Return of the Puppet Masters: Ponerological Implications of Toxoplasmosis
by Carl Zimmer
Are brain parasites altering the personalities of three billion people? The question emerged a few years ago, and it shows no signs of going away.
I first encountered this idea while working on my book Parasite Rex. I was investigating the remarkable ability parasites have to manipulate the behavior of their hosts. The lancet fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum, for example, forces its ant host to clamp itself to the tip of grass blades, where a grazing mammal might eat it. It's in the fluke's interest to get eaten, because only by getting into the gut of a sheep or some other grazer can it complete its life cycle. Another fluke, Euhaplorchis californiensis, causes infected fish to shimmy and jump, greatly increasing the chance that wading birds will grab them.
Those parasites were weird enough, but then I got to know Toxoplasma gondii. This single-celled parasite lives in the guts of cats, sheddding eggs that can be picked up by rats and other animals that can just so happen be eaten by cats. Toxoplasma forms cysts throughout its intermediate host's body, including the brain. And yet a Toxoplasma-ridden rat is perfectly healthy. That makes good sense for the parasite, since a cat would not be particularly interested in eating a dead rat. But scientists at Oxford discovered that the parasite changes the rats in one subtle but vital way.
The scientists studied the rats in a six-foot by six-foot outdoor enclosure. They used bricks to turn it into a maze of paths and cells. In each corner of the enclosure they put a nest box along with a bowl of food and water. On each the nests they added a few drops of a particular odor. On one they added the scent of fresh straw bedding, on another the bedding from a rat's nests, on another the scent of rabbit urine, on another, the urine of a cat. When they set healthy rats loose in the enclosure, the animals rooted around curiously and investigated the nests. But when they came across the cat odor, they shied away and never returned to that corner. This was no surprise: the odor of a cat triggers a sudden shift in the chemistry of rat brains that brings on intense anxiety. (When researchers test anti-anxiety drugs on rats, they use a whiff of cat urine to make them panic.) The anxiety attack made the healthy rats shy away from the odor and in general makes them leery of investigating new things. Better to lie low and stay alive.
Then the researchers put Toxoplasma-carrying rats in the enclosure. Rats carrying the parasite are for the most part indistinguishable from healthy ones. They can compete for mates just as well and have no trouble feeding themselves. The only difference, the researchers found, is that they are more likely to get themselves killed. The scent of a cat in the enclosure didn't make them anxious, and they went about their business as if nothing was bothering them. They would explore around the odor at least as often as they did anywhere else in the enclosure. In some cases, they even took a special interest in the spot and came back to it over and over again.
The scientists speculated that Toxoplasma was secreted some substance that was altering the patterns of brain activity in the rats. This manipulation likely evolved through natural selection, since parasites that were more likely to end up in cats would leave more offpsring.
The Oxford scientists knew that humans can be hosts to Toxoplasma, too. People can become infected by its eggs by handling soil or kitty litter. For most people, the infection causes no harm. Only if a person's immune system is weak does Toxoplasma grow uncontrollably. That's why pregnant women are advised not to handle kitty litter, and why toxoplasmosis is a serious risk for people with AIDS. Otherwise, the parasite lives quietly in people's bodies (and brains). It's estimated that about half of all people on Earth are infected with Toxoplasma.
Given that human and rat brains have a lot of similarities (they share the same basic anatomy and use the same neurotransmitters), a question naturally arose: if Toxoplasma can alter the behavior of a rat, could it alter a human? Obviously, this manipulation would not do the parasite any good as an adaptation, since it's pretty rare for a human to be devoured by a cat. But it could still have an effect.Obviously a LOT of people on this planet are being "taken over" by Ponerogenic processes. It is quite amazing to observe and perhaps this article suggests a line of research. The psychopath's ability to confuse and dominate a normal person is based, I think, on something similar to what happens to a mouse when it senses a cat nearby.Millions of years of evolution have built a defense mechanism into the mouse that makes it stay as far away from cats and other predators as possible. Here we see that a bacteria can shift that defense mechanism and maybe even turn it off.
