Professors who do cool things: Dr. Rachel Herz

After taking to the streets in search of students and alums who do cool things, we have pushed forward to the new frontier: professors. Though we expect our professors to be brilliant, sometimes we don’t realize that they’re also pretty cool

Have you ever hesitated to dig into an appetizer at an exotic restaurant because of its odor? Sure, it looked delicious in print…but now Ratty take-out doesn’t seem so bad. Ever wonder why smell can either make or break a deal when it comes to food? Dr. Rachel Herz’s new book explores that phenomenon and more as she seeks to explain our varied reactions to the emotion of disgust. BlogDH got all the deets from Dr. Herz herself.

Dr. Herz, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, is considered one of the world’s leading experts in the psychology of smell. Her research is focused on the sense of smell and emotion, and more recently, the emotion of disgust in particular. And if you’ve been reading the Wall Street Journal or using your nifty WashPo Social Reader recently, you’ll notice that her new book, That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, has been getting a lot of attention. 

Dr. Herz’s interest in disgust stemmed from a conversation with Paul Rozin, the pioneer of the study of disgust in the field of psychology in the mid 1990s, while she was on the faculty of the Monell Chemical Senses Center (an institute at UPenn devoted to smell and taste research). Fast-forward to a decade after she published her first book, The Scent of Desire (how does smell affect your relations, your sex life — gasp! — and much more?) when she started getting more attention from the media. One thing led to another, and Herz was asked to be a judge at the National Rotten Sneakers Contest (yes, it’s a real competition). After joking with friends that she could write an entire book about disgust after smelling children’s pungent shoes for a few days, Dr. Herz shipped off to Vermont to fulfill her duties as “odor specialist.” In an incredible plot twist, she tells us, “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” Five years later, she’s still a judge for the contest. 

Little did she know, her friends’ jabs at her sneaker sniffing would actually turn into a new page-turner. After the first contest, Dr. Herz reflected on “how thinking about disgust really affected how I approached the competition.” That’s Disgusting explores the full gamut of disgust from its effect on our social relationships to our sexual fetishes and morals to our food preferences. However, “cross-cultural differences in what people find delicious” also reveals how culture and our environment can enlist disgust to create prejudices against, and even “denigrate,” groups of people. The take-home message Dr. Herz wants her readers to understand is that the “emotion of disgust is essentially learned and culturally variable, but we can also take control of it – for its worst but also thankfully for its better as well.”

So, what’s the next step? In her own research, Dr. Herz is continuing to explore disgust, its influence on our moral judgments, and whether this has anything to do with the underlying connection between disgust and the sense of taste. She is also contemplating a next book, and though she hasn’t yet decided on a topic, “it won’t be disgust. It will probably have something to do with human extremes or eccentricities and how culture shapes our responses and desires.” We can’t wait.

Image via.

Leave a Reply