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How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society

This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society

Did you ever have the feeling that something or someone was controlling you, or trying to do so? Don't feel alone -- and you are probably not crazy. Parasites -- whether viruses, bacteria, larger parasites such as the malaria trypanosome, or fungi -- will do anything to get transferred from one host to a new one, and if that involves influencing the host's behavior to facilitate that transfer, it evolves a way of doing so. That control is often frighteningly sophisticated, and it affect both mind and body. When hosts are human beings, our behavior changes, too, and so do the thoughts that go with behavior. Think you are the master of your soul and your mind? Well, maybe not.

There are parasites which, like fleas and mosquitoes, parasitize their hosts from the skin outward. The author mentions them and gives some analysis of their impacts on us and other creatures -- which can be horrific: consider mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria, which afflicts 214 million people worldwide every year, which makes the mosquito the worst killer on the planet -- but concentrates more on the world of microscopic parasites.

Parasites have many evolutionary motives for manipulating their hosts' behavior. Far more often than most of us are aware of, these master puppeteers orchestrate the interplay between predator and prey. With astonishing precision, parasites can cause rats to approach cats without displaying any signs of fear or an attempt to escape the jaws of the cat, spiders to transform the patterns of their webs, and fish to draw the attention of birds who then swoop down to feast upon them.

We, too, are profoundly affected by parasites on us. Among those which we can pick up from our own pets are strongly suspected of changing our personality traits, contributing to human recklessness, impulsivity, and even suicide. (By the way, I have a cat. Cats can become infected with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which we can catch from them. BUT I have always had cats around me, and love them dearly, and won't give them up. Just in case, my physician just drew some of my blood to test it for antibodies against this pest, and, if he finds them there, he will treat me for the infection, case closed. So I'm not urging any of you to give up your cats or dogs or pet rabbits. But you might want to get tested for their parasites, just in case, and get treated for them if necessary. You don't have to get rid of your beloved friends.) Microbes in our gastro-intestinal tracts can and often do affect our emotions and even the very wiring of our brains. Microbes that cause colds and flu may alter our behavior even before symptoms become apparent. Someday it may even turn out that possession, a real phenomenon, is caused by parasites in the brain and/or guts, and that the paranormal phenomena associated with possession are due to symptoms thrown off by the possessed as their bodies and minds and spirits fight to the death to ward off those parasites.

Parasites influence our behavior on cultural and personal levels, too. They -- or rather, our need to avoid them -- may be responsible for bigotry, who we are sexually attracted to, to our morals and politics. The author carefully presents all the evidence behind these claims and cites all her sources; this is not a book for those prone to concoct conspiracy theories, as it is strongly based on the sciences related to the subject. She even discusses a new field, disgustology, that may help understand why we have the reactions to things and living creatures, ourselves and any others, that we do.

This book is fascinating, though it could give some people the willies. I strongly recommend this work to anyone, from psychiatrists, psychologists, and veterinarians to other scientists and the lay public, because it could help to solve many perplexing mysteries about health and behavior. Above all, if you have children, it will help you understand many of the strange things that small children do, such as eating dirty, that can actually protect them from infections later on in life. I give it five stars -- but I'd like it if the numbers of stars could go up to 11. :-)

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