Some scientists believe that Toxoplasma changes the personality of its human hosts, bringing different shifts to men and women. Parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague administered psychological questionnaires to people infected with Toxoplasma and controls. Those infected, he found, show a small, but statistically significant, tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Paradoxically, infected women, on average, tend to be more outgoing and warmhearted than controls, while infected men tend to be more jealous and suspicious.
It's controversial work, disputed by many. But it attracted the attention of E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Torrey and his colleagues had noticed some intriguing links between Toxoplasma and schizophrenia. Infection with the parasite has been associated with damage to a certain class of neurons (astrocytes). So has schizophrenia. Pregnant women with high levels of Toxoplasma antibodies in their blood were more likely to give birth to children who would later develop schizophrenia. Torrey lays out more links in this 2003 paper. While none is a smoking gun, they are certainly food for thought. It's conceivable that exposure to Toxoplasma causes subtle changes in most people's personality, but in a small minority, it has more devastating effects.
A year later, Torrey and his colleagues discovered one more fascinating link. They raised human cells in Petri dishes and infected them with Toxoplasma. Then they dosed the cells with a variety of drugs used to treat schizophrenia. Several of the drugs--most notably haloperidol--blocked the growth of the parasite.
So Fuller and the Oxford scientists joined forces to find an answer to the next logical question: can drugs used to treat schizophrenia help a parasite-crazed rat? They now report their results in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (press release). They ran the original tests on 49 more rats. Once again, parasitized rats lost their healthy fear of cats. Then the researchers treated the rats with haloperidol and several other anti-psychotic drugs. They found that the drugs made the rats more scared. They also found that the antipsychotics were as effective as pyrimethamine, a drug that is specifically used to eliminate Toxoplasma.
There's plenty left to do to turn these results into a full-blown explanation of parasites and personalities. For example, what is Toxoplasma releasing into brains to manipulate its hosts? And how does that substance give rise to schizophrenia in some humans? And even if the hypothesis does hold up, it would only account for some cases of schizophrenia, while the cause of others would remain undiscovered. But still...the idea that parasites are tinkering with humanity's personality--perhaps even giving rise to cultural diversity--is taking over my head like a bad case of Toxoplasma.
In any event, what is observed is that if a mouse does not manage to stay clear of the cat, it freezes which may be an evolutionary survival strategy: play dead and the cat will go away since cat's like to play with their food before eating it.
Well, what if there is a REAL inbuilt evolutionary survival mechanism in human beings similar to that in animals that - under proper conditions - would warn us about psychopaths, but for various reasons having to do with social and religious programming, does not? We are so completely programmed to believe that anybody that looks like a human being IS a fully functional human being with a full complement of all the attributes of same, including conscience. But what if there is some part of us that still operates on the evolutionary survival instincts which we manage to suppress most of the time, but now and again is triggered by certain behaviors of psychopaths? And when it is triggered, a whole cascade of other functions come into play? Let's look at what Lobaczewski says about the "special talents" of the psychopath:
In spite of their deficiencies as regards normal psychological and moral knowledge, they develop and then have at their disposal a knowledge of their own, something lacked by people with a natural worldview.Now notice particularly this:
They learn to recognize each other in a crowd as early as childhood, and they develop an awareness of the existence of other individuals similar to them.
They also become conscious of being different from the world of those other people surrounding them. They view us from a certain distance, take a paraspecific variety.
Natural human reactions - which often fail to elicit interest because they are considered self-evident - strike psychopaths as strange and therefore interesting, even comical. They therefore observe us, deriving conclusions, forming their different world of concepts.
They become experts in our weaknesses and sometimes effect heartless experiments upon us. … Neither a normal person nor our natural worldview can perceive or properly evaluate the existence of this world of different concepts. ...
