On happiness and mind control.

On happiness and mind control.

Many of us would like to feel happier.

In the United States, people are having sex less often.  And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs. 

Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside.  The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.

The suicide rate has been rising.

From Dan Diamond’s Forbes blog post
Stopping The Growing Risk Of Suicide: How You Can Help.”

It might seem as though we don’t know how to make people happier.  But, actually, we do.

Now, I know that I’ve written previously with bad medical advice, such as the suggestion that intentionally infecting yourself with the brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii could make you happier.  This parasite boosts dopamine levels in your brain (dopamine is a neurotransmitter that conveys feelings of pleasure and mirth) and makes you feel bolder (in controlled laboratory experiments, infected mice show less stress when making risky decisions, and observational data suggests the same to be true for infected humans).  You also might become more attractive (infected rodents have more sex, and portrait photographs of infected human men are perceived as more dominant and masculine).

There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course.  Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats.  Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectuallyToxoplasma forms cysts in your brain.  It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia.  It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised.  And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.

My advice today is different.  No feces required! 

And I’m not suggesting anything illegal.  I mentioned, above, that people in the United States take a lot of drugs.  Several of these boost dopamine levels in your brain.  Cocaine, for instance, is a “dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.

But cocaine has a nasty side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too high.  And jail is not a happy place.

Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain.  Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain.  But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.

The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure.  For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain.  So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up.  If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over.  Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex.  They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse.  From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:

If animals with electrodes in the hypothalamus were run for 24 hours or 48 hours consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance permitted.

Setup for Olds’s experiment.

Perhaps I should have warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks.  Even if you have the tools needed to drill into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to boost your mood just to die of dehydration.

After all, happiness might have some purpose.  There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy.  After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.

When an activity makes us feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.  That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service.  Or get addicted to drugs.

And it’s how brain stimulation could be used for mind control.

If you show me a syringe, I’ll feel nervous.  I don’t particularly like needles.  But if you display that same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of actually shooting up.  The men in my poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word “needle” written in a poem.

For months or years, needles presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.  That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the needles themselves.

If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing.  Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.

Still, if you used deep brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that person would soon enjoy it.

Bittermelon. Image by [cipher] in Tokyo, Japan on Wikimedia.

Or you could make someone fall in love. 

Far more effective than any witch’s potion, that.  Each time your quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage.  The beloved’s presence will soon be associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure.  And that sensation – stretched out for long enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love is.

Of course, it probably sounds like I’m joking.  You wouldn’t really send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall in love with somebody new … right?

Fifty years passed between the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a love potion.

In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.”  Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality.  Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.

Moan and Heath’s paper is surprisingly salacious:

After about 20 min of such interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration.  Active intercourse followed during which she had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense.  He became very excited at this and suggested that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative.  In this position he often paused to delay orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience.  Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab, romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated.  Subsequently, he expressed how much he had enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near future.

The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls.  Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.

But it isn’t.

The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.

Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.

Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:

In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation, which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull. 

Fehr had sixty-three research subjects available.  They played a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner.  In the first round, there were no sanctions from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in question could protest and punish the subject. 

There were two opposing forces at play.  A cultural norm for sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much as possible for oneself.  Fehr and his people found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal cortex.  When the stimulation increased the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree, while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was diminished.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel any difference.  When they were asked about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the selfishness of their behavior had changed. 

Apparently, you can fiddle with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated being any the wiser.

The human brain evolved to create elaborate narratives that rationalize our own actions.  As far as our consciousness is concerned, there’s no difference between telling a just so story about a decision we made un-aided, versus explaining a “choice” that we were guided toward by external current.

Frank believes that Heath was a brilliant doctor who sincerely wanted to help patients. 

When bioethicist Carl Elliott reviewed The Pleasure Shock for the New York Review of Books, however, he pointed out that even – perhaps especially – brilliant doctors who sincerely want to help patients can stumble into rampantly unethical behavior.

The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman.  Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died.  Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).

Elliott concludes that:

Heath was a physician in love with his ideas. 

Psychiatry has seen many men like this.  Heath’s contemporaries include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent evangelist.

These men may well have started with the best of intentions.  But in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table.  All it takes is a powerful researcher with a surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of vulnerable subjects.

Heath had them all.

