Saturday, 7 November 2015

Thoughts from the Shower: Parasitic BRAIN WORMS!

I love showers. They provide great thinking time. I've been meaning to post some of those thoughts for a while, but today's shower provided me with a moment of musing that I thought worth recording.

So a bit of background first. I've been watching World's Weirdest Events on BBC, and there was a segment on there about a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis. This parasite's lifecycle mainly concerns rats and cats. When it gets into a rat, it affects the way their brains work and basically makes them fearless of cats and also makes the rat sexually attracted to cats. As you can probably imagine, this often results in the rat getting eaten, which is great for the parasite, 'cos then it gets into the cat - and a cat's stomach is the only place the parasite can reproduce.

I hope I've remembered the above correctly, but I know I've got the important bit right - this is a parasite that gets into the brain of a creature and affects how it thinks. Now, apparently scientists reckon that the toxoplasma parasite is present in the brains of loads of humans. Luckily it doesn't seem to make us sexually attracted to cats, but less luckily, it has been linked to schizophrenia.

So for some reason today, I was thinking about this in the shower. Somehow my train of thought ended up in a bit of a philosophical station - what if a parasite in our brains were responsible for us feeling we have control over what we do?

I mean, we are basically made up of atoms and cells and chemicals and whatever, all of which respond to various things, and as far as I can tell, there is no way to prove that we actually have any agency over our lives. For example, I'm sat here thinking "should I go out for a bike ride?" and it seems that I have a choice. However, could it be that my 'decision' is not actually a decision at all, but simply the result of various chemicals sloshing around in my body, sending messages to my brain that I need a testosterone boost from exercise, or conversely, that my body needs to rest in order to carry on digesting lunch? Maybe we are all basically machines that respond to stimuli, with no free will, but we're fooled into thinking that we have because of a parasite living in our brains?


Of course, toxoplasmosis affects rats in the way it does because it benefits the parasite - it creates the situations where the rat is likely to get eaten by a cat and then the parasite can reproduce. Presumably, if we were given the illusion of agency by a parasite, there would have to be some benefit there to the parasite from our modified behaviour.

So how would our behaviour be different? That's a tough one. If we actually have no free will, then presumably the only change would be due to the physical effects of the parasite being present in our brains - we can't choose to act differently if we have no free will in the first place, so it's hard to think of a reason why a parasite would evolve to have this effect on us.

But it's still a pretty cool idea, right?

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