Back in March Science Writer and blogger Ed Yong gave a TED talk on the subject of parasites and the fascinating ways in which they can sometimes "subvert and override the wills of their hosts" (a full video of the talk posted here on DG). In his talk Yong spoke about how rodents infected with the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii effectively become “cat-seeking missiles”; seeking out felines and getting themselves eaten just so that toxo can then develop and reproduce inside the cat. As much as one third of the global human population may be infected with toxo. Although mild flu-like symptoms occasionally occur during the first few weeks following exposure, toxo generally produces no symptoms in healthy human adults (toxoplasmosis can be fatal to infants and those with weakened immune systems, however). Opinions are currently divided among researchers as to what, if any, influence toxo has on the behaviour of infected humans (although links to schizophrenia are amongst the effects which have been hypothesised ). But, says, Yong in his TED talk, even if it isn’t from toxo, “Given the widespread nature of such manipulations [of hosts by parasites], it would be completely implausible if humans were the only creature not under the same thrall.”
While the idea of mind control via a parasite may seem like science fiction, there is an example we're all already familiar with: rabies. The rabies virus induces aggressive, violent behaviour in the infected, increasing the chances of the host biting other animals. The rabies virus is transmitted via the saliva of the infected into a new host. It's a somewhat crude (and oversimplified) example but its one that is pretty much universally accepted and understood.
Not all parasites make themselves so conspicuous however, in fact it may come as a surprise to you that there may be as many as ten times more bacterial cells in your body than there are human cells . 90 trillion or so microbes are your constant passengers; you are a walking ecosystem . The human microbiome (to give it its proper scientific name) is the aggregate of micro-organisms that reside on and inside us; from between our toes, to the tips of our eyelashes, to our gastrointestinal tracts. Some of these organisms perform tasks which are known to be beneficial to us, the host, but the majority have thus far been too poorly researched for us to understand what, if any, role they play in shaping our lives . That however is changing, especially when it comes to the gut–brain axis.
The gut–brain axis refers to the biochemical signalling taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system, involving intestinal microbiota (gut bacteria) which have been shown to play an important role in brain function. Changes in gut bacteria are now being investigated as possible contributors to, or triggers for the worsening of, autism . A 2013 study carried out by the University of California found that subjects who regularly ingested beneficial "probiotic" bacteria showed altered brain function . Earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, Tucson published that they had found that people living in cold, northern latitudes have bacteria in their guts that may predispose them to obesity . How we process information, how we interact with others and the world around us, even our outward appearance, may all be controlled to some degree by our microbiome. Gut bacteria has even been proven to alter sexual preference (although only in fruit flies thus far) . How much of what we think of as "us", might actually be "them"?
At the beginning of July 2014 a paper entitled Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals? was posted on the open access, peer-reviewed online journal Biology Direct (full text here). The paper puts forward the following hypothesis:
Some microorganisms would gain an evolutionary advantage by encouraging human hosts to perform certain rituals that facilitate microbial transmission. We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behaviour observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms. We call this a “biomeme” hypothesis
Practices such as the touching and kissing of holy relics, drinking from or bathing in sacred waters, and ritual flagellation or piercing of the body are postulated as a possible means of transmission of specific parasites. The practice of fasting, "known to reduce total gut bacteria and affect the gut microbiome composition", could have a part to play in a parasite's life cycle, or else its effect upon the host. The veneration, or eschewing, of certain domestic animals could be a means of controlling which parasites the host is exposed to. Even celibacy in holy men and women could be linked to parasitic passengers; "it has been noted that many parasites eliminate their hosts reproductive potential as they channel all available resources to maximize their own reproductive success."
The hypothesis is completely unproven. It is mere leap of logic or flight of fantasy, depending on your own perception. Responding to one of their learned reviewers (all of whom seem entertained by the hypothesis but highly sceptical), the paper's authors state "We also agree with Dr. Koonin that our hypothesis is outrageous and may be incorrect, however we believe that it’s still an interesting one and worth considering. [...] What makes our hypothesis perceived as more outrageous [than others] is that religion is indeed a taboo subject in human society."
This response seems to suggest that the idea of parasitic control being a factor in some acts of religious behaviour would be inherently anti-religious; that it would somehow undermine the previously perceived purpose of those acts. But, why should that be the case? If proven to be true, would it not demonstrate that ritualistic religious behaviour had a provable, physical root? If the feelings of community, of belonging, and so on that people get from religious participation were proven to be caused by parasites controlling their hosts (just as the tapeworm Flamingolepis liguloides turns brine shrimp from solitary into social creatures ) would that not make them all the more real? No longer mere traditions, superstitions, or "brainwashing" as some would have it, these acts would have a concrete demonstrable cause and purpose. Some would argue it could be the death of religion, others would call it proof of a creator.
