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You Make Me Sick

We’ve all expressed strong feelings about something or someone with expressions like “you smell,” “you make me sick,” or “you make me want to puke.” We may stick out our tongues at someone. One of the strongest expressions of contempt is to spit in someone’s face. What is interesting s how such emotion, and such judgments, especially ones that really have little to do with gustatory experience, with smelling and tasting, are tied to these proximal senses. These are the senses that actually require bodily contact with chemicals in the senses of smell and taste, or of objects or persons with the bodily surface in touch. Human beings tend to live their conscious lives, certainly the parts that have to do with language and story, in terms of the distal senses of sight and hearing, which gives us advantages as what Daniel Dennett once called “anticipation machines,” being able to detect and act on distant objects and events, including ones currently outside our ken. Most of the mammalian kingdom lives largely in a world of smell, but we humans do much to hide or conceal smells, especially those tied to bodily function. But how central might they be to our lives, to how we think about ourselves and our place in the world, and among other people, how we experience some of our most powerful emotions, and some of the ones most tied to our moral judgement.

Looking at the overall dynamics of brain function, Walter Freeman (2000) treats the dominant mammalian sense, olfaction, not as a special case but as paradigmatic, the entorhinal cortex, interacting with many parts of the brain, and including input-output connections with all primary sensory areas, being the main source of input to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a cortical structure, buried like fingertips in a fist deep inside the medial temporal cortex, one element of the limbic system (which is the substrate of most of our emotional life), with a central location, a long phylogenetic history like the hub of a spider-web connected to memory and central processing. In simple vetrebrates, still goal-directed free-ranging animals, the limbic system is the entire forebrain. Freeman locates this organization as the center to goal-directed activity, with a proprioceptive loop that includes the body, and a motor loop that includes the environment. He holds that hippocampal neural populations with a field of synaptic connections which continually directs behavior interactively with the sensory and motor cortices in the brain as the animal moves to different places in its environment. The brain is deeply rooted in such actions, its neurodynamics organized around them, and its cognitive abilities both built from such connections, and deeply, even if sometimes indirectly, in service of them. The entorhinal cortex, deep in the brain, is where the processing of olfactory information begins, our chemical senses not being routed through the thalamus poised on top of the brainstem, and the primary staging area for all the other senses, en route to cortical processing and conscious awareness. In the rest of the mammalian kingdom, with olfactory dominance and “sense of self” must then be rooted in the entorhinal cortex. Maybe beneath the level of the stories we tell ourselves, and the depictions of how we sound and how we look, is a deeper sense of ourselves tied to our proximal senses, and the sense of our own bodies. Mothers can recognize an article of an infant’s clothing buy smell, as lovers can identify each other. Heat-reduction sweat, effort sweat, fear sweat, and sex sweat are also chemically different, and there is some evidence that we can smell chemical differences from a range of emotions. Do you remember what your thumb tastes like, or even a kiss? What smells like teen spirit? A baby’s head smells like world peace.

What is interesting about disgust is that it isn’t just about disliking how something smells or tastes, but about active revulsion, particularly at the oral incorporation of offensive objects, but it can also include a rejection of touch. This includes animal products, human body fluids and wastes, as well as signs of death and decay. I remember the strong revulsion, almost tinged with metaphysical fear, toward a half-rotted deer carcass on the Appalachian Trail. Eww, gross.

Now, disgust toward feces or rotten meat, or a range of other tastes and smells makes evolutionary sense in protecting health. Our particular facial reaction, often including sticking out the tongue, turning away from an object, and refusing to taste or even touch it make sense, as does even a slight decrease in heart rate (which might slow the metabolism of something poisonous). There may be physical feelings of nausea or in extreme cases, even vomiting. Again, these make sense in terms of avoiding, or getting rid of unhealthy substances. But disgust also gets extended to more abstract moral judgments. The problem is that disgust is hard to reframe -- it is not as “cognitively penetrable” as other emotions that may be altered by thinking about things differently.

What is worse is that it isn’t just bad taste or smell, but a rejection can be extended to the very thought of certain objects (insects, an animal carcass, bloody body parts, corpses -- what does a battlefield smell like at the end of a battle?), and it isn’t altered by changing one’s understanding of the taste or smell. You shouldn’t talk about some things while people are eating. Are you more likely to eat cicada larvae even after you are told they taste like avocado? Not without overcoming your sense of revulsion. What about raw fish? Cultural variations clearly suggest a role for learning and interpretation. As a midwesterner whose exposure to fish was limited to fish sticks on a Friday night, it wasn’t until adulthood, and living near a coast, that I learned it is only fish that has begun to decay that has that “fish smell.” It wasn’t until middle age that I discovered that I actually rather liked the fresh clean taste of sushi. I got in trouble once when I shared a spontaneous insight with students that a “disgust” response to male homosexuality might be tied to the very thought of anal sexuality, despite a gay friend telling me there were books available to gay men for overcoming revulsion to certain smells. Empirical research recently showed that disgust sensitivity predicts intuitive disapproval of gays. Let’s just not talk about it.

It also isn’t the sensory quality itself that produces disgust. People respond quite differently to exactly the same chemical smell when told that it is strong cheese or vomit. I remember reaching the back of a wine-tasting station in Montepulciano, after focusing on the nose and tongue of a clearly developed taste for wine, and discovering the cheese-tasting. We almost missed our ride. Have you ever tasted Gorgonzola melted on an English muffin for breakfast? Don’t try it if you are hungover. Sometimes it is the very thought of an object, not any sensory or objective realities at all. Would you put rubber vomit in your mouth? Drink from a brand new, unused toilet bowl? There is an exercise on self-boundaries in which you can get people to work up a mouthful of spit and then swallow it, unless they have first spit it into a cup.

