Skip to main content

paranoid theory of the week :: are we being controlled by bacteria?

you cannot resist- we are already inside you!
isn't that a lovely thought for our first paranoid theory of 2016? what if we are not individuals with thoughts and feelings and our own distinct characteristics? what if everything we think of as our conscious behaviour is in fact driven by billions of bacteria living in us at all times, essentially meaning that everything we conceive of as us is really them and there is no us at all?

do you dare question your very existence? do your micro-controllers want you to look through the words below?

the theory ::
human behaviour is chiefly guided by the needs of the billions of microscopic bacteria that live in and on our bodies.

the origin :: 
very tricky to say with any exactitude, but conjecture around it is inextricably linked with the human microbiome project, which was the first large-scale effort to map and categorize the flora living on all human bodies. so we'll cite that as the root of all subsequent theories.

the believers ::
a number of people involved in or interested in the microbiome project from various health sciences fields, although by no means all of them.

the bad guys ::
there are no good guys. there are no bad guys. in fact, if the theory is true "good", "bad" and "guys" are all meaningless terms. there is nothing but bacteria terraforming human cells to perpetuate the life of its kind.

the evidence ::
first off, we must confront an uncomfortable reality: we are more them than we are us. of the total cells that make up the thing that stares back at us in the mirror, human cells represent only about 10%. the rest of that meatbag we call a body is made up of lots of microscopic bacteria, who are just trying to make it work for their people in their corner of the you-niverse. [what human cells lack in number, however, they more than make up for in size/ weight; for instance, the 100 trillion bacteria that live in the average human gut amounts to only a pound or two. so if it's any consolation, by mass, you're definitely human.]

except that the inoculation will only increase our strength
there are certainly examples of microscopic organisms that can control behaviour, but studies have tended to focus on invasive varieties. the best known today is probably toxoplasma gondii, or the "crazy cat lady" parasite. this clever protozoan can live in any warm-blooded animal, but it can only reproduce inside members of the felidae family. here kitty kitty. as you've likely heard, t. gondii has developed a mechanism to make perpetuation of the species more likely: it gets into the brains of the warm-blooded animals where it lives and makes a few tweaks. on the surface, these are pretty harmless, but for species like mice, rats, and birds, they're deadly. that's because the teeny, tiny cysts that t. gondii create have a tendency to turn off the panic reflex these animals have when they come in contact with signs of feline predators. indeed, rats infected with toxoplasmosis not only don't panic when they smell traces of cat urine, they seem to be curious about it. if you're a whole rat, that's suicide. but if your t. gondii living in a rat, it's a crucial change that allows you to get to the only environment where your people can survive. so, yes, this scenario likely ends with the rat-host dying a violent death, but if you're t. gondii, you're all going to die anyway unless you can find a cat.

but toxoplasma gondii is something that's not normally present in humans. there are millions of varieties of bacteria that are normally present in humans and all of them want to create the most hospitable environment for themselves too. think of your ancestors, many thousands of years ago, as they tried to get the hang of farming. they learned that they needed certain things to happen in their environment in order for crops to succeed, primarily irrigation. if there wasn't enough water coming into the land naturally to feed crops, then the humans had to intervene and make a change that brought more water into the land. that's what bacteria do, except that their needs aren't generally as simple as water and the land that they're managing is you.

the gut is the greatest source of bacteria, both in terms of overall number and variety. and not all of those bacteria agree on what constitutes ideal living conditions, not by a long shot. some like to have a more acidic environment. others like things more alkaline. and most of the time, the overall environment is kept balanced enough that everyone can live together, but sometimes, certain species get a taste for expansion and that's when things get weird. when the balanced environment shifts, some bacteria are able to greatly expand their territory, essentially committing bacterial genocide by displacing their neighbours who are less suited to changes in the environment.

their victory only makes them realise the possibilities for even greater conquests, which prompts them to do things that make expansion easier, i.e., things that make their environment [you] more hospitable. what scientists have discovered is that bacteria can do things like signal the vagus nerve to deliver more stuff that will make the environment hospitable, like say, keeping the scid levels higher than normal. the vagus nerve deals with these signals by shooting them into your brain, where you experience them as cravings for things like pasta and pickles, which increase acidity in the gut.

