Sunday, March 18, 2007

The revulsion response

It's Revolting!

I just got back from seeing the movie "300", a 90 minute gore-fest with all sorts of revusions, from deformed people, decapitation and lots of Gore (i.e. "bloody", not the fellow who invented the Internet).

This movie is approaching 100 million dollars in sales and it got me wondering about the instinctive and cultural nature of human revulsion.

What is the nature of revulsion and disgust?

- What is it about a festering corpse that invokes the gag reflex?

- Why is it funny when your boss farts loudly in a crowded elevator?

Dead rat, found in pickle jar

Personally, some of my grossest experience are related to working with horses.
Horses occasionally develop "projectile diarrhea" and they can shoot a stream of liquid poo up to 12 feet behind them. It's still warm when it hits you, and most folks vomit, while bystanders usually laugh!

I also recall a situation where I was riding a horse with sinus congestion (a horses nasal cavity can be a foot long) and I'll never forget my revulsion when the horse reared-back his head and lobbed a softball-sized wad of gooey phlegm firectly onto my face.

Lets face it. people love to become disgusted, and there are even kids books like "Gross Universe" dedicated to gross things for kids:

My son once found a dead chicken in an old barn when he lifted an over-turned bucket. (Evidently, the chicken knocked the bucket down from a high wall and it happened to land right on her, where she died from thirst.)

She had been dead awhile and was very putrid, with dripping gelatinous goo replacing the torso. Ewww . . .

Festering wounds are universally gross

American Media and the revulsion factor

The movie industry is making zillions of dollars, delivering gross-out masterpieces such as "Apocalypto", "300", and "The Passion", movies with the sole intent to invoke the human revulsion behavior.

On TV, we see shows like "South Park" that relish in the realm of the revolting, where almost every episode features revolting images.

In one episode, squeamish South Park viewers were treated to a medical film documenting the "cutting" during a male-female sex-change surgery (According to comedian Tim Allen, the medical term for this member removal procedure is "Lop-it-off-o-me").

The cultural impact on the revulsion response

Babies and toddlers appear in have no sophisticated gag reflex (although they will readily refuse spoiled food). Having raised a few kids, I'm confident that toddlers don't have the same standards of revulsion as adults.

Kiddies seem to find poo fascinating, and they have no qualms cleaning-out the the cat's litter box by-hand. I've seen kids who will eat whatever unfortunate insects who happen by, and I've seen more than one toddler who will reach into the back of their diaper and show you a surprise.

Poo revusion is a learned reaction

And lets not forget the local rednecks, which their poor oral hygene:

Human parasites are a universal revulsion

Here is my list of common revolting acts, along a spectrum from "Wuss" to "Macho Man":
  • You don't gag while changing a nasty-bad poopy diaper.
  • You can watch yourself getting an injection
  • You can watch someone stitch-up your gaping wound
  • You can clean and gut a fish
  • You can watch Apocalypto without averting your gaze
  • You can clean and gut and eat a mammal (squirrel, deer)
  • You can eat trout with the head-attached
For the whole revolting story, see my full research into the instinctive and cultural nature of human revulsion.