In my introductory psychology class, we’ve been learning about exposure therapy. During our class discussion – in which we defined exposure therapy as continued confrontation of the thing causing a patient’s fear or anxiety – I could not stop thinking about the horrific ending to "1984": the scene in which Winston, the protagonist of the story, is tortured with a cage of rats. Specifically, his head is securely strapped in place, and a cage of rats is placed in front of it. If his torturer, O’Brien, opens the door to the cage, the rats will swarm Winston’s face and eat it. I’ll say it again: they will .
I wrote a column last year about my generalized fear of rodents. All rodents make my stomach twist in fear, but rats, specifically, induce an all-consuming sort of disgust. The situation with Winston in "1984" is, to date, the most disturbing literary scene I’ve read. I can see it unfolding: the rats, with their scary tails and tiny, creepy hands, writhing in their cage, and the impending horror of their release. In my column, I pondered where, exactly, this outsized fear of rats came from.
I got my answer on the drive home to Washington D.C. this past weekend. I don’t have an AUX cord in my car, so I listen to podcasts on my iPhone speaker. Usually, this lasts for about 20 minutes, until I get sick of holding up my phone next to my ear and resign myself to a drive filled with local country music radio stations. (Truly, very little radio diversity on I-95 through Virginia.) This time, though, I was hooked.
During an excellent Hidden Brain podcast episode, entitled “Crickets and Cannibals: Unpacking the Complicated Emotion of Disgust,” host Shankar Vedantam dissected the mechanics behind disgust. As it turns out, disgust is a conditioned reaction. According to Rachel Herz, an expert on the psychology of disgust and smell, if a baby smells vomit, they react positively; make them smell vanilla, and they react with disgust. This instinctive reaction to stereotypically disgusting smells reveals its learned, environmentally influenced development.
Their discussion surrounding disgust and privilege, though, truly reframed my fear of rats. Vedantam explored the oft-cinematized incident of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes. The men who survived the crash resorted to cannibalism to survive, silencing their conditioned responses of disgust and responding to the severity of their situation.
“It is a luxury to be able to be disgusted,” Herz says, citing the fact that if “you don’t have anything else to eat other than some who’s dead beside you,” you will quell your disgust in order to survive.
I’ve had the privilege, thus far, to live in places where I don’t regularly encounter rats, and in homes where I could hypothetically afford to call an exterminator. I still couldn’t handle a "1984"-esque encounter, but it’s probably time for me to start analyzing and dismantling the environmental reasons for my disgust. Or I could just keep proceeding as I have been my whole life: shrieking hysterically whenever I see any sort of rodent, like the privileged coward that I am. Either works, honestly.
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