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11/28/2002

She Ate a Fly

WARNING: IF YOU''RE EASILY DISGUSTED OR HAVE A
QUEASY STOMACH, DO NOT READ THIS COLUMN!

Last week''s episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was
disgusting; yet I found it very funny. Raymond''s brother Robert
brought a newfound female acquaintance to dinner. Robert,
divorced and unlucky in affairs of the heart, considered this
young lady to possibly be "The One". However, a strange thing
happened. There was a large fly buzzing around in the dining
room and the gal proved quite adept, clapping her hands and
killing the fly, which dropped on the table. Raymond offered to
remove it but the gal said no, placed the fly on her napkin and
folded it over the fly. While the rest of the family was in the
kitchen, Raymond saw her unfold the napkin, eat the fly and then
down it with red wine! Although I thought that red wine was the
proper choice to accompany raw fly, Raymond was stunned.

When Raymond told Robert and the rest of the family what he
had witnessed, nobody believed him. Such a nice young lady
could not have engaged in such a disgusting act. Robert left in a
huff, taking his date back to her apartment, where their
relationship seemed about to evolve to an intimate stage. Robert,
however, ended up exiting the apartment by way of a bedroom
window upon discovering the room to be inhabited by what must
have been hundreds of live frogs! His exit was hastened by the
young lady''s assertion that we all are descended from frogs!

The day after this Raymond episode, I found in my December
issue of Discover magazine an article by Josie Glausiusz titled
"Oh Yuck". The subject of the article was "disgust". Coming on
the heels of the Raymond episode, it was obvious that disgust
was meant to be the subject of this column. A visit to Britain''s
Channel 4 Web site revealed that it had actually run a series of
programs on the anatomy of disgust. For some reason it seems
British researchers have a particular interest in the subject.

Mary Phillips, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, terms
disgust "the forgotten emotion of psychiatry". Is disgust a
product of evolution, inherent in our genes, or is it a learned
emotion? Both Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin weighed in
on the matter. As you might expect, Freud was of the opinion
that disgust arises from our relationships with our parents at an
early age. Appropriately, those supporting Freud''s position
employ our feelings towards a substance that disgusts virtually
everyone. In light of the recent election, with its Republican
slant, I will discuss this universally disgusting substance, a form
of human and animal excrement, by the more delicate term made
fashionable by George Bush number 41. I''m referring of course
to doo-doo, as in "deep doo-doo".

Freud and others cite a baby''s reaction to doo-doo as showing
that disgust a learned emotion. The argument is that the typical
infant shows no distaste for its doo-doo. Many years ago, I
witnessed such a disgusting example of a baby''s lack of distaste
for doo-doo that to this day I feel queasy when I think about it. It
takes time, a number of years witnessing its parents'' feelings
about doo-doo, before the child develops an aversion to doo-doo.
Freud argued that this aversion develops into disgust, which
serves to control the baser instincts of us humans so that society
can function with a modicum of civility.

Darwin, on the other hand, believed that disgust was a product of
evolution that protects us from harmful consequences. For
example, disgust would prompt us to avoid eating rotten meat or
other substances that could do us harm. However, Darwin was
willing to concede that disgust was also shaped by subsequent
cultural influences and likened disgust to emotions that require a
value judgment. Such emotions as contempt or pride fall in this
category.

It''s been more than a century since Darwin and Freud expressed
those views. Today, science offers new techniques to study the
nature of disgust. Mary Phillips runs MRI brain scans of
subjects shown pictures of disgusting objects or situations.
Phillips finds that the area of the brain that is most stimulated by
disgust is a part of the brain that evolved millions of years prior
to the development of human civilization. It was quite a bit later
that the part of the brain dealing with rational thought came on
the scene. Therefore, Phillips argues that disgust is deeply
imbedded in the brain and isn''t just a learned emotion.

Psychologist Paul Rozin falls in the middle camp that allows for
both innate disgust and cultural shaping of the emotion. Rozin
cites a baby''s reaction when it encounters a bitter food. There''s
an obvious expression of "distaste" that the baby shows quite
clearly. Rozin thinks that this distaste is molded by experience
into the more complex emotion of disgust. As mentioned, we
show no distaste for doo-doo as infants. Most of us don''t show
any aversion to chocolate, either as children or as adults. Let''s
combine the two by making realistic looking chocolate dog doo-
doo. Rozin has found that, up to the age of eight or so, children
will eat chocolate doo-doo, sometimes needing to be assured that
it is indeed chocolate. Older children and adults will typically
not eat such an object, even if assured of its edible nature - a
clear case of cultural influence on our concept of disgust.

