Woman sittin on an island under a tree that is a brain

This week I learned: life with locked-in syndrome, voodoo wasps, and sleeping in someone else’s car

This week I learned about how people feel about having almost no control over their bodies, about mind-controlling wasps, and about what happened when one woman let a homeless person use her car as a bed.

Being locked in your body isn’t as bad as you’d think

The condition called called locked-in syndrome results from damage to the brainstem, often from a stroke. People who develop locked-in syndrome remain fully conscious and retain all their mental faculties, but are completely paralysed except for their eyes and eyelids. Locked-in patients may, over time, recover limited motor function, but they may also remain in that original state the rest of their lives.

If I asked you if you’d like to have no control over your body, unable to move any part of it except your eyes, how would you feel about that? I know personally I would have said it’s nightmare material; it’s the kind of condition people have in mind when signing documents requesting their life not be prolonged in the event.

But here’s the thing: it’s a much harder thing than people think to picture what your mental state would be like if you lived a totally different life. That’s borne out by study after study after study (that last involving 91 respondents, the largest of its kind) showing that people with locked-in syndrome rate their quality of life as highly as those without, experience levels of depression no higher than the rest of the population, and that their assessment of their quality of life doesn’t change even after living in a locked-in state for many years.

Professor Niels Birbaumer, who is developing new ways for patients with conditions like locked-in syndrome to communicate using a direct brain-computer interface, believes that this is one effect of brain plasticity – the way our brains rewire themselves to deal with different circumstances. Birbaumer theorises that “because … all the thinking which is related to ‘I want’, ‘I need that’, ‘I want to have this’ … is never fulfilled … the brain learns fairly rapidly, within hours … not to think voluntarily. And the consequence is that the brain stays in a more passive and sensory, in a state where everything is intake but nothing is outwards oriented… And the consequence of course if you don’t want anything, you are not getting frustrated.”

Whether or not that’s the reason, the evidence is plentiful that locked-in patients enjoy their quality of life to the same degree as anyone else. So before you go feeling sorry for people with locked-in syndrome (or making any rash decisions about what you’d want done if it happened to you), stop and consider that they’re probably just as happy with their life as you are.

Original source: All in the Mind: Frontiers of the Changeable Brain

Voodoo wasps create mind-controlled guardians

Probably less happy with their lot in life are the caterpillars targeted by Glyptapanteles wasps. N.B. if you’re easily grossed out, you probably want to skip this one.

If you have any interest at all in a bug’s life, you’ve probably already heard of parasitic (or, more properly, parasitoid) wasps, which lay their eggs in the bodies of other insects who will then become food for the emerging wasp larvae. Some of these larvae can even control their hosts’ behaviour to benefit themselves (such as inducing a spider to cocoon itself in its own silk) – but usually, that still requires the larva to be in contact with its host, injecting chemicals into the host’s body.

Enter genus Glyptapanteles. Wasps in this genus lay their eggs in young geometrid caterpillars (you might know them as loopers or inchworms). When the wasp larvae hatch, they feed on the caterpillar from the inside until they’re ready to pupate, at which point their burrow out through their host’s skin and attach themselves to the branch. So far, so horrifyingly normal.

But this is where things get really weird. After the wasp larvae have exited, the caterpillar sticks around. The larvae in their cocoons are at their most vulnerable to predation, but the caterpillar now stands guard over them, unmoving, making no attempt to feed itself, and actively attacking any other insect that gets too close.

The larvae, remember, are in their cocoons – completely disconnected from their host. Nonetheless, the caterpillar stays put until its cocooned charges are ready to emerge as adult wasps – at which point, in perfect sync with its duty being discharged, the caterpillar dies.

How do they do that? Well, probably not with mind-control. The jury is still out, although one suggestion is that a few larvae may deliberately remain behind in the caterpillar’s body, sacrificing their chance to develop in order to maintain control and protect their siblings.

Original source (with video!): Zombie caterpillars controlled by voodoo wasps

Sharing your car with a mystery guest

My last story for today is more of an anecdote, but it’s still a true story that inspired me to think and to want to write, and that qualifies it for this segment.

It comes from a woman called Amanda who, while studying at college in Austin, Texas, got into the habit of leaving her car unlocked. The car was not a particularly notable model, and had an issue where the alarm would go off anytime she unlocked it, so to avoid setting the alarm off every morning she made sure to leave nothing of value in her car and just left it unlocked on the street.

After a couple of years of doing this without incident, Austin was hit with a few nights of particularly bad rain. In the mornings, Amanda discovered her car seat pushed back and fully reclined. The first morning, she thought she must have done it herself and just forgotten, but by the second she had twigged to what was going on: someone was sleeping in her car.

At this point some people might have freaked out and starting locking up. But Amanda went with it: she left the car open. For nearly two years, whenever the weather was very bad, her mystery guest would sleep in her car. They never took anything, and were always gone by the time Amanda came down in the morning. They were clearly aware that Amanda knew about them, because from time to time they would leave her small thankyou presents: hand-picked flowers, spare change, a cheap plastic ring.

But in all that time, in nearly two years of sharing a car, the two of them never met.

The arrangement went on until Amanda graduated from college, at which point she and her car moved away, so this is where the story ends. Personally, I feel a bit sad that in all that time Amanda never thought to go one step further and leave blankets or other comforts in the car for her mystery guest, who potentially didn’t have much of their own.

But more than that, it makes me wonder: about the identity of the mystery guest, about how they felt about the arrangement, about what might have happened if they had ever communicated with one another through more than just an unlocked car and flowers left on a dashboard.

Original source: Criminal ep. 81: Unexpected Guests

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