Neuro-Parasites & Problem Solving Errors

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. He started his career studying baboons, charting the relationship between stress hormones and an individual animal’s social ranking in the baboon society hierarchy. The lower the rank, the more stress the animal experiences, the more consequences there are to the health outcomes and longevity of the baboon. Making a parallel to human society, the conclusions of Dr. Sapolsky’s study is that it sucks to be at the bottom of the social order. In his books “Primate’s Memoir” and “Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Dr. Sapolsky provides copious details of his work and his conclusions. (see Recommended Books for details)

But residing on the bottom of the social ladder is not the only problem a mammal like us can experience. In his video interview with Edge (, Dr. Sapolsky describes the adventures of Toxoplasma–a protozoan parasite carried by cats which causes an infection Toxo–in our amygdala. Post an active infectious state, Toxo is able to manipulate human dopamine levels. People with the post-Toxo infection have higher than normal dopamine levels, resulting in some interesting cognitive consequences.

There’s been solid research that documents a high level of Toxo infections in schizophrenic patients. There is also a high level of Toxo infection among individuals who have died in motorcycle accidents. Men with post-Toxo infection seem to act more impulsively and are attracted to dangerous situations that would give the non-infected population a reason to pause. The rate of Toxo infections is higher in tropical climates (perhaps due to walking barefoot on cat urine soaked ground). And interestingly enough, the military is looking closely into Toxo infections and behavioral consequences in the vulnerable populations.

What does Toxo have to do with product design? Well, it clearly impacts problem-solving. Impulsivity is a major roadblock to problem-solving. Over the last decade, we have learned a lot about ADHD and problem solving—kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder don’t do well on problems that require prolonged concentration and where the first strategy that comes to mind is not necessarily the one that will yield a solution. To help children with ADHD succeed at school, teachers and parents have to set up behavioral, environmental, and cognitive scaffolding (that’s in addition to medication that some children take for this condition). If up to 50% of the population is infected with Toxo in some areas of the world, what strategies and scaffolding need to be created to envelop products and problems which we deem important enough not to allow failure on a massive scale?

Please watch the documentary and see what you think.

  3 comments for “Neuro-Parasites & Problem Solving Errors

  1. May 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Scientific American just posted an interesting article on the protozoa’s effects in the human brain:

  2. tj_
    June 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Does anyone “do well on problems that require prolonged consternation”?

  3. June 3, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Good catch! Thank you!

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