If we, the host, could in fact be the product of our passengers - those whose cells outnumber our own by ten to one - in so many ways, who is to say which of the behaviours and effects caused by "them" are the real "us"? If ritualistic religious behaviour could be eradicated, say via antibiotics just as an example, then what else would we choose to change? What if non-religious ritualistic behaviour was proven to have a similar root? Would we choose to eradicate peoples' desire to attend football matches? Muddy music festivals? Do we pick and choose which are positive and negative traits? Intelligence, body type, mental health... Do we legislate? Do we immunise? What does a homosapien look and like at the end of all that? What are we without our 90 trillion strong microbiome? Is it still what you and I think of today as human?
I fully acknowledge that is all ridiculous and outlandish speculation on my part, of course; a writer's imagination going into overdrive, but that's because parasitic control is an incredibly inspiring topic. Indeed, in his TED talk, Ed Yong said "I'm a writer and fellow writers in the audience will know that we love stories. Parasites allow us to resist the allure of obvious stories; their world is one of plot twists and unexpected explanations."
Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... is itself, in effect, a work of speculative fiction; building upon existing research and ideas with a series of "what if"s. One of my favourite passages in the paper reads as follows:
It seems that something like Toxoplasma gondii would be a good preliminary candidate for the role of our hypothetical microbe that promotes religious behavior as it is prevalent and widespread (as religious practices are) and its infection is associated with some behavioral traits and it is capable of latently residing in the human brain. Coincidentally, the sacred status of cats, definitive hosts of Toxoplasma gondii was part of the ancient Egyptian religious tradition for centuries. To our knowledge, no research on the association between toxoplasmosis or similar infections and religiosity has been performed, thus such an association could have been overlooked
The entire great civilisation of Ancient Egypt motivated by cat parasites. That couldn't be true, surely? You just keep telling yourself that when you're checking your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram today and seeing images of cat after cat after cat.
Putting this piece together I was curious as to whether Ed Yong would have read (or even heard about) Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... so I dropped him an email asking if he'd like to comment upon the hypothesis. He very kindly sent me this response:
It is clear that parasites and microbes can manipulate animal behaviour but it is very hard to confirm such manipulations, even in species that can be experimented upon. Hypotheses like this will remain cute just-so stories until they can actually be verified
The website of Scientific American currently has an excellent feature and interview with 'maverick biologist' Rupert Sheldrake, via science writer John Horgan. Though he considers himself a 'psi skeptic', Horgan's piece is warm and open-minded (we find out that Sheldrake does a good impression of his late friend, Terence McKenna) - very pleasant to see these 'heretical' topics discussed in such a convivial manner for a change.
The article covers many topics, but I thought Rupert's description of his theory of 'morphic resonance' was a very good summary for anybody not intimately familiar with, so have excerpted the relevant parts below. Make sure you head on over and read the entire piece though:
Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields. It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past. The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance. What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes. In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.
...The idea of morphic resonance came to me when I was doing research at Cambridge on the development of plants. I was interested in the concept of morphogenetic, or form-shaping, fields, but realized they could not be inherited through genes. They had to be inherited in some other way. The idea of morphic resonance came as a sudden insight. This happened in 1973, but it was a radical idea, and I spent years thinking about it before I published it in my first book, A New Science of Life, in 1981.
...There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for morphic resonance. The most striking experiment involved a long series of tests on rat learning that started in Harvard in the 1920s and continued over several decades. Rats learned to escape from a water-maze and subsequent generations learned faster and faster. At the time this looked like an example of Lamarckian inheritance, which was taboo. The interesting thing is that after the rats had learned to escape more than 10 times quicker at Harvard, when rats were tested in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia they started more or less where the Harvard rats left off. In Melbourne the rats continued to improve after repeated testing, and this effect was not confined to the descendants of trained rats, suggesting a morphic resonance rather than epigenetic effect. I discuss this evidence in A New Science of Life, now in its third edition, called Morphic Resonance in the US.
