This is how my mind works. I see a bit of science and then my brain starts making connections, not all of them logical, mind you. (I am a writer of fiction). What comes out the other end is a pseudo-rational idea that can create a wonderful seed for a novel, or just a conversation piece.
I recently watched a TED talk by British science writer Ed Young (you can watch it here). In it, he postulated that parasitic behavior is very common and it causes larger organisms to change their behavior. One example that grabbed my attention was a tapeworm that infects tiny shrimp (commonly called sea monkeys). The parasite changes the pigmentation of the shrimp, coloring them red. It also causes them to group together. All of this makes them easier to eat by a flamingo. It just so happens that the flamingo is the exact place the tapeworm needs to be to reproduce.
The fact that such a small organism like a tapeworm can orchestrate such a devious plan for reproduction is mind boggling. What’s more intriguing is that is happens in mammals too.
Mr. Young mentioned a single cell parasite called Toxo (Toxoplasma gondii) that infects mice and releases dopamine into their brains. Bascially, the parasite rewards the mouse for running toward a cat, rather than away. The cat gets a meal and the Toxo parasite gets a host where it can reproduce.
Mr. Young emphasized that this is a single cell organism. No brain. No long term planning. Yet it can force a mammal to do it’s bidding in much the same way we control our cars or smartphones.
Mr. Young also states that nearly 1 in 3 people have Toxo lurking inside our brains (dormant, mind you, because we’re not a cat). Yet there is speculation (and tiny bits of evidence) that Toxo affects human behavior. People with Toxo score differently on tests. There’s a slightly higher chance of accidents with Toxo infected people. Also there’s a link between schizophrenia and Toxo infestation (a small one, mind you). But that’s enough to get you thinking, isn’t it?
What if there were some sorts of parasites, as yet undetected, that do control our behavior? Think of the common cold. It only thrives because we humans like to socialize in groups. This makes it easier for the cold to propagate. If we lived isolated lives, the cold would hardly be an illness.
Now the cold isn’t a parasite. Yet it makes me wonder if there were biological forces controlling us. If so, social media sites, like Facebook, would be the panacea. They allow us humans to socialize without physical contact. Imagine if the whole world operated this way—with the only socialization through the internet. Besides the frightening and dystopian overtones, it would have the effect of almost eliminating most diseases. Without new hosts to spread to, many would die off.
Yet humans are capable to creating new parasitic threats. Simple advertising is a “crude and blundering” attempt to control our brains (according to Mr. Young). Facebook itself has apps, like Farmville, that take over your brain and not only compel you to play, but to reach out to others and lure them in. How is this different from a parasite?
Again, I’m taking huge leaps of logic. The result isn’t intended to hold up to scientific scrutiny. Rather I want to give you something to think about. Maybe the next time you open up that addicting app, you might think: Am I controlling the app, or is the app controlling me?