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“That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion” by Rachel Herz

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Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion

By Rachel Herz

Norton. 274 pp. $26.95

Sorry, America. NBC’s gross-out, terror-inducing series “Fear Factor” is back. Whether you’re a fan or a foe, though, Rachel Herz’s “That’s Disgusting” should be required reading. Herz, an olfactory psychology expert at Brown University, knows of what she speaks: Since 2008 she has been a judge at the National Rotten Sneakers Contest.

Herz examines what makes us go “eww” — including malodorous teens and maggot-infested cheese — from an engaging mix of scientific and cultural viewpoints. At its most essential level, she says, disgust is an evolutionarily honed method of self-protection. If you think the milk smells bad, then you probably shouldn’t drink it. But somewhere along the way, disgust also became a social weapon. Prosecutors use the emotion to manipulate jurors. (Dare you not to squirm while reading Herz’s account of the German cannibal who solicited his victim online.) Disgust can also be used to denigrate specific groups, such as immigrants and gay people, she explains.

Herz seems to have a perfect example for nearly every type of disgust you can imagine: sexual, medical, gustatory, etc. Her strengths as a researcher and author are apparent in her ability to cite and explain academic studies in a conversational manner. The more disgust-sensitive out there — take the quiz in the book to see if you’re one of them! — might feel as though Herz is piling it on just to make a point about our irrational reactions. The point, however, is well worth making. If we understand why we think something’s disgusting, it might not be so disgusting after all.

— Becky Krystal

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