...I would like there to be much more research on morphic resonance and I would like to see a lot more evidence for it. If there were, it would not necessarily refute materialism, but could expand the materialist worldview, which has become excessively dogmatic, as I show in my recent book Science Set Free (called The Science Delusion in the UK). I think something like morphic resonance is necessary to make sense of inheritance, memory, the evolutionary nature of nature, and many other phenomena. Lee Smolin, the theoretical physicist, recently put forward a similar idea, which he calls “the principle of precedence,” and perhaps his hypothesis might mesh in better with established science, since it is formulated in the context of quantum physics. The main question is whether or not the effects predicted by the hypothesis of morphic resonance – or the principle of precedence – actually happen.
P.Z. Myers and company getting frothy at the mouth in 3, 2, 1...
Uh-oh Moscow, who ya gonna call? Photographer Alexander Lukinsky took the incredible image above of strange, ethereal clouds hovering above the Russian capital on Tuesday night. But rather than signaling the impending arrival of Gozer the Gozerian, what Lukinsky caught on his camera was a relatively rare phenomenon known as noctilucent ('night-shining') clouds.
Noctilucent clouds are still surrounded by mystery. There are no recorded observations of them prior to 1885, suggesting they are a relatively new meteorological phenomenon, and possibly linked to global warming. What we do know is that they occur at incredible altitudes: at 76–85 kilometers (46–51 miles) high, they are above the stratosphere. This height helps give them their eerie appearance: the tiny ice crystals from which they are composed are hit by the sun from underneath - giving them a silvery-blue appearance - despite the sun being below the horizon line, meaning the viewer sees these shining clouds from a position of darkness.
While they are rarely sighted, it seems that noctilucent clouds are showing themselves a bit more lately - astrophotographer Christoph Malin captured the time-lapse footage below in London last week, and many other amateur sky-watchers have captured the clouds on camera as well.
Are we truly in control of our actions, or are we being manipulated by unseen beings? It's an idea that is a standard trope of paranoid conspiracy theories, but in the above TED talk, science writer Ed Yong shows how mind control by parasites appears to be almost ubiquitous in nature. And if it happens to so many other species on Earth, then why not humans too...?
(I didn't write this post, the Toxoplasma gondii did)
At least old man Schrödinger let the poor moggie out of the box...
Magnets, how do they f***ing work? We can hear all the explanations in the world about magnets (or non-explanations if you like), but they still seem like some sort of strange magic to our monkey brains.
Which is why the simple 'levitation' tricks done in the video above still seem so cool...I particularly like the pile of books, that would make for a great center-piece on the coffee table no doubt. The effect was created by science and illusion YouTube video producer Brusspup, using a magnetic levitation module from Dutch company Crealev:
I've had smaller units before that will float items weighing about 1 pound. This unit can float objects weighing near 20 pounds. Even though it's beautiful to walk in the room and see this unit sitting there, I love to try and hide the unit with various objects. The magnetic disc is hidden under the chessboard, for instance. For the floating books, I made a fake book and hid the magnet in it. The pillow is one of my favorites. The visual of a floating pillow supporting a 7 pound brick is fun to see. And then the last was just so cool to see. As a kid I dreamed of the Millennium Falcon. So to see it floating just brings it to another level of reality.
Not sure what sort of crazy dreams you might have if you used the pillow though (*ahem*)...
(via Laughing Squid)
The latest issue (Vol 5, Number 2) of the free PDF journal Paranthropology ("anthropological approaches to the paranormal") is now available to download (or you can read it online via Scribd). Here's the complete rundown of features in the latest issue:
- "Profane Illuminations: Machines, Indian Ghosts, and Boundless Flights through Nature at Contemporary Paranormal Gatherings in America", by Darryl Caterine
- "Magic or Science: A Look at Reiki in American Medicine", by Joshua Graham
- "Hidden Apprenticeships, Hidden Loves: Transmission of Enhanced Awareness in Mediumistic and Shamanic Traditions", by David Gordon Wilson
- "Communication Across the Chasm: Experiences With the Deceased", by John A. Napora
- "Book Hauntings", by Mark Valentine
- "Orbs, some deﬁnitive evidence that they are not paranormal", by Steven T. Parsons
- An interview with Andy Sharp (English Heretic), by Hannah Gilbert
- "Playback Hex: William Burroughs and the Magical Objectivity of the Tape Recorder", by James Riley
- A review of the 'Exploring the Extraordinary Conference' (Gettysburg College, March 21 to 23), by T. Peter Park
- A review of Folie et Paranormal (Renaud Evrard), by Jean-Michel Abrassart
- A review of Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England (J.S. La Fontaine) by Michael J. Rush
And in case you haven't read this great resource before, all of the previous issues remain available to download from the site as well. I know from experience the work that goes into doing something like this, so if you get something out of the journal make it your mission to throw some money their way with a PayPal donation.