It’s true that using an electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably make you feel happier.  By way of contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.

Sometimes it’s good to feel bad, though.

As Elliott reminds us, a lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research.  A lot of vulnerable people are still treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues are snared by our country’s criminal justice system.  And the torments that we dole upon non-human animals are even worse.

Consider this passage from Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug, discussing empathy:

[University of Chicago researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar.  Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked up, wriggling in distress. 

Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so.  Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously. 

Then Bartal challenged her motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a trapped companion.  The free rat often rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more than delicious food.

Is it possible that these rats liberated their companions for companionship?  While one rat is locked up, the other has no chance to play, mate, or groom.  Do they just want to make contact?  While the original study failed to address this question, a different study created a situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further interaction.  That they still did so confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social. 

Bartal believes it is emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress, which spurs them into action. 

Conversely, when Bartal gave her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat.  They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers. 

The rats became insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping. 

You could feel happier.  We know enough to be able to reach into your mind and change it.  A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.

But should we do it?  Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the world instead?

On neural plasticity.

On neural plasticity.

After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.

A few guys looked down at the table and nodded.  People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.

I gave the same answer as always.

“Drugs do it on their own.  Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again.  Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”

1024px-Crystal_Meth

But it’s not all bleak.  Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too.  Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.

Dopamine_D2_Receptors_in_Addiction.jpg
Repeated exposure to drugs depletes the brain’s dopamine receptors, which are critical for one’s ability to experience pleasure and reward. From Wikimedia Commons.

(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.”  This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say.  If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.

A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do.  He’s now weathered five years of single days.  But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)

I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith.  It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.

800px-Scientology_e_meters_green_black_cropped
An E-meter.

It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true.  There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.

Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests.  In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad.  But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point.  You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.

“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”

Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you.  Do it daily.  Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change.  Your words will become true.

On video games, addiction and Infinite Jest: The Movie.

CaptureI tend not to read many novels set in the dystopian future (I’m rather more fond of stories set in our dystopian present), but I was recently lent Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.  And it reminded me of an essay I’d been meaning to write, something with the thesis “Infinite Jest: The Movie seems far less dangerous than Infinite Jest: The Game.”

CaptureBecause it was nice, in Cline’s novel, that the protagonist gave up his games (at least temporarily) once he realized that relationships in the real world are more important.  But that’s hard.  Obviously Cline wasn’t aiming for absolute realism in his work, but his ending did inspire me to comb through some modern research on video game addiction.

Obviously video games aren’t addictive the way heroin is addictive.  The way alcohol is addictive.  You won’t go into physiological withdrawal, you won’t experience delirium tremens.  But video games can be addicting the way marijuana is addicting (are there still people who disagree that marijuana is addicting?  I think the clearest studies indicating that it is are things like this from Volkow et al.  Marijuana boosts dopamine, which makes pleasurable activities more pleasurable.  Habitual use leads results in a compensatory lowering of basal levels, however.  If someone smokes a lot of marijuana, everything feels muted and bland unless they’ve smoked, which engenders a strong compulsion to smoke again.  No, potheads doesn’t have to smoke more — they won’t get sick or die if cut off — but they’ll feel irritable and life will feel pleasureless if they don’t).

CaptureAnd there have been a handful of cases of “death by video game” already, often eerily reminiscent of descriptions given in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (the book).  Which, in case you haven’t read it, the premise is this: imagine a movie so compelling that, once you had seen it, you would never want to do anything except watch that movie again.  As in, wouldn’t want to sleep.  Wouldn’t want to eat.  Wouldn’t want to stand up to use the bathroom.  You would, of course, die; presumably from thrombosis (when you’re immobile too long, your blood can clump — well, blood can clump all the time, but activity helps flush everything through your body so that no one aggregate gets dangerously large.  But prolonged sitting can result in a sizeable clump forming, which can then plug shut a blood vessel.  That’s thrombosis; it isn’t good), but if you’re particularly hardy you might die from dehydration instead.  And, right, that movie was titled Infinite Jest.

There are several neurological explanations for why Infinite Jest: The Game will be even more dangerous than the film.  Active participation in video games enhances the potential pleasure that can be experienced; with a movie, a predetermined outcome will be reached, but a player’s sense of control while gaming allows for dopamine release, i.e. blasts of pleasure, in response to in-game success (I believe Koepp et al.’s 1998 Nature paper was the first to monitor dopamine in gamers, although you could’ve asked any kid in an arcade back in 1978 and learned that, hey, shooting the aliens is fun).