Our first contact [with the psychopath] is characterized by a talkative stream which flows with ease and avoids truly important matters with equal ease if they are uncomfortable for the talker. His train of thought also avoids those matters of human feelings and values whose representation is absent in the psychopathic world view. […] From the logical point of view, the flow of thought is ostensibly correct…
The world of normal people whom they hurt is incomprehensible and hostile to them. […] [Life to the psychopath] is the pursuit of its immediate attractions, pleasure and power. They meet with failure along this road, along with force and condemnation from the society of those other incomprehensible people....
In any society in this world, psychopathic individuals and some of the other deviants create a ponerogenically active network of common collusions, partially estranged from the community of normal people. Some inspirational role of the essential psychopathy in this network also appears to be a common phenomenon.
They are aware of being different as they obtain their life experience and become familiar with different ways of fighting for their goals. Their world is forever divided into “us and them” - their world with its own laws and customs and that other foreign world full of presumptuous ideas and customs in light of which they are condemned morally.
Their “sense of honor” bids them cheat and revile that other human world and its values. In contradiction to the customs of normal people, they feel non-fulfillment of their promises or obligations is customary behavior.
They also learn how their personalities can have traumatizing effects on the personalities of those normal people, and how to take advantage of this root of terror for purposes of reaching their goals....
Essential psychopathy has exceptionally intense effects in this manner. Something mysterious gnaws into the personality of an individual at the mercy of the psychopath, and it is fought like a demon. His emotions become chilled, his sense of psychological reality is stifled. This leads to decriterialization of thought and a feeling of helplessness culminating in depressive reactions which can be so severe that psychiatrists sometimes misdiagnose them as a manic-depressive psychosis. Lobaczewski
They also learn how their personalities can have traumatizing effects on the personalities of those normal people, and how to take advantage of this root of terror for purposes of reaching their goals....In another place in his book, Lobaczewski talks about the effect of the psychopath on normal human beings in terms of what actually transpires in the brain.
When the human mind comes into contact with this new reality so different from any experiences encountered by a person raised in a society dominated by normal people, it releases psychophysiological shock symptoms in the human brain with a higher tonus of cortex inhibition and a stifling of feelings, which then sometimes gush forth uncontrollably.Notice that the psychopath is able to use his "special knowledge" to "deaden the thought processes self-defense capabilities" of the normal person.
Human minds work more slowly and less keenly because the associative mechanisms have become inefficient.
Especially when a person has direct contact with [a psychopath], who use their specific experience so as to traumatize the minds of the “others” with their own personalities, his mind succumbs to a state of short-term catatonia.
The [psychopath's] humiliating and arrogant techniques, brutal paramoralizations, and so forth deaden his thought processes and his self-defense capabilities, and their divergent experiential method anchors in his mind. ...
Only once these unbelievably unpleasant psychological states have passed, thanks to rest in benevolent company, is it possible to reflect, always a difficult and painful process, or to become aware that one’s mind and common sense have been fooled by something which cannot fit into the normal human imagination.
Well, what if this is not entirely psychological? What if certain behaviors trigger the evolutionary survival mechanism that is part of the older structures of the brain? What if this paralysis, this catatonia is similar to the "freezing" of the mouse when it encounters the cat? What if this is our "sign," our warning that we are dealing with a psychopath???
