In a way, nausea is our trusty personal bodyguard.
Feeling nauseated is widely accepted to be an evolutionary defense measure that protects people from pathogens and parasites. The urge to gag or vomit is “well-suited” to defend ourselves against things we swallow that might contain pathogens, according to Tom Kupfer, a psychological scientist at Nottingham Trent University in England. But vomiting is somewhat futile against a tick, an ectoparasite that latches on to skin, not stomachs.
In an experiment that produced both stomach churning and skin crawling sensations — I can confirm these and some other physiological responses firsthand — Dr. Kupfer and Daniel Fessler, an evolutionary anthropologist from the University of California, Los Angeles, argue in a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that humans have evolved to defend themselves against ectoparasites through a skin response that elicits scratching.
Although some outside experts say more research is needed, the findings align with some understandings of the evolution of disgust.
“It makes sense to have developed adaptive defensive strategies against the ‘nasty’ ones,” Cécile Sarabian, a cognitive ecologist studying animal disgust at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute in Japan, wrote in an email.
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