Customer Reviews: That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion
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on January 14, 2012
What do you find disgusting? Let me rephrase the question. Ever wondered why your own spit doesn't bother you, but if someone spits at you you're disgusted? Or how about feeling like you might have to throw up when you see an accident and there's someone lying on the street with a severed limb, yet you're thrilled when someone gets butchered in a horror movie?
Drawing on research in psychology and evolutionary biology, Rachel Herz presents fascinating and informative insights in her book That's Disgusting. While most of us know that disgust originated to prevent people from eating poisonous food, making it a survivalist emotion, it is in fact very complex, highly individual, and shaped by the culture we grew up in. And unlike other emotions disgust is not innate, but an instinct that has to be learned.
Starting out with the most obvious topics - food as source of disgust - Rachel leads the reader down some unexpected paths. Disease, pornography, cannibalism, humor. All of these can be perceived as disgusting, while some may, oddly enough, even turn out to be fun and entertaining (unless you dislike stand-up comedians making jokes about bodily functions, that is). Especially the chapter on moral disgust intrigued me. Influenced by culture, it evokes the same emotion as physical disgust, yet it is clearly different.
If you're interested in the topic, this book is definitely a must-read!
In short: A truly absorbing and well researched book on the mysteries of repulsion!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
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on January 29, 2012
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Rachel Herz's 'That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion'

At first glance it may seem like our sense of disgust is a fairly marginal and narrow aspect of our everyday experience (not to mention being a little icky), and therefore, not the most appetizing candidate for deep exploration. Nevertheless, in her new book 'That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion', psychologist Rachel Herz demonstrates that there are in fact several aspects of disgust that make it unique among the basic human emotions (which include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust), and worthy of closer attention.

To begin with, it is clear that what disgusts us is culturally relative to a degree. For instance, while many of us enjoy the foods of other cultures (no matter what culture we are from), there are normally at least some dishes that people of other cultures eat with relish that we would not want to come anywhere near--and even the most culinarily adventurous among you have probably come across at least a few culturally specific comestibles that at least initially made you think twice.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that disgust is clearly culturally relative to a degree, there are also aspects of disgust that are universal to all human beings. To begin with, it is universal among human beings to find diseased and festering bodies disgusting, and bodily fluids such as urine, feces, vomit, mucous, phlegm, pus and blood also tend to be universally repulsive (the one notable exception here are tears--which universally elicit empathy rather than disgust).

Paradoxically, no matter what we find disgusting, there is occasionally (or at least in some of us) the inclination to expose ourselves and even indulge in what we find repulsive, such as when we slow our cars and crane our necks to catch a glimpse of any possible carnage in an automobile accident, or when we go out to enjoy a gory movie, or one that features more than its fair share of potty homour. Beyond these examples, the phenomenon of indulging in what is disgusting is taken to a whole other level with sado-masochistic sex and pornography (and particularly the variety that [bafflingly] features the presence and playful use of excrement). Even further at the extreme in this regard are serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer who indulge in acts that most of us are likely to think of as representing the very epitome of what is disgusting (such as mutilating a dead body, and then having sex with and eating it).

Interestingly, even aside from the physically disgusting things that Dahmer did, we are likely to think of his confining and killing his victims itself as being a disgusting act. That is, aside from experiencing physical disgust, it is also universal for humans to think of certain acts as being morally disgusting. And again, while different cultures may differ to some degree in what they consider to be morally disgusting, there are also some practices that are universal in inspiring disgust, such as incest.

How and why is it that some things are universal in inspiring disgust among us, while others are dependent on the culture in which we happened to be raised? Why is that sometimes we are drawn to what we find disgusting (and why is it that some people are more drawn to this than others)? How and why is it that disgust has both a physical and a moral dimension? These are just some of the questions that Herz explores in her new book. In answering these questions, Herz not only gives us a new understanding of our sense of disgust, but of our human nature as well.

