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“Gory Details” delves into morbidity, taboo, and our minds

Details Gory
Erika Engelhaupt
National Geographic, $ 26

We tend to stray, physically or metaphorically, from things we find unpleasant: pathetic insects, body fluids, conversations about death. But the fact that something is disgusting, morbid, or taboo shouldn’t stop us from learning it, and it could even be a clue we should, says science journalist Erika Engelhaupt.

In Gory Details, Engelhaupt takes on a number of such topics, from which mammals are more likely to kill members of their own species and the little history of research on female genitalia to the workings of fecal transplants and the psychology of why we find them. creepy clowns. . He often uses science, history, or both to break down what gives a particular subject its taboo or ick state. How else would you stop the chills from running down your spine as you read about a woman who pulled 14 little worms out of her eye rather than learning the story of the parasitic survival that put them there?

Regular readers of Science News could recognize Engelhaupt’s name: she was the magazine’s editor from 2009 to 2014. While here, Gory Details was born as a blogger and later moved to National Geographic. The book includes updated and expanded versions of some blog posts, as well as plenty of new material.

Science News reached out to Engelhaupt to talk about the book. The following conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

SN: You mentioned that when people learn that the title of your book is Gory Details, they assume you’re writing for kids.

Engelhaupt: Yes. At some point, people are expected to grow up and not take an interest in dirty things, and I reject that. I think we’re all interested in a wide variety of dirty things. It’s a matter of how you frame it. We may love to see mysteries of murder and criminal-type programs. We don’t necessarily think of ourselves as morbid about it. But when it comes to things like biology, anatomy, and taboo subjects involving sex or death, we stay at a different level. I want people to read this book and walk away looking forward to, you know what? It’s okay to be curious about things we consider out of bounds for polite conversation.

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SN: Do you think you have a greater tolerance than most for “gross” topics?

Engelhaupt: There is a questionnaire that you can carry out to see how easily you get disgusted. They are totally average. I think maybe that’s part of the reason I’m so interested in these topics, because they make me fat as much as the others.

SN: He went to a conference on edible insects. It seemed like it was at the limit of what you were willing to do on behalf of Gory Details.

Engelhaupt: He was. I felt the need to go where all the scientists would be and really learn why they think we will all eat more insects in 20 years. It was a challenge for me. There’s a bit of excitement in doing something like eating that first food worm. You know it’s not really going to hurt you, but it’s raw and young and exciting. The biggest challenge was the silkworm pupa, which was large and segmented and looked so … insect.

SN: Do you have any favorite reporting field trips?

Engelhaupt: Probably the most fun trip I made for the book was to biologist Rob Dunn’s lab at North Carolina State University to find my own mites. There are two species of small eight-legged mites that live on all of our faces and, incidentally, elsewhere in our body. Seeing something living in my pores cracking on the microscope slide; for me there is nothing more fun than that. I still keep photos on my cell phone of the mites on my face for me to show people.

SN: You write about “infestation delusions,” where people believe their bodies are full of insects. I was struck by the stories of people with this disease and who seemed to have no other mental illness.

Engelhaupt: A delusion is just a fixed idea that is wrong. When you hear that someone is delusional, you may think they are schizophrenic or psychotic. There may be cases where mental illness overlaps, but many cases start normally. A person feels an itch, there is a real physical sensation. It’s not very hard to imagine that they thought something was dragging them and that they might be insects. It becomes extremely important for the person to convince people that he is right and not crazy. Thus, the person deepens more and more (the delirium) and it becomes more difficult to get him to accept the treatment.

There are antipsychotic drugs that can help people put aside the idea and treatments that can solve underlying problems: skin problems, for example, or nerve problems that can cause sensations. (Antipsychotic treatment) makes everything sound very scary. That is one of the reasons why this problem is not recognized and not addressed, due to the stigma surrounding mental illness and why it seems like people should be crazy. Our stupidity and fear of the people who experience it, our deep discomfort with it, has really created a trap for people.

SN: He also writes about many new scientific researches. Some prominent papers in which you think I have to write about this

Engelhaupt: A study in which scientists fed different human body fluids to mosquitoes to see which ones were tastier to flies. (Scientists) were seeing how flies could transfer human DNA collected from body fluids to different parts of a crime scene. The techniques (DNA analysis) are now so sensitive that we are taking DNA from fly poop. If the flies have already eaten human blood or semen or saliva, there may be DNA from that person pulling the poop out. That (DNA) can be interpreted as a splash of blood or be picked up by chance at a crime scene and really confuse the situation. Who would have thought that you need to study fly poop to analyze DNA in a crime scene?

SN: I was sure you were going to say the article on a human’s calorie count, from the chapter on cannibalism.

Engelhaupt: It was a question I didn’t know I had until I saw a scientist answer. And those are some of the kinds of things I wanted to fill this book with: You didn’t know you wanted to know this, but I hope you’re happy to do it now.

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