But maybe it’s also a tip of the iceberg of god knows what other kind of parasitic stuff is going on out there. And in a larger sense, god knows what other unseen realms of biology make our behaviour far less autonomous than lots of folks would like to think. (Robert Sapolsky, “Toxo”, video on www.edge.org)
Parasites can change our behavior. Not in a chaotic way but in a way which enhances their survival. It seems like a synopsis of The Matrix or of some kind of zombie movie. It’s not, as Robert Sapolsky explains in the latest issue of Edge.
I love neurology stories like those of Sapolsky, just for the sake of shaking things up once and a while. It seems like every time I dig into recent brain research, my paradigms shift.
The latest shifter came from the scientist above. Sapolsky has done research on Toxoplasma, a parasite well known for being tremendously dangerous for fetuses.
A cat’s ass
The parasite can only reproduce itself in the rear end of a cat. Now how does this parasite ends up there? Amazingly enough, when it infects a rodent like a rat, it rewires some specific circuits in the brain so that rats end up getting attracted to cat pheromones instead of being afraid of them. These rats go after cat feces and are more likely to end up in the stomach of a cat, where toxoplasma will find it’s way back to the cat’s rear end in order to reproduce itself.
Amazing, isn’t it?
What’s truly amazing is that this rewiring happens with a kind of surgical precision. These infected rats are still afraid of all the other stuff they’re supposed to be afraid of.
Parasites and us are related
Scientists have found out that toxogenome shares a version of a gene which turns out to be the critical enzyme for making dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s all about reward and anticipation of reward. In short, toxo has the mammalian gene for making this stuff.
If these parasites are so neatly designed for pulling the plugs in our brains, then it’s not surprising to hear they may help us to explain some issues in human behavior. Sapolsky mentions for example that toxo may make humans engage in radical behavior, such as speeding which brings him to saying the words which I’ve mentioned above.
Parasites or paranoia?
Sapolsky’s theory is interesting and scary at the same time. Especially when you hear Sapolsky say that these parasites know more about how our brain works than we do. I doubt whether “knowing more” is an accurate way to put things. It’s like saying a snow crystal knows more about symmetry than we do. Instead of internal intelligence, it’s the systemic constellation which has enabled this crystal to appear in its symmetry. I kind of like to believe that it’s the same with the toxoplasma and our brain.
What does this mean? It means that if you start looking for some kind of ingenious controlling system and knowledge within the parasite, you’re likely to be confronted with a complexity which may be impossible to explain. If you look at it from a systemic perspective, say zoom out in time and space you can actually begin to understand why these relationships between the parasite and our brain started to emerge. It doesn’t have anything to do with the parasite being smarter than us. It’s more about things happening this way because their design allows them to do so.