Mental Well-being, Travel & the Brain

The Trouble with Disgust: Moral, Neural and Interpersonal Considerations

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There will come a point in most journeys, having left your comfort zone, that you find yourself reacting with disgust. Ashamedly, this can feel like a rejection of the place itself and it’s people. Disgust is an instinctual reaction evolved in the brain to protect you from biological disease. But studies show that this same primitive mechanism is how the brain regulates feelings of interpersonal disgust. 

When we talk about our emotions, the feeling of disgust is not something that comes to the fore. We think of sadness, excitement, fear. Even anger. We don’t like to talk about disgust and we especially don’t like to feel its uncomfortable behaviour in our minds and bodies.

Garbage at the market
The market in Granada, Nicaragua, after rains.

As members of the “developed world,” without explicitly reflecting on it, we spend a great deal of time managing disgust. Children are socialised from early on to be clean, to create orderly, contained environments, in the home and at the click of a mouse on our computer screens. Sanitisation is institutionalised. The pungent chemical aromas of detergent and disinfectant are no less foreign to our households than the fragrances we apply to conceal the odours of the body. For most of us, we live our day-to-day lives sheltered from the waste that is an inevitable by-product of industrialised, violent, animal-eating societies.

Disgust is managed in the name of health and wellness but the recoil from the disorderly is no more apparent than in our medicine, a so-called “noble profession” that now performs over 20 million surgical procedures per year to correct “deformities” in otherwise perfectly well human beings.

Garbage packing
A woman packing in garbage at the market in Granada, Nicaragua.

It is only when you exit that bubble and travel to less organised – or as some will say, less “civilised” – places that you realise the extent to which the the process of food to table, waste to dumpsite, body to knife, is concealed. The confrontation is disturbing. It evokes disgust and not far behind it, a murky puddle of guilt as the acknowledgment hits, that your feelings of disgust are in direct proportion to the privilege and sheltering of your own upbringing.

One Disgusting Day in El Salvador

On one particular muggy day in Santa Ana, el Salvador, this all came crashing down on me. It was not as if I had previously been blind to the poverty and chaos around me, but for some reason, on this day, the air hung closer, a claustrophobic bus ride to a nearby crater lake left my shorts damp and oily, my bare legs sticking and sloshing in the pool of sweat where I sat on the plastic seat. As relief from the journey’s end arrived, I noticed a dog – emaciated with two broken or badly deformed hind legs, dragging itself desperately across a dusty road between grunting cars, only centimetres from the crunch of a bus´s giant wheels. Beginning to dissolve from the outside and from within, I could do nothing but turn my head away and in that direction, fresh cheese and pig hoofs from the market stalls lay festering in the sun under a net of flies. And below, scatterings of garbage leaking a tart, fetid trail.

chicken bus
Culprit bus. “Chicken buses” as they are referred to in Central America. Never seen a hen on any of them.

I felt nauseated. When we got to the lake the beers could not come sooner. From a waterside restaurant and to my faint horror the clams we ordered arrived raw, like fresh oysters –  25 slimy sea creatures which flinched at the drop of lime.

It’s possible that all of this was “primed” by a faint, underlying food poisoning, but in any event, I battled disgust that day and thought a lot about it.

raw clam
Raw clams on a nauseating day. Tough one. But I did manage to eat about half the plate with enough tobasco and salsa.
Crater lake
Lago de Coatepeque. A crater lake near Santa Ana, El Salvador.
Casa Verde santa ana
Our hostel in Santa Ana, Casa Verde, was a sanctuary. The perfect place to retreat to after a trying day.

Disgust is an Instinct

The feeling of disgust is thought to be an evolutionarily conserved brain mechanism for signalling disease. In other words, it is a sensation that comes about automatically, you can’t do much to control it when you are confronted with something that your brain perceives to be biologically hazardous.

This instinctual response exists because of evolutionary pressures, which means that disgust evolved in the brain because it is adaptive, it increases the chance of survival. The early homosapiens who retched at the smell of rotten mean – a reaction controlled by a unique adaption in the brain – were more likely to live on to pass on their genes, including those that coded for this special response to rot.

Disgust in the Brain

Jaak Panksepp, the “father” of the scientific study of feelings in the brain describes disgust as a “sensory affect.” A sensory affect is a feeling that has to do with the body, like the feeling of hunger, physical pain or itch. Sensory affects are different from psychological emotions like sadness and joy.

One of the key areas in the brain that appears to generate feelings of disgust is the insula cortex, which is a small flap of cortical tissue folded beneath the lobes that span the frontal and temporal regions.

Other studies have shown that the insula integrates all the various feelings coming from the body and that it also plays an integral role in monitoring threat. Even threats like an approaching person with an angry grimace on their face. Disgust, therefore, is a feeling that encourages you to repel the disgusting object in question from your immediate vicinity, to get away from it and head for safety.

Disgust in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Some psychopathologies like OCD are characterised by excessive feelings of disgust, which is thought to explain compulsive behaviours like hand washing and the overwhelming anxiety and distress that suffers experience.

If you think about OCD as a disorder of disgust, though, you’d only be getting half the story. Like most psychological disorders, the etiology (root cause) is complex. Panic around the issue of control, for instance, is another major factor in OCD. There are other theories too. One of my colleagues carried out a series of studies in which she tried to tease apart the different kinds of fear that predominates in OCD. Using questionnaires and methods that indirectly probe the issue, what she found was that OCD suffers are less distressed by fears of physical safety but that their anxiety is intimately tied to fears about social security. Am I loved? Will I be abandoned? Will I be rejected?