A resemblance to an animal or animal part may be sufficient to elicit disgust. How do you respond to the saliva of a dog licking your face? It may be that it is what reminds us of our animal nature, or our very mortality that is at issue. “What is this quintessence of dust?” Are we noble, clean and pure? Than what of intestines, feces, or blood? I once started my lectures on psychotherapy with a humorous slide of “things my therapist told me,” one of which was “If sex isn’t dirty, you’re not doing it right.” But from whence comes the “dirt” in “dirty thoughts.” Or the very idea that sex is “unclean”? Doesn’t it depend? But things we find disgusting in animals, like urination, defecation, or sex we hide or make private. I remember my adolescent embarrassment of watching a bull mount a cow in mixed company. What of the taunts of “get a room” to serious public displays of affection outside the local pub?

Unlike other emotions, disgust also seems to have a certain amount of magical thinking built in. It has the characteristic of contagion, the “sympathetic magic” of once in contact, always in contact. Once a cockroach, or even a fly has been on your food, it’s not the same, and historic evil seems to foul forever: Would you wear a sweater worn by Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden? It also links to other things merely by similarity, an aversion even to something that resembles, or reminds you of a disgusting object like rubber vomit, or a Hitler mustache (which sadly, was fine on Charlie Chaplin). Given the similarity to nausea, and that extreme disgust can induce vomiting, one can develop a disgust response after getting sick. I still have a hard time eating those sugar-wafer cookies after overindulging at age 8. These don’t go away, especially with an unfamiliar food, and food can still seem “dangerous” after a single contamination. Disgust develops gradually, and may vary individually. Kids up to about 18 months will eat dirt or bugs, even chewing and swallowing unless there is a particularly bad taste (try chalk, for example). Rejection of feces is first (even preschoolers won’t drink juice with poop in it), kids under about seven will drink it if the poop is spooned out, older kids only OK with a glass that has been refilled with new juice, still older only if the glass gets washed before it is refilled, and some adults not unless the glass is thrown away. I remember one colleague joking, after unjust treatment, that the response was “to give me more juice out of the serving bowl with the same shit in it.”

It is disgust's overlap with moral judgment that worries me, including about unacceptable sexual acts and socio-moral violations, like toward Nazis, drunk drivers, hypocrites, or ambulance chasers. Now, people who feel moral disgust are more likely to feel antipathy to criminal behavior, vote guilty on juries, or feel intuitive aversion to non-normative categories of people, like homosexuals, or immigrants, and judge them as dirty or impure. Given the importance of smell, and the likelihood of those with unfamiliar diets or other cultural habits smelling differently, there may be antipathies rooted in disgust that are hard to get around, or even counter-condition, and such antipathies may be behind some of the more troubling and “tribal” antipathies between peoples. I heard about a pilot study done by a colleague who had Muslims, Christians, and Jews walk through each other’s neighborhoods. Preliminary data showed strong responses when entering through tight gates, or being confronted with alien smells. Stronger moral judgements are made after an elicitation of disgust, yet we find the opposite when subjects clean their hands. I found that after a jet-lagged day in crowded streets and train stations in India, with constant invasions of personal space, that I only felt “clean” after I returned to my hotel and washed my feet in the sink. One wonders about other religious rituals involving foot-washing. Unlearning disgust may require inhibiting facial expressions, changing concepts of the object of disgust, or using systematic desensitization, as with plumbers and sewer workers with feces, or physicians with bloody body parts. Disgust responses also tend to be reduced in relationships with lower self-other boundaries, like with children or lovers.

The intensity of the disgust response in moral judgement may make certain differences between people more difficult to mediate, as revulsions are difficult to overcome, and they are also extended by contagion and similarity. Jonathan Haidt’s research on moral disgust shows how you can distinguish between things that are objectionable but not disgusting, or disgusting but not objectionable . Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind details a wide r ange of work on how judgments of purity and impurity so tied to the experience of disgust divide human beings in ways that are hard to overcome. I’d recommend this book for its attention to the emotions behind a whole set of moral dimensions.

Haidt's more recent book The Coddling of the American Mind also addresseshow some of these judgments have run rampant on college campuses, and stand in the way of civil or rational discourse. Students have unfortunately ex'panded tendencies to avoid responsibly considering alternate points of view simply by finding them “offensive,” which obviates the need for further discussion, and inhibits even their own peers from freely expressing themselves. It also leads to sad events like that at Middlebury College, where students screamed “racist, sexist, anti-gay” in protest of conservative social scientist Charles Murray presenting his ideas on campus. Even one of their own professors was violently attacked while escorting the speaker off campus.

Not exactly a paean to free speech, and campus judgments about what are “offensive” social or political opinions have led comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to abjure performing on college campuses. The virulence about judgments of what might be “offensive” may well be due to the revulsion of disgust, which hardly makes it easy to entertain alternate ideas, or to sustain the discomforts with the unfamiliar that higher education might valuably produce. “Just because you are offended doesn’t mean you are right.” Being offended isn’t an argument, and may seriously erode the critical thinking that higher education so often claims to encourage.

Copyright: John A. Teske