Consciousness Redux: Fatal Attraction; May / June 2011; Scientific American Mind; by Christof Koch; 2 Page(s)
The ancient debate surrounding the existence of free will appears unresolvable, a metaphysical question that generates much heat yet little light. Common sense and volumes of psychological and neuroscientific research reveal, however, that we are less free than we think we are. Our genes, our upbringing and our environment influence our behaviors in ways that often escape conscious control. Understanding this influence, the advertisement industry spent approximately half a trillion dollars worldwide in 2010 to shape the buying decisions of consumers. And extreme dictatorships, such as that in North Korea, remain in power through the effective use of insidious and all-pervasive forms of propaganda. Yet nothing approaches the perfidy of the one-celled organism Toxoplasma gondii, one of the most widespread of all parasitic protozoa. It takes over the brain of its host and makes it do things, even actions that will cause it to die, in the service of this nasty hitchhiker. It sounds like a cheesy Hollywood horror flick, except that it is for real.
We know that illness in general can slow us down, incapacitate us and, in the worst case, kill us. Yet this organism is much more specific. Natural selection has given rise to pathogens that infiltrate the nervous system and change that system’s wiring to achieve its ultimate purpose, replication—like a computer virus that reprograms an infected machine.