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A Nauseating Corner of Psychology: Disgust
Swamped this week. Here's a post originally published on my personal blog to fill the void.
Like many features of the human condition, the first psychological account of disgust comes from Charles Darwin, who in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals defined it this way: “Something revolting, primarily in relation to the sense of taste, as actually perceived or vividly imagined; and secondarily to anything which causes a similar feeling, through the sense of smell, touch and even eyesight.” Theories of disgust bounced around following Darwin. Throughout the 20th century it was a niche area of research, but by the 1990s disgust was popular in psychology. Spearheading this movement was Paul Rozin, a clever psychologist who devised several experiments that revealed what elicits disgust. Think about eating soup from a sterilized bedpan or eating chocolate molded to resemble dog feces. Not pleasant, right? Rozin’s insight was that disgust is the “fear of incorporating an offending substance into one’s body.”
Disgust’s evolutionary origins are not a mystery. Humans are omnivores (we eat just about anything we can digest), so disgust acted as a food rejection system – a helpful emotional reminder that it’s not safe to feast indiscriminately. This is why carrion, vomit, feces, mucus, rotten meat, effluvia and other things loaded with dangerous microbes and parasites are so repulsive. Hundreds of thousands of years before Louis Pasteur discovered germ theory, natural selection had already endowed us with an implicit knowledge of it, which is why we not only refuse to eat said contaminates but also touch and think about them.
Disgust is universal but humans don’t express it until they are between three and four years old. In a slightly evil experiment Rozin and his colleagues found that children happily gobbled up dog feces (it was really peanut butter and smelly cheese) and grasshoppers. For parents, this study confirms the obvious: children younger than two put virtually everything in their mouths – a behavior Freud thought linked to sexuality (it doesn’t). Because disgust emerges a few years after birth it differs from culture to culture beyond a few universals. The mystery is: Why do different cultures develop disgust for different foods?
One line of reasoning is that disgust is a reaction to health issues. Many Jews believe that Judaism forbids pork because pigs are dirty. Some Muslims likewise think that the Islamic code that designates what foods are permissible for Muslims, Halal, bans the consumption of pork for health reasons. This explanation is plagued with inconsistencies. It’s true that pigs wallow in their own urine and eat feces. But this is also true of cows, dogs, and chickens under certain conditions.
Another possibility is that disgust was used to strengthen community bonds. As Steven Pinker puts it, food taboos “make the merest prelude to cooperation with outsiders – breaking bread together – an unmistakable act of defiance.” Judaism might have forbidden pork because the Philistines, who were the one of the Israelites’ main opponents, ate a lot of it. (H/T Geoff Mitelman)
The more plausible explanation comes from the anthropologist Marvin Harris. He argues that ecology played the dominant role, namely, that what food a culture deems disgusting is determined by the value of the animal the food comes from. In his 1974 book Cows, Pigs, War and Witches Harris observes in a chapter titled “Pig Lovers and Pig Haters” that Semites refuse to eat pork while people of highland New Guinea crave it. What explains this porcine paradox? Harris points out that North Africa and the Middle East, where Semites are from, lack vegetation including essential foods like nuts, fruits and vegetables. Pigs eat these foods as well, so domesticating them would be a burden on human nutritional needs. In contrast, vegetation in New Guinea is plentiful but protein is scarce. Pigs in New Guinea were therefore more valuable dead, cooked and eaten. All of this is consistent with the fact that kosher animals, including cattle, goats and sheep, survive off desert plants that are not valuable to humans. A similar example comes from Hinduism where slaughtering cattle is prohibited because (if Harris is correct) cattle pull plows and provide milk and manure. They are, in sum, worth more alive than dead.
Another question is how disgust and morality are related. A key piece of literature that addresses this question comes from a 2008 paper by Rozin, Jonathan Haidt and Clark McCauley. Building on previous research, they argue that communities co-opted a physical disgust for food and bodily functions into moral codes to establish rules about purity. If this is true it explains why cleanliness is a virtue in several cultures and religions including Hinduism where people are prohibited from wearing shoes when they walk on the courtyard of a temple. It also helps explain why the Abrahamic texts have so many rules concerning menstruation and sex. Western secular liberals might have trouble relating, but they are also disgusted when, for example, a person’s rights or dignity is violated.
Under this paradigm our disease avoidance system “spilled over” into our moral codes. This seems like a reasonable theory. For example, there are plenty of things I find disgusting that Idon’t make a moral judgment about. In a recent Bloggingheads conversation between Paul Bloom and David Pizarro (leading researchers in the field), Pizarro points out that he finds nose picking disgusting but he does not make moral judgments about nose picking or nose pickers. Similarly, Bloom says cheekily, a poopy diaper might be gross but no one would blame the kid for pooping. Another idea is that the disgust for dangerous foods and bodily functions and the disgust for other things including people, practices and ideas are one in the same. However, a lack of evidence makes it difficult to determine which one of these theories is more plausible at this point in time.