And there’s the idea of replay.  As in, starting another round of that exact same game to play again.  There are some films that people watch over and over again, but usually not multiple times at a single sitting.  Even if you do watch a movie repeatedly, it won’t grow with you; you’ll begin to anticipate each event, which diminishes the flash of pleasure when it comes. Consider this quote from Hull et al.’s review article about the interplay between video game design and its addictive potential: “a game player derives intense enjoyment by being immersed in the gaming experience, the challenges of the game are matched by the player’s skills, and the player’s sense of time is distorted so that time passes without being noticed.”  I think good films do reward repeated viewings, which in a sense represents the “challenge” of a movie growing in tandem with your understanding of the work, but only up to a point.  I think that it’s possible to reach a point where you’re not going to learn anything new from a film, at which point the challenge disappears.

And I definitely don’t mean to imply that video games have more stored meaning to offer an audience; honestly, I imagine that most players learn little or nothing with each repetition of some of the most addictive games.

teemochineseConsider League of Legends, which was the game being played by one of the individuals profiled in that “video game deaths” article, and which numerous individuals have played for nearly ten-thousand hours.  Each game is approximately forty minutes long, the games are quite similar from one to the next, and, as far as I can tell (and I put in some hundred hours of my own trying to find out, before their system requirements outgrew my duct-taped space-heater of a laptop) reveal little or nothing about the human condition.

But people play.  Over and over again, they play.  Because each game is short, it’s easy to loose track of aggregate time spent playing, and because you’re playing against other humans, paired via a fancy matchmaking system, the game should always approximately match your skill.  Two of the features that Hull et al. remarked as key for addictiveness right there — inability to track time and constant challenge.

And there are a few more features we can add: for instance, when you do something “good” in the context of a game, you’re rewarded right away.  Big flashes of color, satisfying sounds, and, of course, a new flush of dopamine.  That immediacy is important.  If you’re watching a film and have a good idea, that’s gratifying — but part of your gratification is delayed as you have to think through your idea, figure out whether or not it makes any sense, and every moment of delay results in a discounting of your brain’s sense of reward.

Because game playing is active, and players often sit much closer to their computer screens than movie viewers do to their televisions, video games should result in a more significant disruption of sleep cycle; it’s much harder to fall asleep while playing a game than while watching a movie.  And although some people enjoy violent movies, the most addictive video games allow the player to perpetrate acts of violence on other characters; speculating about the evolutionary rationale for this might make this already-long essay too long, but suffice it to say that in many mammals aggressive behavior in itself feels rewarding, i.e., yeah, you guessed it, more dopamine!

And the problem is, once you have an activity in your life that triggers the release of buckets and buckets of dopamine, you’ll be beset by the urge to do that same thing again.  Other activities, if they trigger the release of less dopamine, won’t feel worthwhile.  And, video game design is iterative.  Consider League of Legends again; they’re still making it better.

Anyone designing a new game can draw upon everything we’ve learned from past entertainments to make the next one even more pleasurable than anything that’s come before.  Eventually, who knows, maybe an intrepid designer really will stumble across Infinite Jest: The Game and it’ll be just like those old scare stories about pot: try it once and you’re hooked!

With luck, that game designer will be too enthralled by his creation to ever get around to releasing it to the public.

(I wanted that to be the last sentence of this essay.  But I can’t help but point out: this seems exceedingly unlikely.  A key feature of the world’s most addictive games is human opponents, meaning Infinite Jest: The Game wouldn’t seem that bad until it was in fact released to the public.  Because solitaire games tend to devolve into predictability; like the description given above for movies, a player might reach a point when there was nothing new to experience.  But with a population of gamers all growing in skill together, ostensibly there is always a new challenge.)

On toxoplasma.

On toxoplasma.

cat-throwing-bridesI was talking to K and she pointed out that I missed the point of this whole “internet” thing.  Apparently the goal of writing for the internet is not to sound like a pedantic stuff-bucket?  This is something I hadn’t yet realized – I mostly use the internet to watch videos of Louis Scott Vargas playing Magic cards, since I don’t have much time to play myself these days.

