Rachel Herz

 

On her book That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion

Cover Interview of February 21, 2012

In a nutshell

That’s Disgusting is about the enigmatic and paradoxical nature of being human told through the lens of the emotion of disgust, our repulsions and our attractions, and the very fine line that separates them.

The book begins with an immediately intuitive and familiar experience of disgust—food. Then it moves to a basic primer of the various forms of disgust and its neurobiological underpinnings, providing illuminating and strange facts.  For example, the earliest symptom of Huntington’s Chorea, before any physical problems manifest, is the inability to recognize the facial expression of disgust; feral “wild” children never acquire disgust; psychopaths are notoriously undisgustable.

I then tackle fundamental questions regarding what the main purpose of the emotion of disgust is—to protect us from death, most predominantly death by disease—and how this mutates, can backfire in our social interactions with others, and incite the worst of human behavior.

That’s Disgusting then explores how and why we are enticed by disgust, such as with horror movies, and our fascination with death, our animality, and our sexuality.  The last chapters move on to more abstract and complex levels of disgust, in particular morality, and the book concludes by examining what we can learn from disgust and how disgust can be harnessed for the greater good.

Some of the original theoretical arguments and conclusions the book makes are that: 1) disgust evolved uniquely in humans from the emotion of fear to protect us from death by a slow as opposed to a fast process (e.g., disease v. tiger); 2) disgust is an inherently “selfish” emotion and actually a twisted form of empathy; 3) to be disgusted is a luxury of abundance.  In other words, we have to have options for survival in order to shun a pockmarked mate or moldy food.

In sum, That’s Disgusting explores how society, culture, neurobiology and evolution weave together to shape both our personally unique experience of the emotion of disgust and more generally who and what we are as human beings.  I think a reader will be most happy with, and appreciative of, this book if she approaches it with a mixture of intellectual curiosity and whimsy.