that's all well and good for the bacteria that thrive in acidity, but scientists studying the human microbiome have noted that it can cause long-term environmental damage. people with highly acidic guts are prone to developing all sorts of different conditions, which, unlike acute diseases, don't simply start, progress and pass, but endure, causing ongoing inflammation and deterioration. nor are those limited to the gut. some of the most interesting correlations between human health and acid-base homeostasis [the fancy term for the correct ph balance in the body] have to do with what can happen inside the brain. that's something we've talked about this more than once on more like space.

your size is no match for our superior numbers
the drawback here is that this science is still in its infancy. the human microbiome project was a five-year project that only started in 2008. many of the studies that have produced interesting results have been small. that doesn't make them inaccurate, but it does make them more prone to inaccuracy than larger studies. moving too fast with new technologies can cause more problems than it solves, after all; humanity felt it had made a huge advance when it figured out how to treat sharp force wounds by sewing them up, but that knowledge only became truly helpful when humanity figured out the importance of cleaning the wounds first.

the likelihood :: 7/10
even though the science is young, and it's yet to be determined the extent to which our microbiome makes our decisions, what's come out thus far is pretty damn compelling. bacteria, much like humans, termites, and many other lifeforms, exhibit a type of inverse natural selection, modifying their environment to suit their needs as well as adapting to better survive in it. and we're what's being modified.

there are trillions of them and they are able to send signals for what they need by using our strings of cellular material, signals which we receive and act on. we think we're in control, but every time we want another chocolate, chances are that's a bacterial battalion desperately looking to frack more life-sustaining nutrients out of our lower intestine.

but just because it's been some time since we got all paranoid around these parts, how's this for a potential twist: in two or three hundred years, what are the odds we find out that the bacteria are actually controlled by molecules that cling to their surfaces? how far does this thing go, exactly?


as long as you're here, why not read more?


i keep seeing this ad for tictac candies:

am i the only one who finds the suicide bomber clown at the end a little unnerving? all the nice natural things like the bunny and the [extinct] woolly mammoth and the fruit get devoured by a trying-to-appear-nonthreatening-but-obviously-psychotic clown who then blows himself up. congratulations, tictac, i think this ad has landed you on about a dozen watch lists.

oh and by the way, showing me that your product will somehow cause my stomach to explode in a rainbow of wtf makes me believe that doing consuming tictacs would be a worse dietary decision than the time i ate two raw eggs and a half a bottle of hot sauce on a dare.

mental health mondays :: the dangers of diagnosing

when you take a look at any reputable online source of information about mental health, it comes with a warning that anything you read on the site should not be considered a substitute for evaluation by a medical professional. so why are so many people jumping on the bandwagon to diagnose donald trump?

it's not uncommon for people to make glib judgments about the mental health of others, because we think that we understand what disorders entail. when i was working in offices, i noticed a lot of this: an immature and garrulous employee being labeled and partially excused because others were certain he had adhd, or a moody and indecisive boss dismissed as bipolar. [as you can imagine, that one struck me as particularly ignorant and, since i was the audience, ironic.] but in the case of trump, even professionals are weighing in on the subject. no fewer than twenty-seven psychiatrists have collaborated on a book called the dangerous case of donald trump. up to now, it's been unde…

making faces :: a winter tale

so this is it. we've reached the final season in our colour year. so far we've looked at spring, with its heart of citrus yellow, summer and its symphony of cool blues and autumn with its spicy bronzes and golds. and i'm still not sure i've found a good place to rest my face. i've chosen seasonal winners in each category, but are they really me?

it's a bit of a rhetorical question, of course, because i already had an inkling that my precocious childhood self might have been onto something when she declared herself a "winter". not that she knew what she was talking about, of course, but sometimes even fools say the right thing without meaning to. even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. [unless you're in europe and use a twenty-four hour clock, which actually makes a lot more sense.]

as with all the other seasons, winter is divided into three parts, the true winter at the centre, flanked by neighbours who carry a hint of the adjacent …