Disgust, it should be said, is not necessarily a good guide for morality. Liberals in the United States criticize homophobic conservatives for deeming homosexual sex immoral just because they find it disgusting, implying that disgust is not a sufficient justification. But when the same liberal thinkers are pressed to explain why things like child molestation, incest or having sex with chickens are immoral they encounter the same problem: moral dumbfounding – what’s intuitively obvious is not always morally correct. Disgust, in other words, is not a reliable source for moral guidance. Leon Kass makes this point in an essay he penned many years ago:
Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnancies are today calmly accepted — though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.
A scary consequence of morality based on disgust is what happens when it is extended to out-groups. Sometimes a community will lump members of an out-group into a category and equate it with what’s physically disgusting. This is one hallmark of ethnic cleansings and it occurred during the Rwandan genocide when the Hutus equated Tutsis with “cockroaches.” To paraphrase Haidt, moral rules based on disgust bind and blind.
So what is disgust? It is a disease avoidance system put in place by natural selection to prevent us from consuming harmful food and bodily fluids. Effluvia, vomit, feces, rotten flesh, and urine are disgusting to people around the world. It can’t be a coincidence that these substances contain dangerous diseases. The question is how disgust emerges in different cultures. Harris postulates that it relates to ecology and economics. I mentioned that it’s possible that disgust evolved not just as a disease-prevention system but also as a tool to distinguish “us” from “them”. However, it seems more likely that disgust for anything that is not food or a bodily fluid is a byproduct of a disease-prevention system.
Sometimes disgust results in quirky behavior. People are disgusted by the thought of wearing the socks of a rapist or Hitler’s sweater. Other times disgust is more significant, especially when large groups of people label other groups disgusting. From the trivial to the consequential, it’s important that disgust doesn’t guide morality. I hope people are rational enough to realize this.
In the last two decades psychological science has conducted brilliant research to uncover what Darwin described nearly 150 years ago in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. A lot of credit goes to Paul Rozin, but other researchers including Bloom, Pizarro (and their colleagues Yoel Inbar and Ravi Iyer), and Haidt are providing insightful findings with clever experiments. If the next twenty years are as fruitful as the last we’ll have a much more complete picture of this nauseating corner of human psychology.
 From Pinker 1997.
 Leviticus 11:7-8 “And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he [is] unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they [are] unclean to you.”
 Leviticus 15:19-30 “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.”
 Kass does not conclude that it is correct.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Can an orgasm a day really keep the doctor away?
- Achieving orgasm through masturbation provides a rush of feel-good hormones (such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) and can re-balance our levels of cortisol (a stress-inducing hormone). This helps our immune system function at a higher level.
- The surge in "feel-good" hormones also promotes a more relaxed and calm state of being, making it easier to achieve restful sleep, which is a critical part in maintaining a high-functioning immune system.
- Just as bad habits can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system which can prevent you from becoming sick.
How masturbation affects your brain...<p>Orgasms are a very common human phenomenon. The physical and mental health benefits have been researched frequently as a result, and yet, there is still so much to be learned about how our bodies and brains react to the chemicals and hormones released during and after experiencing this type of sexual release.</p><p>"The amount of speculation versus actual data on both the function and value of orgasm is remarkable" explains Julia Heiman, director of the <a href="https://kinseyinstitute.org/" target="_blank">Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction</a>.</p><p>Masturbation causes a rush of <a href="https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine" target="_blank">dopamine</a>, which is a chemical that is associated with our ability to feel pleasure. Along with the rush of dopamine that is released during an orgasm, there is also a release of a hormone called <a href="https://www.livescience.com/42198-what-is-oxytocin.html" target="_blank">oxytocin</a>, which is commonly referred to as the "love hormone."<br></p><p>This concoction of chemicals does more than just boost our mood, it also can play a key role in decreasing stress and promoting relaxation. Oxytocin decreases <a href="https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol" target="_blank">cortisol</a>, which is a stress hormone that is usually present (in high volumes) during times of anxiety, fear, panic, or distress. </p><p>According to BDSM and fetish researcher <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/dr-gloria-brame-colbert-ga/278388" target="_blank">Dr. Gloria Brame</a>, an orgasm is the biggest non-drug induced blast of dopamine that we can experience. </p><p>By boosting the oxytocin and dopamine levels and subsequently decreasing our cortisol levels, the brain is placed in a more relaxed, euphoric, and calm state. </p>
