21 December 2005

Mind control

It's recently been discovered that a parasite of grasshoppers is able to make the grasshoppers jump into water, which the parasite needs to complete its life cycle. This does, however, kill the grasshopper.

What's really interesting about this is that it's brought about by simply altering the mix of proteins in the grasshopper's brain.

I have a few qualms about this article, since it refers to "enslaver fungi", the only one of which I've ever heard was reported by the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Now, the MJT is a wonderful place to wander around, but I, um, wouldn't take it as an authoritative source. (If nothing else, think about its name for a minute...)

Still, I'm fascinated by a parasite's ability to improve its reproductive chances by altering the behavior of its host. It's seen in simple ways, as in the common cold, where the virus causes us to sneeze, thus spreading the virus. That seems like a simple stimulus-response. But what about the toxoplasma parasite, which normally lives in cats, but sometimes spreads to rats which eat cat feces? The parasite is able to increase its chances of returning to live in a cat by altering the rat's behavior. Specifically, it makes the rat less afraid of new things and new situations, making it more likely that it'll be in a place where a cat can catch and eat it.

The next question I'm interested in is how much of our specific behavior can be controlled this easily. Put another way, what are the limits on our "free will"? I have seen illness change the way I act, going from a shy withdrawn loner, to a gregarious social butterfly, and back again. While I feel that I could have chosen not to make those changes, the fact is that I didn't, so perhaps it wasn't a choice I was really able to make.

I'm going to guess that most "mental" and "autoimmune" "diseases" will be found to have genetic or infectious causes, and will be reclassified until all that remains are "behavior problems". I just hope it happens soon enough for Thomas Szasz to see it, and for me to benefit from it.

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