The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects
by Jeffrey Lockwood
Oxford University Press, 2013
Salvador Dalí, the surrealist painter, was so afraid of grasshoppers that he jumped from a second-floor window at the sight of one. The 19 million Americans who suffer from insect phobias can relate, and I count myself among them. Lockwood suffered his own debilitating bout of grasshopper phobia after encountering a seething swarm, “a bristling carpet of wings and legs.” But unlike most entomophobes, Lockwood has made a scientific career of studying grasshoppers.
In The Infested Mind, Lockwood shifts from entomology to psychology to examine the fascination that first drew him to insects and the terror that later repelled him. His exploration of our complex relations with these critters makes for an engrossing book. For the entomophobic reader especially, the experience is at times thrilling (watch out for the photos!) and therapeutic.
Entomophobes endure “a remarkable inner world of faulty reasoning, distorted perceptions, and selective perspectives,” Lockwood writes. Yet even those without full-blown phobias share some level of fear and disgust toward insects and other “bugs” such as spiders and centipedes. Lockwood dissects the many ways these creepy-crawlies make us shudder and gag. Fear is a reaction to present danger. We are afraid of erratic motion (scurrying cockroaches) and alien features (exoskeletons, too many limbs). Disgust is a protective response against contamination, both physical and psychological. We are disgusted by morbid associations (maggots), excess fecundity (swarming locusts) and the invasion of our body (parasitic worms).
Is our aversion to insects evolutionarily ingrained or socially constructed? It seems silly to be instinctively fearful of creatures that are more likely than not harmless and sometimes even nutritious. The evolutionary psychologist, however, might contend that it is better to be safe from a harmless grasshopper than to be sorry from a deadly black widow. As with most questions of nature versus nurture, the answer lies somewhere in between.
With sensitivity and gusto, Lockwood tours the extremes of the “infested mind,” including sexual fetishes involving crawling ants, insects as instruments of psychological torture, and infestations that flourish only in the imagination. We learn that poor Dalí's delusory parisitosis once drove him to attack his own back with a razor blade, trying to excavate an insect that was really just a pimple.
Only one in eight entomophobes seeks treatment, perhaps because the current gold standard, cognitive-behavior therapy, requires exposure to the dreaded insect, along with a rational examination of the fear. This means I would have to confront a caterpillar. Maybe someday.