The other thing of note is where Lobaczewski says that, while the person is "frozen" and effectively helpless, the "divergent experiential method anchors in the mind" of the normal person. For a long time I have noticed this phenomenon which I always described as "putting psychic hooks" into a person. This is actually a terrible thing because it is similar to the cat reaching out with a paw and holding the mouse down to begin toying with it prior to eating. In human psychological terms, it serves to "stall" them, like a frequency that prevents them from seeing what is being done to them and how or why. Let's call it the production of a "stalling frequency," or a "frequency fence" which includes the paralysis and "anchoring" of psychophagic concepts in the mind of the normal person One of the big questions is how to overcoming the stalling frequency, and , Lobaczewski offers some helpful information:
If a person with a normal instinctive substratum and basic intelligence has already heard and read about such a system of ruthless autocratic rule “based on a fanatical ideology”, he feels he has already formed an opinion on the subject. However, direct confrontation with the phenomenon causes him to feel intellectually helpless. All his prior imaginings prove to be virtually useless; they explain next to nothing. This provokes a nagging sensation that he and the society in which he was educated were quite naive.Notice here that Lobaczewski mentions that there are people who attempt to combine their observations of psychopathy with their own world view, such as attempting to impose their "everyone has a soul and we just have to figure out what is wrong with these people and save them" shtick, only end up being in chaos. It could be said that the same chaotic state is common to those people who have been in a state of internal conflict and discomfort when dealing with psychophages and keep trying to blame themselves or try to "fix" things.
Anyone capable of accepting this bitter void with an awareness of his own nescience, which would do a philosopher proud, can also find an orientation path within this deviant world. However, egotistically protecting his world-view habits from disintegrative disillusionment and attempting to combine them with observations from this new divergent reality only reaps mental chaos. The latter has produced unnecessary conflicts and disillusionment with the new rulership in some people; others have subordinated themselves to the pathological reality. One of the differences observed between a normally resistant person and somebody who has undergone a transpersonification is that the former is better able to survive this disintegrating cognitive void, whereas the latter fills the void with the pathologic propaganda material, and without sufficient controls.....
What is important is that those who have this problem of internal confusion and chaos are those who probably have the WILL to resist and that is what the confusion and chaos is about: the instinctive substratum is screaming: "PREDATOR" and the conscious mind's programming is saying "It's not a predator, it is a human being and I just need to figure out how to fix him/her." This conflict is what produces the "extremely unpleasant psychological states" that Lobaczewski has described: the freezing, the loss of ability to think, the mental catatonia, followed by the "anchoring" of psychopathic material.
Notice also that he mentions those that undergo what he calls "transpersonification." These are the people in whom the psychopathic material "anchors" and because they have never been able to fully accept the reality of what we can plainly call "evil personified," because they can't let go of the idea that "all are one" and "we only need love" or "let's just all get along and play nice" or "I can fix it" or they have some emotional investment in preserving the status quo, then that void is not filled with the TRUTH of the situation based on FACTS. And so, with a void inside, they are subject to having that void filled with pathologic material. They have no controls.
But, getting back to the people who do have a big conflict and who are capable of the will to resist being "assimilated, (probably because they have the WILL in there in the first place), even if they are weary and scarred from battle, there is much hope because by dealing with the phenomenon directly, they seem to be "inoculated." As Lobaczewski describes it:
Only once these unbelievably unpleasant psychological states have passed, thanks to rest in benevolent company, is it possible to reflect, always a difficult and painful process, or to become aware that one’s mind and common sense have been fooled by something which cannot fit into the normal human imagination.He also taoks a bit about the value of individuals who have been "inoculated" by first hand experience:
The specific role of certain individuals during such times is worth pointing out; they participated in the discovery of the nature of this new reality and helped others find the right path.That is what we hope to do here. It seems to me that this is the most important thing to do at this time. As Lobaczewski writes:
They had a normal nature but an unfortunate childhood, being subjected very early to the domination of individuals with various psychological deviations, including pathological egotism and methods of terrorizing others.
The new rulership system struck such people as a large-scale societal multiplication of what they knew from individual experience. From the very outset, they therefore saw this reality much more prosaically, immediately treating the ideology in accordance with the paralogistic stories well known to them, whose purpose was to cloak bitter reality of their youth experiences. They soon reached the truth, since the genesis and nature of evil are analogous irrespective of the social scale in which it appears.
Such people are rarely understood in happy societies, but there they became useful; their explanations and advice proved accurate and were transmitted to others joining the network of this apperceptive heritage. However, their own suffering was doubled, since this was too much of a similar kind of abuse for one life to handle. ...