In the course of the book, Herz does an excellent job of exploring the various aspects of our sense of disgust, and of reporting on the latest findings in the research. Her analysis of the causes of our disgust is, in my estimation, sometimes very balanced and measured, but at other times represents a bit of a stretch (such as the contentious claim that our sense of moral disgust may ultimately be understood in terms of our fear death). Nevertheless, this is my one and only criticism of a book that is otherwise very engaging, and very enlightening. And to Herz' credit, she does most often present the alternatives to her explanation of the causes behind our sense of disgust. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Rachel Herz's 'That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion'
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on February 15, 2012
I wasn't sure that I really wanted to buy this book, but I saw the author on a TV interview and decided to take a chance. The book really gets into the way that what some find disgusting, others find the height of politeness or edible delicacy. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to read this book at arms length and take it in short bursts, but it's actually incredibly interesting and well worth the purchase price. The book starts right off with examples and stories, some of which will definitely make you laugh while others will impress you with things you might not have thought about before.
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on January 18, 2012
I LOVED this book! Not only was the topic covered thoroughly but the sequencing, from information you likely are already aware of regarding disgust, through to more novel facts was done seamlessly. I loved that the academic information presented was done in an accessible way which kept my interest but didn't overwhelm me. And the writing was brilliant! So well written! I can't recommend this more, whether you have a current interest in disgust or are just looking for a riveting read - this is your book!
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on December 13, 2012
I was at a seminar where Rachel Herz was one of the guest speakers. Her talk was not only interesting but the most informative and entertaining. I was wondering how could Rachel write a book about repulsion that would be interesting enough to read. Based on hearing her talk I decided to take a chance. I have to say she doesn't disappoint. Not only was it interesting but it opened my eyes up to things happening around me and gave me insight as to why. There are numerous examples that one can relate to or even have experienced. She accomplishes this with historical references, research data and humor. A combination that makes it an easy enjoyable read. I highly recomend this book.
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on June 2, 2014
Nicely written and, for the most part, fascinating. But there are times when it is a little on the dry side. Still, if you are interested in this sort of thing then you will find this book more interesting than not.
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on May 10, 2012
Oozing scabs.
Rotting meat.
Lying politicians.

Disgusted? We're all quite familiar with the intense emotion of disgust, but why do we have it? Disgust--the only emotion we have that has to be learned--is all about rejection. Disgust evolved in humans as a way to protect us from death (both physically and psychologically) and anything else that threatens our way of life. As the author explains:
"Disgust evolved from a simple mechanism that helped us avoid swallowing poison to one that warns us of death by the slow process of disease, and is ultimately about the uniquely human awareness of our fragile and finite mortality. Anything that triggers reminders of these issues, from slugs, to skeletons, to the shattering of our worldview, can elicit disgust in us. All disgusts motivate avoidance, but what the specific feelings of disgust are cannot be pinned down. Disgust can be obvious, visceral, and simplistic, or abstract, philosophical, and complicated." (p.232)

It turns out that disgust is quite a complicated emotion. It takes many forms--body disgust, disease-contamination disgust, mutilation-deformity disgust, animal, sexual, and moral disgust--and it is both universal and uniquely personal. It is also highly influenced by character, culture, and context. To experience this powerful emotion, we need an intact network of brain structures (the insula, first and foremost), as well as the the capacity for self-awareness, complex thinking and interpretation, and an understanding of social order and cues.

After reading this book, you'll understand why babies are unfazed by sitting in a dirty diaper (not to mention often delighted to play with their own poo), why you're disgusted by the saliva of a stranger, aroused by your lover's, and indifferent to your own, and why you're probably revolted by even the thought of certain acts (such as having sex with and/or eating the dead). And, beyond the realms of poo, spit, and sex, you'll also learn how disgust helps us manage our deepest existential fear--that of the inevitability of our own death.

By understanding this enigmatic emotion, we can ultimately gain a better understanding of what makes us uniquely human. Who knew that disgust could be so appealing!

(For added fun while reading this already highly entertaining book, notice how many times your face instinctively contorts in disgust.)
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on February 4, 2012
Read this today - contains many new pieces of information, from Jeffrey Dahmer to Natto, with a solid framework for understanding and synthesis. The section on Huntington's Disease was particularly notable. Don't work, no disgusting pictures are featured, just words and ideas. Excellent.
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on December 16, 2012
Rachel Herz has an amazing talent for bringing serious topics to life. Although it is a non-fiction book, That's Disgusting is so entertaining and witty that it reads like a novel! While richly documenting the cultural, contextual, social and psychological components of disgust, Rachel Herz weaves in the most intriguing and mesmerizing facts: lobster was once considered vermin, and feeding it to prisoners more than twice a week was against the law! Cheese with maggots is a delicacy! Fecal implantation cured an intractable intestinal ailment! Designer vaginas is the latest craze! Watching horror movies can temporarily compromise our immune system! I was also fascinated by thought-provoking concepts such as the moralization of food, or the manipulation of disgust to serve our purpose. That's Disgusting is a must read. A word of caution: some chapters will make you want to run for a can of Lysol or a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Jocelyne Lebon
Author of Clémentine's Uncommon Scents
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on October 2, 2012
As a picky eater and picky person overall, I found this book so broadening. I felt much better about myself, and at the same time I felt myself as so limited. This book opens up so many elements of who we are as human people, touching not just on food, but religion and social interactions. I am an American living in Japan, and though I cannot muster the courage to try nattou, I feel better for it. But, regardless of my personal feelings of self promotion, this book hits on all aspects of the human spectrum, from social norms to religion. I highly recommend this book to open up your view of the world at large. Humans are anything but one-dimensional, and beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. After reading this book, you will understand why swapping spit with a loved one is so intense whereas doing so with your boss will make you lose your lunch.
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