/or eating the dead). And, beyond the realms of poo, spit, and sex, you'll also learn how disgust helps us manage our deepest existential fear—that of the inevitability of our own death.

By understanding this enigmatic emotion, we can ultimately gain a better understanding of what makes us uniquely human. Who knew that disgust could be so appealing!

(For added fun while reading this already highly entertaining book, notice how many times your face instinctively contorts in disgust.)


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