Disgust makes us human – 06/11/2021 – Luciano Melo

A woman, in the early months of her first pregnancy, sought her doctor because she was suffering from worsening migraine attacks, believing that her condition would worsen, in parallel with the increase in her belly. She believed that the central gestational symptom for her problem was disgust. She rejected food and the smells of food made her so sick that she was almost always fasting. Years ago, he had learned from experience to recognize food deprivation as triggers for his migraine attacks. The pregnant woman blamed herself, believed ultimately that her disgust was her whim, and for him she was punished with pain. There really was a whim, however, of nature and therefore it was beyond the control of the pregnant woman.

To feel disgusted with something is to see it as dirty, contaminated, immoral, offensive, or sick. Disgust is an emotion unique to humans, forged by evolution that forces us to dodge and adopt prophylaxis. Bad or bad looking food, feces, rotting bodies, bodily fluids are materials considered by many to be disgusting, and which actually harbor germs, potentially causing illnesses. Aversion forces us to avoid them, consequently, we reduce by chance, the risks of contagion. Apparently, the disgust common to pregnant women also has this protective function. Researchers have shown that women are more disgusting in the first trimester of pregnancy, a time marked by the reduction of their immune defenses, thus, a period of greater susceptibility to infections. Exacerbated disgust at this stage can increase pregnant women’s attention to food quality, a behavior that can reduce exposures to foodborne infections. Of course, this advantage is lost when disgust becomes so dysfunctional, as seen in a doctor’s appointment.

The central reason for disgust is to keep us away from illness. However, in contemporary times, this feeling has become very “eclectic”. Thus, very different factors, free of worms or any dangerous microbes, can cause disgust, such as social or sexual transgressions, plastic cockroaches, or chocolate cream in the shape of feces. So animal scientists theorized that there was another attribute of disgust, preventing us from remembering that we are animals and that human purity is an unsustainable idea. In this way, everything that reminds us of our finitude, our imperfections, the dirt we produce, causes disgust. This would be the justification of disgust against what is considered immoral and against some sexual practices. However, other scholars believe that disgust, at first, was made to dictate some hygiene behavior, with the purpose of protecting against infestations. Then it was co-opted to determine moral and sexual rules to safeguard community rules and strengthen cohesion among people in a particular group.

Disgust ensures that divergent stimuli cause a similar bodily response, which encompasses, for example, a typical facial expression and nausea. The disgust elicited by unpleasant tastes or odors causes activation of brain areas just as an immoral offer does. In other words, different stimuli cause the same aversion reaction. Disgust is flexible, as it molds itself in fluctuating social customs and rules, and allows us to deal with an expanding set of threats, those that offend such as infections or infestations, or those that attack our morals. Therefore, the triggers of disgust increased, but their physiological and behavioral manifestations remained the same.

This scalable power is even relevant for tackling the current pandemic. Psychologist Richard Stevenson investigated the behavior of university students in Australia during restrictive measures against Covid-19, and identified an increase in the quarantine’s susceptibility to disgust, and the consequent expansion of hygiene measures such as the use of alcohol gel. Disgust is taught and spreads, it also causes problems like discrimination, and eating disorders. This primitive feeling protects us, and unites us, even to comment on the ways of others, an attitude not always commendable.

The pregnant woman is in the grip of a biological determinism, which affects her without giving her much option to escape, but she will get better, and as expected, will teach her child to be disgusted, for better or for worse.

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