Astronomers have been scratching their heads over a series of mysterious radio bursts, so rare & intense, up until recently many of them even questioned their cosmic origin. First detected in 2007 through a telescope in Australia, the radio signals are known as fast radio bursts (FRBs) or Lorimer bursts, in honor of West Virginia University astrophysicist Duncan Lorimer, who was the first to discover & describe them on a scientific paper.
Since then, fewer than a dozen FRBs have been detected, the last one by the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, on November 2, 2012 --as reported by National Geographic 2 weeks ago. By now we've only established 3 factors about the bursts: They are incredibly fast (lasting only a few milli-seconds), incredibly bright, and they seem to come from really, REALLY far away (as in billions of light years away).
But what causes them?
Because the signals are so brief and bright, they must be coming from a rather dense source, says astronomer Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “That means a compact object – i.e., a neutron star or a black hole – is likely somehow to blame,” he says.
Just what that compact object is has yet to be explained. One theory suggests that giant flares erupting from highly magnetic neutron stars, known as magnetars, cause the bursts. Others suggest the bursts result from colliding neutron stars or black holes, evaporating primordial black holes, large magnetic stars, or are the death spasms produced when massive, slowly spinning neutron stars collapse into black holes. That last object, proposed in 2013, is known as a blitzar.
Notice that all these hypotheses have 1 thing in common: they assume the bursts are caused by some natural, albeit exotic phenomena. But would it be so ludicrous to speculate that FRBs have an artificial origin? That's what I humbly proposed on my Mysterious Universe column last week; something that could be easily dismissed as the nonsensical delusions of a woo-woo schmuck...
Well, turns out I'm not the only schmuck wondering about FRBs: In a comment left at the NatGeo page, none other than SETI founder Frank Drake is also proposing these mysterious bursts might be good candidates for a signal sent by some advanced civilization:
Indeed, [...] it is a worthy speculation that the FRBs might be a “hailing” message from a distant altruistic civilization. For many years, SETI scientists have speculated about the possible design of a hailing signal — a signal which announces loudly the existence of another civilization, and possibly leads the receiving civilization to a radio channel bearing much information. Without knowing which stars might be the home of other intelligent civilizations, the sending civilization might well adopt a strategy of sending hailing signals to large numbers of potential ETI-supporting stars. To achieve maximum probability of discovery, the right strategy is to send a very narrow-beam, powerful signal. In this case, one can send to only one star at a time, and so the strategy leads to a paradigm in which the transmitting beam is steered to a large number of stars sequentially, leading to the signals being detected possibly as short bursts which may repeat after some long time period. So we should search for more FRBs!
Daily Grail readers have no doubt read of the famous 'Wow!' signal, detected on August 15, 1977, which to this day is still considered the signal closest to filling the criteria of what intelligent ETs would be transmitting through outer space --or at least, the criteria of what modern science currently assumes intelligent ETs would be capable of doing…
There was also a time, when astronomers seriously considered the possibility that pulsars were actually alien beacons, perhaps built & used by some incredibly powerful space-faring civilization, to help them navigate through the stellar oceans. The fact pulsars are now largely considered a natural phenomenon --the same as FRBs-- IMO speak of the current paradigm incongruence we're stuck in: On the one hand, scientists assure us that intelligent life is more than likely widespread throughout the Cosmos; but on the other hand, to propose an observed astronomical event as a sign of these assumed extraterrestrial civilizations, is still largely regarded as a wild speculation --Martian face, anyone?
In recent weeks I've posted two separate stories regarding the topic of how we are locked into a certain perspective by our human-based perception of events in time, and thus 'blind' to many other aspects of reality (see 'Life Too Slow to See' and 'The Language of the Birds'). So when I came across the TED Talk below earlier this week, I thought it provided a beautiful summation of those thoughts (and extension, moving beyond just our limited perception in time, but also in space). In 'Hidden Miracles of the Unseen World', filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg gives us a glimpse of the things we are missing:
We live in a world of unseeable beauty, so subtle and delicate that it is imperceptible to the human eye. To bring this invisible world to light, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg bends the boundaries of time and space with high-speed cameras, time lapses and microscopes. At TED2014, he shares highlights from his latest project, a 3D film titled "Mysteries of the Unseen World," which slows down, speeds up, and magnifies the astonishing wonders of nature.
A nice short lecture (27 mins) from Rupert Sheldrake on "how even in our most ordinary perceptions our minds are not confined to the insides of our heads".