Valerie Curtis is an epidemiologist at the London School of
Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She travels around the world to
help motivate people to maintain good hygiene. Her specialty is
the number two killer of children, diarrheal diseases. The main
prop she uses in her mission is a lump of artificial doo-doo,
which she has found to be universally considered as disgusting. I
won''t go into many of the other things associated with bodily
functions or reactions that she has found to be disgusting to
people almost everywhere. (Her experience has turned up other
objects of particular regional disgust such as dead sparrows and
cruelty to horses in Britain, politicians and dog saliva in the
Netherlands and kissing in public in India.)

Everyone is disgusted by something. I don''t watch any of the so-
called reality shows on TV and some of the promos, such as one
I saw recently of a terrified and weeping woman in a pit full of
some vile kind of creepy crawly critters, totally turn me off. But
one of the characteristics of disgusting objects or scenarios is
that, though repulsive, many are fascinated by them. Hence the
popularity of these reality shows. Prior to 9/11, Mayor Rudy
Giuliani was so disgusted with the use of dung in a work of art
involving the Virgin Mary that he proposed cutting off funding
of the art museum exhibiting the work. The resulting outcry,
both critical and supportive of his proposal, drew more people to
the museum than would have come without the publicity.

Sometimes disgust can be overcome, but at a brutal cost. Mary
Phillips and her co-worker Andy Calder of Cambridge
University have found that one of the areas of the brain
stimulated by disgust is called the insula. The insula is involved
in taste; if it is stimulated during brain surgery the patient feels
nausea and has a bad taste in his mouth. If your insula is
damaged, it might leave you without a sense of disgust. The
Discover article cites the case of a fellow who had a stroke that
damaged his insula. After his stroke, he reportedly would eat
soup stirred by a fly swatter (washed), eat chocolate doo-doo and
sleep in a bed on which someone died the night before. I''d just
as soon keep my insula intact!

There''s a lot more to say about disgust, but I''m disgusted enough
and presume you are too. I have the feeling that the answer to
the question about disgust being innate or learned will be found
when the old "nature versus nurture" argument is settled - not in
my lifetime. I promise to return to a more palatable subject next
week.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-11/28/2002-      
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Dr. Bortrum

11/28/2002

She Ate a Fly

WARNING: IF YOU''RE EASILY DISGUSTED OR HAVE A
QUEASY STOMACH, DO NOT READ THIS COLUMN!

Last week''s episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was
disgusting; yet I found it very funny. Raymond''s brother Robert
brought a newfound female acquaintance to dinner. Robert,
divorced and unlucky in affairs of the heart, considered this
young lady to possibly be "The One". However, a strange thing
happened. There was a large fly buzzing around in the dining
room and the gal proved quite adept, clapping her hands and
killing the fly, which dropped on the table. Raymond offered to
remove it but the gal said no, placed the fly on her napkin and
folded it over the fly. While the rest of the family was in the
kitchen, Raymond saw her unfold the napkin, eat the fly and then
down it with red wine! Although I thought that red wine was the
proper choice to accompany raw fly, Raymond was stunned.

When Raymond told Robert and the rest of the family what he
had witnessed, nobody believed him. Such a nice young lady
could not have engaged in such a disgusting act. Robert left in a
huff, taking his date back to her apartment, where their
relationship seemed about to evolve to an intimate stage. Robert,
however, ended up exiting the apartment by way of a bedroom
window upon discovering the room to be inhabited by what must
have been hundreds of live frogs! His exit was hastened by the
young lady''s assertion that we all are descended from frogs!

The day after this Raymond episode, I found in my December
issue of Discover magazine an article by Josie Glausiusz titled
"Oh Yuck". The subject of the article was "disgust". Coming on
the heels of the Raymond episode, it was obvious that disgust
was meant to be the subject of this column. A visit to Britain''s
Channel 4 Web site revealed that it had actually run a series of
programs on the anatomy of disgust. For some reason it seems
British researchers have a particular interest in the subject.

Mary Phillips, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, terms
disgust "the forgotten emotion of psychiatry". Is disgust a
product of evolution, inherent in our genes, or is it a learned
emotion? Both Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin weighed in
on the matter. As you might expect, Freud was of the opinion
that disgust arises from our relationships with our parents at an
early age. Appropriately, those supporting Freud''s position
employ our feelings towards a substance that disgusts virtually
everyone. In light of the recent election, with its Republican
slant, I will discuss this universally disgusting substance, a form
of human and animal excrement, by the more delicate term made
fashionable by George Bush number 41. I''m referring of course
to doo-doo, as in "deep doo-doo".

