Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Mind-Controlling Parasites and The Last of Us

Robert Rath | 14 Aug 2013 16:00
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Wrong. In fact, you may have already been under their influence without even knowing it. In a 2010 study, researchers at Binghampton University discovered that exposure to influenza significantly affects social behavior. According to their results, participants exposed to the flu virus through a preventative vaccine nearly doubled the number of people they came in contact with in the 48 hours following exposure, as opposed to the 48 hours beforehand. As if that's not scary enough, the participants were also more likely to attend large social gatherings like parties, thereby increasing the possibility of passing on the infection. It isn't just the flu, either. Toxoplasma gondii (the cat parasite) has been found in humans as well as cats and rats - it's one of the most common parasitic infections, estimated to affect about one-third of the population in developed countries. Strangely, those infected with T. gondii show a greater incidence of car accidents, suggesting the parasite may be dampening human fear the same way it suppresses the fear instincts of rats (though this may also be due to slowed reaction times, which are a symptom). Likewise, it seems that T. gondii infection may increase the production of testosterone over a long period of time - female students rated their infected male peers as having more "masculine and dominant" features, and infected men were on average 3 cm taller than uninfected men. This lines up with findings about T. gondii in rats, where female rats were more attracted to infected males. But it isn't all height-boosting and sex appeal - at least forty studies have linked brain cysts caused by T. gondii as a possible contributing factor to schizophrenia, depression and even suicide. When you consider that there may be a parasitic infection manipulating the personalities of up to one-third of the population, suddenly The Last of Us seems more like an exaggeration than outright fiction.

Neuroparasitology is still a young discipline, but it seems likely that the more we find out about how parasites affect humans, the more we may discover that we are not wholly the masters of our own minds, and that something else is up there, discreetly pulling our levers. Given the holes that still exist in our knowledge, it's the perfect realm for science fiction to step in, and I'm glad that Naughty Dog decided to create a more scientific outbreak - tracing the infection's life cycle from spore release, to infection, to host manipulation, death and spore release - rather than rest on old zombie clich├ęs. It's an approach that seems far scarier for its plausibility, and I can't wait to tell everyone about it. I want to bring it up at the next cocktail party I go to, or maybe at a restaurant, or in a crowded subway car.

At least I think I want to do that - maybe I just have the flu.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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