What`s really intriguing about that, if you think about it, is that the connection in OCD with disgust is inverted between the social and physical realms. They are repelled by their material environments, but fear in turn their own expulsion from the social environment.

My Disgust Cancels Out Your Disgust of Me!

What comes to mind is a psychological defence mechanism described by psychoanalysts called “reaction formation”.  A defensive mechanism is a strategy that the unconscious mind employs to ward off or explain away unpleasant realities. Things that makes you anxious. Denial, for example, is a much cited defensive mechanism in which a person flat out rejects the truth of a situation that they don`t want to acknowledge.

Reaction formation is when a tendency, attribute or opinion, which is directly opposite to the one that is the root cause of the anxiety, is proposed and exaggerated. It’s like a way of distancing oneself from the real truth of the matter by forcibly promulgating the polar opposite. For instance, if a person has been unfaithful in their relationship, they might start unconsciously finding reasons to suspect or even challenge their partner on the issue of fidelity.

What if, in OCD, the preoccupation with sensory disgust is a reaction formation – and that the real underlying fear is about being the object of rejection or repulsion? As if, on some unconscious level, the driving fear is of being “disgusting”. As a strategy to deal with those crippling feelings, the suffer may opt to do the rejecting themself.

Before you point out the obvious, that OCD patients don’t tend to reject other humans – they reject physical contamination – consider what the next paragraph has to say.

Sensory Disgust and Interpersonal Disgust Share the Same Brain Mechanisms

Even though we think of disgust as being a physiological reaction closely tied to the immune response, what might be thought of as a purely metaphorical link to social and moral disgust, has actually been shown by several studies to be not so metaphorical after all. Feelings of moral or interpersonal revulsion that leave a “bad taste in the mouth” appear to recruit the same brain mechanisms that generate feelings of physiological disgust.

So in brain terms, feeling nauseated by rotting meat is pretty much the same as feeling nauseated by uncouth or vulgar behaviour.

This implies that the human moral sense is rooted in more ancient brain systems that regulate the safety of the physical body. This is actually no so astonishing because this pattern of recruitment in the lower ranks is how the brain has evolved to support higher aspects of cognition and consciousness. Essentially, it is a strategy of economics. Why build a new structure if you can borrow and build on existing, more simpler parts?

Through evolution, the issue to solve the problem of organising and regulating the ever increasing complexities of human social groups was achieved in the brain, at least in part, by recruiting sensory disgust. If disgust can be recruited in the context of purely social exchanges, it can function as a device for regulating attraction and repulsion between two people.

What’s more, it appears that disgust plays an even more important role in the social order, functioning as punishment for members who transgress the shared moral code. What, if you think about it, is worse than knowing someone thinks you are disgusting? Shame is among the most potent sources of human psychological pain.

Chances are, you’ll go to great lengths to manage the ways your own behaviours elicit disgust from others, starting early on, when you’re socialised with great urgency to appropriately manage your biological waste in the bathroom.

Some psychological theories claim that feelings of shame and the management of disgust play a significant role in the development of psychological disorders later in life. I wonder if cultural differences in attitudes to waste can explain any of the disparities in prevalence rates of certain psychopathogies?

The Guilt of My Disgust

The close ties between sensory disgust and moral disgust make a response of revulsion to poverty and decay a terribly conflicting experience. Disgust, when there are people, feels judgmental. Your position and your attitude is clear, it is one of rejection. In the case of food, a highly provocative issue for those afraid of contamination, reacting by with disgust can feel like you are rejecting the people – Their recipes, their culture, their way of life. Sharing food is a universal symbol of love and collaboration.

But food (or more precisely, food poisoning) is the straight-forward part when it comes to disgust and guilt because physical illness seems to have a way of bringing down the curtain on social niceties. When you are feeling desperately ill, there is no space to think about much else other than how terrible you feel. Thinking back, as I sped home in a taxi in Rio de Janeiro after suddenly coming down with a violent bout of food poisoning, all thoughts about being a “good passenger” and trying to engage in friendly conversation went straight into the packet of vomit that I clutched between my legs.

It is harder to avoid the moral dilemma brought on by more superfluous needs for comfort and hyper-cleanliness – those sanitised environments augmented with all the fittings to meet the standards of modern wealthy bodies. No foul odours emanating from the shower drain, insect free, shining floors, ample natural light and crisp white linen. Everything must be in working order and in arms reach. If it’s not like this, disgust.

The message is implicit but loud and clear: Different standards for different bodies. Some bodies require preferential treatment. Some bodies are better.

For anyone with even a modicum of social awareness, this reflection is deeply troublesome.

Bus ride
Chicken buses in the heat. A most uncomfortable and sometimes disgusting experience. Here we are at the end of a very long journey from Santa Ana, El Salvador to Jiquilillo beach in Nicargua. 4 buses, 2 taxis and a boat ride later.
Sweaty mish
Mischa sweating it out after attempting to make pizzas in the heat in Jiquilillo, Nicaragua. Sweat and body odour are chief no-nos when it comes to managing disgust in society. When it’s your own husband, things are a bit different…

Please leave a question or comment below, as well as any requests for references.

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