Freud and others cite a baby''s reaction to doo-doo as showing
that disgust a learned emotion. The argument is that the typical
infant shows no distaste for its doo-doo. Many years ago, I
witnessed such a disgusting example of a baby''s lack of distaste
for doo-doo that to this day I feel queasy when I think about it. It
takes time, a number of years witnessing its parents'' feelings
about doo-doo, before the child develops an aversion to doo-doo.
Freud argued that this aversion develops into disgust, which
serves to control the baser instincts of us humans so that society
can function with a modicum of civility.

Darwin, on the other hand, believed that disgust was a product of
evolution that protects us from harmful consequences. For
example, disgust would prompt us to avoid eating rotten meat or
other substances that could do us harm. However, Darwin was
willing to concede that disgust was also shaped by subsequent
cultural influences and likened disgust to emotions that require a
value judgment. Such emotions as contempt or pride fall in this
category.

It''s been more than a century since Darwin and Freud expressed
those views. Today, science offers new techniques to study the
nature of disgust. Mary Phillips runs MRI brain scans of
subjects shown pictures of disgusting objects or situations.
Phillips finds that the area of the brain that is most stimulated by
disgust is a part of the brain that evolved millions of years prior
to the development of human civilization. It was quite a bit later
that the part of the brain dealing with rational thought came on
the scene. Therefore, Phillips argues that disgust is deeply
imbedded in the brain and isn''t just a learned emotion.

Psychologist Paul Rozin falls in the middle camp that allows for
both innate disgust and cultural shaping of the emotion. Rozin
cites a baby''s reaction when it encounters a bitter food. There''s
an obvious expression of "distaste" that the baby shows quite
clearly. Rozin thinks that this distaste is molded by experience
into the more complex emotion of disgust. As mentioned, we
show no distaste for doo-doo as infants. Most of us don''t show
any aversion to chocolate, either as children or as adults. Let''s
combine the two by making realistic looking chocolate dog doo-
doo. Rozin has found that, up to the age of eight or so, children
will eat chocolate doo-doo, sometimes needing to be assured that
it is indeed chocolate. Older children and adults will typically
not eat such an object, even if assured of its edible nature - a
clear case of cultural influence on our concept of disgust.

Valerie Curtis is an epidemiologist at the London School of
Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She travels around the world to
help motivate people to maintain good hygiene. Her specialty is
the number two killer of children, diarrheal diseases. The main
prop she uses in her mission is a lump of artificial doo-doo,
which she has found to be universally considered as disgusting. I
won''t go into many of the other things associated with bodily
functions or reactions that she has found to be disgusting to
people almost everywhere. (Her experience has turned up other
objects of particular regional disgust such as dead sparrows and
cruelty to horses in Britain, politicians and dog saliva in the
Netherlands and kissing in public in India.)

Everyone is disgusted by something. I don''t watch any of the so-
called reality shows on TV and some of the promos, such as one
I saw recently of a terrified and weeping woman in a pit full of
some vile kind of creepy crawly critters, totally turn me off. But
one of the characteristics of disgusting objects or scenarios is
that, though repulsive, many are fascinated by them. Hence the
popularity of these reality shows. Prior to 9/11, Mayor Rudy
Giuliani was so disgusted with the use of dung in a work of art
involving the Virgin Mary that he proposed cutting off funding
of the art museum exhibiting the work. The resulting outcry,
both critical and supportive of his proposal, drew more people to
the museum than would have come without the publicity.

Sometimes disgust can be overcome, but at a brutal cost. Mary
Phillips and her co-worker Andy Calder of Cambridge
University have found that one of the areas of the brain
stimulated by disgust is called the insula. The insula is involved
in taste; if it is stimulated during brain surgery the patient feels
nausea and has a bad taste in his mouth. If your insula is
damaged, it might leave you without a sense of disgust. The
Discover article cites the case of a fellow who had a stroke that
damaged his insula. After his stroke, he reportedly would eat
soup stirred by a fly swatter (washed), eat chocolate doo-doo and
sleep in a bed on which someone died the night before. I''d just
as soon keep my insula intact!

There''s a lot more to say about disgust, but I''m disgusted enough
and presume you are too. I have the feeling that the answer to
the question about disgust being innate or learned will be found
when the old "nature versus nurture" argument is settled - not in
my lifetime. I promise to return to a more palatable subject next
week.

Allen F. Bortrum