Finally, society sees the appearance of individuals who have collected exceptional intuitive perception and practical knowledge in the area of how pathocrats think and such a system of rule operates.
Man and society stands at the beginning of a long road of unknown experiences which, after much trial and error, finally leads to a certain hermetic knowledge of what the qualities of the phenomenon are and how best to build up psychological resistance thereto. ....So the task before us is clear. It isn't easy, but it is possible.
We shall thereupon observe psychological phenomena, knowledge, immunization, and adaptation such as could not have been predicted before and which cannot be understood in the world remaining under the rule of normal man’s systems.
A normal person, however, can never completely adapt to a pathological system; it is easy to be pessimistic about the final results of this.
Such experiences are exchanged during evening discussions among a circle of friends, thereby creating within people’s minds a kind of cognitive conglomeration which is initially incoherent and contains factual deficiencies. ...
Moral and religious values, as well as a nation’s centuries-old cultural heritage, furnish most societies with support for the long road of both individual and collective searching through the jungle of strange phenomena. However, this apperceptive capacity possessed by people within the framework of the natural world-view contains a deficiency which hides the nucleus of the phenomenon for many years. Under such conditions, both instinct and feelings, and the resulting basic intelligence, play instrumental roles, stimulating man to make selections which are to a great extent subconscious.
Under the conditions created by imposed pathocratic rule in particular, where the just described psychological deficiencies are decisive in joining the activities of such a system, our natural human instinctive substratum is an instrumental factor in joining the opposition. Similarly, the environmental, economic, and ideological motivations which influenced the formation of an individual personality, including those political attitudes which were assumed earlier, play the role of modifying factors which are not as enduring in time. The activity of these latter factors, albeit relatively clear with relation to individuals, disappear within the statistical approach and diminish through the years of pathocratic rule.
The decisions and the way selections made for the side of the society of normal people are once again finally decided by factors usually inherited by biological means, and thus not the product of the person’s option, and predominantly in subconscious processes.
Man’s general intelligence, especially its intellectual level, play a relatively limited role in this process of selecting a path of action, as expressed by statistically significant but low correlation (-0.16). The higher a person’s general level of talent, the harder it usually is for him to reconcile himself with this different reality and to find a modus vivendi within it.
At the same time, gifted and talented people join the pathocracy, and harsh words of contempt for the system can be heard on the part of simple, uneducated people.
Only those people with the highest degree of intelligence, which, as mentioned, does not accompany psychopathies, are unable to find the meaning of life within such a system. They are sometimes able to take advantage of their superior mentality in order to find exceptional ways in which to be useful to others. Wasting the best talents spells eventual catastrophe for any social system.
Since those factors subject to the laws of genetics have proven decisive, society becomes divided by means of criteria not known before into the adherents of the new rule, the new middle class mentioned twice above, and the majority opposition. Since the properties which cause this new division appear in more or less equal proportions within any old social group or level, this new division cuts right through these traditional layers of society. If we treat the former stratification, whose formation was decisively influenced by the talent factor, as horizontal, the new one should be referred to as vertical. The most instrumental factor in the latter is good basic intelligence which, as we already know, is widely distributed throughout all social groups.
Even those people who were the object of social injustice in the former system and then bestowed with another system, which allegedly protected them, slowly start criticizing the latter. Even though they were forced to join the pathocratic party, most of the former prewar Communists in the author’s homeland later gradually became critical, using the most emphatic of language. They were first to deny that the ruling system was Communist in nature, persuasively pointing out the actual differences between ideology and reality. They tried to inform their comrades in still independent countries of this by letters. Worried about this “treason”, these comrades transmitted such letters to their local party, from where these were returned to the security police of the country of origin. The authors of the letters paid with their lives or with years of prison; no other social group was finally subjected to such stringent police surveillance as were they.