by liberal japonicus
Probably more of an open thread topic (but all my posts are basically open threads), but by way of introduction, I love the observation that zombies are a boy thing, vampires are a girl thing because, like every good joke, there is an uncomfortable observation at the heart of it. Boys like zombies because, when you are in a zombie apocalypse, questions of survival trump questions of committment. On the other hand, 'till death do us part' takes on a whole new level when you are part of the undead.
When we toss in the concept of free will, things get really interesting. While the etiology of zombies is a little more fluid than vampires, I think vampires have it all over zombies in terms of free will. Compelled by the blood lust but fighting it is a lot more appealing romantically than must eat brains, will eat brains.
That's a roundabout way to introduce cats and this article to the mix.
Certainly Flegr’s thinking is jarringly unconventional. Starting in the early 1990s, he began to suspect that a single-celled parasite in the protozoan family was subtly manipulating his personality, causing him to behave in strange, often self-destructive ways. And if it was messing with his mind, he reasoned, it was probably doing the same to others.
The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDSepidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.
But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”
a bit more below the fold, with an autoplay video.
I'm not as freaked out about this as I imagine some people might be. When you look at dashcams in Russia
You imagine that the contribution of T. gondii is swamped by the contribution of Driver idiotus. But further down is this interesting observation
One might be tempted to dismiss the bulk of Flegr’s work as hokum—the fanciful imaginings of a lone, eccentric scholar—were it not for the pioneering research of Joanne Webster, a parasitologist at Imperial College London. Just as Flegr was embarking on his human trials, Webster, then a freshly minted Ph.D., was launching studies of Toxo-infected rodents, reasoning, just as Flegr did, that as hosts of the parasite, they would be likely targets for behavioral manipulation.
She quickly confirmed, as previous researchers had shown, that infected rats were more active and less cautious in areas where predators lurk. But then, in a simple, elegant experiment, she and her colleagues demonstrated that the parasite did something much more remarkable. They treated one corner of each rat’s enclosure with the animal’s own odor, a second with water, a third with cat urine, and the last corner with the urine of a rabbit, a creature that does not prey on rodents. “We thought the parasite might reduce the rats’ aversion to cat odor,” she told me. “Not only did it do that, but it actually increased their attraction. They spent more time in the cat-treated areas.” She and other scientists repeated the experiment with the urine of dogs and minks, which also prey on rodents. The effect was so specific to cat urine, she says, that “we call it ‘fatal feline attraction.’”
The article concludes with pointing out that the parasite may have the same effect on humans, and points to a number of other possible agents that make us feel and react differently. The author also deftly weaves this thread about him getting tested (but not knowing the results) at the beginning of working on this piece and his disappointment at finding he's not infected
She has a point. In fact, I’ve been wondering whether T. gondii might in some small way be contributing to my extreme extroversion—why I can’t resist striking up conversations everywhere I go, even when I’m short of time or with strangers I’ll never see again. Then it occurs to me that cysts in my brain might be behind my seesaw moods or even my splurges on expensive clothes. Maybe, I think with mounting conviction, the real me would have displayed better self-control, had I not been forced to swim upstream against the will of an insidious parasite. With my feline pal Pixie on my lap (for the record, she’s an outdoor cat), I call to get the results of my Toxo test. Negative. I don’t have the latent infection.
I call to tell Flegr the good news. Even though I’m relieved, I know my voice sounds flat. “It’s strange to admit,” I say, “but I think I’m a little disappointed.” He laughs. “People who have cats often feel that way, because they think the parasite explains why they behave this way or that,” he says. “But,” I protest, “you thought the same way.” Then it hits me. I may have dodged T. gondii, but given our knack for fooling ourselves—plus all those parasites out there that may also be playing tricks on our minds—can anyone really know who’s running the show?
On the one hand, that thought about 'who's running the show?' is one that everyone deals with from time to time. I'm not sure if it's just getting older, or realizing that I in no way run the show, so I might as well get used to it, but it doesn't bother me so much. What are your thoughts?