Nature’s Mind Games: Zombie Ants, Neuroscience, and the Power of Hypnotherapy
I’m currently reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a fantastic book that’s been on my list for a long time. It flits between complicated and almost bamboozling, to so intriguing I’m reading chunks aloud to my family – completely ignorant of their lesser interest. I’m captivated by the Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. A fungus found predominantly in tropical forest ecosystems that possesses the body of an ant.
Scientists understand this fungus initiates infection in carpenter ants through spores that attach and penetrate the exoskeleton, gradually taking control of the ant’s behaviour. As the infection progresses, the manipulated ant abandons its nest for a more humid microclimate conducive to the fungus’s development. The fungus compels the ant to abandon the colony, stripping it of its instinctive fear of heights, and 16 to 25 days later it ascends forest vegetation to approximately 10 inches above the ground.
When the ant reaches the ideal height, the fungus coerces it into a final ‘death grip’ by clamping onto the vegetation with its mandibles. At this point, the fungus kills the ant and consumes it from the inside. The fungus grows a stalk from the ant’s head, which sprinkles its spores over a vast distance. The biting is different to the ant’s regular behaviour and is adaptive to the fungus, which can only grow a fruiting body when the ant has died outside the nest at the required elevated position.
There are of course parasites that infect humans, similarly altering human behaviour. One example of a parasite that can alter human behaviour is the Toxoplasma Gondii parasite. Toxoplasma Gondii is a parasite that commonly infects warm-blooded animals, including humans. While the infection usually presents mild or no symptoms in healthy individuals, it can have more pronounced effects on individuals with compromised immune systems and pregnant women.
One of the intriguing aspects of Toxoplasma Gondii is its potential to manipulate the behaviour of its host, including humans. Research suggests the parasite may influence the behaviour of infected rodents, making them less fearful of predators and easier to catch, which increases the chances of the parasite completing its life cycle.
In the case of humans, some studies explore potential connections between toxoplasma infection and alterations in behaviour and personality. The research shows some associations between toxoplasma infection and changes in risk-taking behaviour, reaction times, and personality traits. For example, some studies suggest that infected individuals are prone to risky behaviours, such as traffic accidents, or exhibit subtle changes in personality. This is still an area of ongoing research, and various factors may influence the observed associations.
A more positive aspect of the human brain is its incredible capacity for plasticity and adaptability in which external influences impact your behaviour, without parasitic infection.
Neuroplasticity and Adaptability:
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity or neural plasticity, refers to your brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This remarkable characteristic allows your brain to adapt to experiences, learn new information, and recover from injury. At the core of neuroplasticity is the idea that your brain is not a static organ, but a dynamic and flexible one. When exposed to new stimuli or experiences, neurons can change their connections, altering the structure of your brain. This adaptability is crucial for learning and memory processes, as well as for recovering from various challenges, such as injury or trauma. Neuroplasticity underscores the incredible capacity of your brain to reshape itself in response to the ever-changing environment, highlighting the ongoing potential for growth and development throughout your life.
Your mind possesses a profound influence over your body’s responses and behaviours, a concept central to the holistic approach of hypnotherapy. In this powerful state of mind, you can use suggestion and focused attention to change deeply rooted beliefs and patterns. Hypnotherapy aims to reshape thought patterns and influence behaviours, ultimately promoting positive changes in physical and mental well-being. This holistic approach acknowledges the interconnectedness of your mind and body, recognising that addressing mental and emotional aspects has tangible effects on physiological responses. Through the interplay between mind and body, hypnotherapy seeks to empower you to achieve holistic wellness by harnessing the connection between your psychological and physical health.
Empowerment and Control:
Contrasting the involuntary manipulation witnessed in the ant-fungus interaction, hypnotherapy is a voluntary engagement for those seeking transformative change. While the zombie ant fungus coerces its host into a predetermined, involuntary course of action, hypnotherapy operates on a fundamentally different premise. It empowers you to willingly engage in the process. Hypnotherapy gives you full control of your thoughts and behaviours. Participants actively participate in their own mental reprogramming, fostering autonomy and self-directed change. This stark contrast underscores the empowering nature of hypnotherapy, where you navigate your unconscious realm and emerge as an active agent in steering the course of your own transformative journey.
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Trinh, Thienthanh & Ouellette, Renee & de bekker, Charissa. (2021). Getting lost: the fungal hijacking of ant foraging behaviour in space and time. Animal Behaviour. 181. 10.1016/j.anbehav.2021.09.003.
Desmettre T. Toxoplasmosis and behavioural changes. J Fr Ophtalmol. 2020 Mar;43(3):e89-e93. doi: 10.1016/j.jfo.2020.01.001. Epub 2020 Jan 21. PMID: 31980266.