So she told me, you should write this next thing as though you’re just writing an email to somebody, telling them some weird stuff about toxoplasma.  And, yeah, put in references.  But you’re not writing a critical essay here.  Even if you were, I’m not sure you’d want to sound so stiff.

What can I say: I’m just a real formal dude?  But here goes: wacky information about toxoplasma.  Which I was researching as part of a general interest in mind control – the book has a fair bit about identity and how your brain works, so the idea that a parasite can exert a big influence on (mouse, documented in controlled studies, and human, possibly, suggested by observational studies comparing otherwise similar people who are and are not infected) the mammalian brain seemed pretty wild.

So, what does toxoplamsa do?

Well, fine: I guess it might be worthwhile to mention briefly what toxoplasma is.  Parasite.  Forms cysts in the brain.  Lives part of its life cycle in a variety of mammals, including mice and humans, and part of its life cycle only in cat gut: it can’t complete the whole cycle without getting into a cat.  It can also be transmitted from mothers to unborn children, and probably from males to females during sex.

In rats, toxoplasma makes its host less afraid of cat smell.  If you compare the amount of time spent exploring a sandy maze dribbled with rabbit urine to a sandy maze dribbled with cat urine, a normal rat will spend most of its time in the rabbit area.  A rat with a chronic toxoplasma infection will hang out in the cat section.

So that seems normal enough, right?  The parasite has to get into cats, it makes rats not fear cats.  Or at least stop avoiding cat smells.  Which in theory should make the rat more likely to be gobbled up.

But it’s not just a change in response to cat smells.  Rats infected with toxoplasma behave more recklessly in general – one test you can use is “open arm exploration,” which is less grisly than it might sound.  Build a play space with a roof over some parts and no roof over others, and monitor the fraction of time that the rat spends in the open area.  Theoretically being out in the open should make the rat feel scared, so it won’t do it much.  A toxoplasma-infected rat will hang out in the open more.  Why?  Well, one possible explanation is that the parasite increases dopamine production in the brain – this is speculation, but perhaps the extra dopamine makes exploration more pleasurable, and therefore worth doing even when there are risks involved.

And here’s one last set of bonus curiosities – wacky things to consider for a parasite that seems to be sexually transmitted (which I guess I didn’t actually explain above.  Sexual transmission seems to happen in humans, but hasn’t been experimentally verified because that would be evil, and definitely can occur in dogs, goats, sheep… ).  Would it be reasonable to expect that the parasite would increase a male carrier’s chance of sexual coupling?  Perhaps, right?  But this is difficult (but not impossible, obviously) to assess – I’m no expert in rodent attractiveness.  Are you?

The goofy thing is, toxoplasma can infect a wide variety of mammals.  Not just rats.  And mammals are pretty similar to each other.  Toxoplasma presumably only evolved to control rats, because any particular toxoplasma gene requires ingestion by a cat in order to propagate.  But some of the mechanisms that toxoplasma evolved in order to manipulate rats may well function in other species: it seems to have an effect on the perception of cat urine smell in humans.  And infected human males are taller and reputedly better-looking than uninfected males, presumably due to higher testosterone levels.  Perhaps the same mechanism makes male rats appear more alluring?

Still, toxoplasmosis is a disease.  People can get sick and die from it, especially babies and AIDS patients.  But other than that whole “risk of death” thing, problematic, sure, the next biggest negative consequence of toxoplasma infection is that it seems to increase your chances of being eaten by a cat.  Especially if you are a rat.  Slower reaction times, sunnier outlook on life with that increased dopamine, less risk aversion.  Perhaps a bit more fooling around, although that’s not really related to being eaten, that might be an evolved consequence of the potential for sexual transmission of the infection.

But, weighing all of that, there is a chance that you, if you are a human male reading this, unlikely to be eaten by a cat, might want to be infected by toxoplasma.  Personally I don’t – I find the whole parasitic mind control thing creepy – but it’s not as though there are zero traits that could be considered positive externalities.  If you are a human female reading this, then, yes, there is a chance that the infection could be passed to a fetus if you ever happen to want biological children.  But there is also observational data suggesting that toxoplasma infection increases female intelligence (it is suggested that the infection makes men less intelligent – more daring, more sexually alluring… dumber.  Can’t have everything, can you?).

Anyway, that’s some information about toxoplasma.  What a wacky little protist.

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