Masturbation boosts your immune system and raises your white blood cell count.<p>How do those effects on the brain from reaching orgasm translate to boosting our immune system and making our body healthier?</p><p>The increase of oxytocin and dopamine that causes a decrease in cortisol levels can help boost our immune system because cortisol (well-known for being a stress-inducing hormone) actually helps maintain your immune system if released in small doses. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.health24.com/Sex/Great-sex/incredible-health-benefits-to-masturbating-20181030-2" target="_blank">Dr. Jennifer Landa</a>, a hormone-therapy specialist, masturbation can produce the right kind of environment for a strengthened immune system to thrive. </p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15316239" target="_blank">A study</a> conducted by the Department of Medical Psychology at the University Clinic of Essen (in Germany) showed similar results. A group of 11 volunteers were asked to participate in a study that would look at the effects of orgasm through masturbation on the white blood cell count and immune system.</p><p>During this experiment, the white blood cell count of each participant was analyzed through measures that were taken 5 minutes before and 45 minutes after reaching a self-induced orgasm. </p><p>The results confirmed that sexual arousal and orgasm increased the number of white blood cells, particularly the natural killer cells that help fight off infections. </p><p>The findings confirm that our immune system is positively affected by sexual arousal and self-induced orgasm and promote even more research into the positive impacts of sexual arousal and orgasm. </p>
Masturbation can ease and prevent pain, which allows you to achieve the restful sleep that helps your immune system stay strong and healthy.<p>The benefits of masturbation have long been debated, but the more research that is done on the topic the more we understand that there are many positive reactions that happen in our bodies and brains when we orgasm.</p><p>Orgasms can help prevent or mitigate pain, which boosts the immune system, preventing cold and flu symptoms. </p><p>According to neurologist and headache specialist Stefan Evers, about one in three patients experience relief from migraine attacks by experiencing sexual activity or orgasm. Evers and his team <a href="https://www.livescience.com/27642-sex-relieves-migraine-pain.html" target="_blank">conducted an experiment</a> with 800 migraine patients and 200 patients who suffered from cluster-headaches to see how their experiences with sexual activity impacted their pain levels. </p><p>The study showed that 60% of migraine sufferers experienced pain relief after participating in sexual activity that resulted in orgasm. Of the cluster-headache sufferers, about 50% said their headaches actually worsened after sexual arousal and orgasm. </p><p>Evers suggested in his findings that the people who did not experience pain relief from migraines of headaches during their sexual activity did not release as large amounts of endorphins as those who did experience pain relief. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.sharecare.com/health/chronic-pain/chronic-pain-affect-immune-system" target="_blank">rheumatologist Dr. Harris McIlwain</a>, people who suffer from chronic pain have immune systems that are simply not functioning at full capacity - therefore, alleviating pain (through orgasm, as an example) can help boost the immune system. </p><p>Orgasms can also promote relaxation and make it easier to fall asleep. Serotonin, oxytocin, and norepinephrine are all hormones that are released during sexual arousal and orgasm, and all three are known for counteracting stress hormones and promoting relaxation, which makes it much easier for you to fall asleep.</p><p>There are <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1233384" target="_blank">several studies</a> showing that serotonin and norepinephrine help our body cycle through REM and deep non-REM sleeping cycles. During these sleep cycles, the immune system releases proteins called <a href="https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-sleep-affects-your-immunity" target="_blank"><span id="selection-marker-1" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span>cytokines<span id="selection-marker-2" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span></a>, which target infection and inflammation. This is a critical part of our immune response. Cytokines are both produced and released throughout our bodies while we sleep, which proves the importance of a good sleep schedule to a healthy immune system.</p>
Masturbation promotes a high-functioning immune system; a healthy immune system prevents cold and flu.<p>The immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against infections and diseases by stopped threats like bacteria and viruses from entering your system. While there are many things we need to do to keep our immune systems functioning at optimal levels, masturbation (or other means of achieving orgasm) has proven to have positive effects on the immune system as a whole.</p><p>Just as bad habits (such as an inconsistent sleep schedule or harmful chemicals in your body) can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system. </p>
The word "learning" opens up space for more people, places, and ideas.
- The terms 'education' and 'learning' are often used interchangeably, but there is a cultural connotation to the former that can be limiting. Education naturally links to schooling, which is only one form of learning.
- Gregg Behr, founder and co-chair of Remake Learning, believes that this small word shift opens up the possibilities in terms of how and where learning can happen. It also becomes a more inclusive practice, welcoming in a larger, more diverse group of thinkers.
- Post-COVID, the way we think about what learning looks like will inevitably change, so it's crucial to adjust and begin building the necessary support systems today.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.