One of the theories that undergirds a large subset of my thoughts on how brains work is the idea that Disgust is a Real Thing.
I don’t just mean a mild aversion to things that smell bad, like overturned port-a-potties or that fuzzy thing you found growing in the back of the fridge that might have been lasagna, once upon a time. Even I have such aversions.
I mean reactions like screaming and looking like you are about to vomit upon finding a chicken heart in your soup; gagging at the sight of trans people or female body hair; writhing and waving your hands while removing a slug from your porch; or the claim that talking about rats at the dinner table puts you off your meal. Or more generally, people claiming, “That’s disgusting!” or “What a creep!” about things or people that obviously aren’t even stinky.
There is a parable about a deaf person watching people dance to music he can’t hear and assuming that the people have all gone mad.
For most of my life, I assumed these reactions were just some sort of complicated schtick people put on, for totally obtuse reasons. It was only about a year ago that I realized, in a flash of insight, that this disgust is a real thing that people actually feel.
I recently expressed this idea to a friend, and they stared at me in shock. (That, or they were joking.) We both agreed that chicken hearts are a perfectly normal thing to put in soup, so at least I’m not the only one confused by this.
This breakthrough happened as a result of reading a slew of neuro-political articles that I can’t find now, and it looks like the site itself might be gone, which makes me really sad. I’ve linked to at least one of them before, which means that now my old links are dead, too. Damn. Luckily, it looks like Wired has an article covering the same or similar research: Primal Propensity for Disgust Shapes Political Positions.
“The latest such finding comes from a study of people who looked at gross images, such as a man eating earthworms. Viewers who self-identified as conservative, especially those opposing gay marriage, reacted with particularly deep disgust. … Disgust is especially interesting to researchers because it’s such a fundamental sensation, an emotional building block so primal that feelings of moral repugnance originate in neurobiological processes shared with a repugnance for rotten food.”
So when people say that some moral or political thing is, “disgusting,” I don’t think they’re being metaphorical; I think they actually, literally mean that the idea of it makes them want to vomit.
Which begs the question: Why?
Simply put, I suspect that some of us have more of our brain space devoted to processing disgust than others. I can handle lab rats–or pieces of dead lab rats–without any internal reaction, I don’t care if there are trans people in my bathroom, and I suspect my sense of smell isn’t very good. My opinions on moral issues are routed primarily through what I hope are the rational, logic-making parts of my brain.
By contrast, people with stronger disgust reactions probably have more of their brain space devoted to disgust, and so are routing more of their sensory experiences through that region, and so feel strong, physical disgust in reaction to a variety of things, like people with different cultural norms than themselves. Their moral reasoning comes from a more instinctual place.
It is tempting to claim that processing things logically is superior to routing them through the disgust regions, but sometimes things are disgusting for good, evolutionarily sound reasons. Having an instinctual aversion to rats is not such a bad thing, given that they have historically been disease vectors. Most of our instincts exist to protect and help us, after all.