Brain worms on mind makes me desperate for irrational fears vaccine
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This week the world learned, in a medical first, that a Canberra neurosurgeon had pulled an eight-centimetre-long, wriggling, parasitic roundworm from the brain of a 64-year-old woman. This had a ripple effect, as a mere few hours later, a new fear was unlocked in the brain of a 54-year-old woman in Sydney: me.
Earnestly, I scrutinised myself for Brain Worm symptoms. The patient had reportedly experienced stomach pains and night sweats, followed by forgetfulness and depression. I, too, have occasional stomach pains, and I’ve been sweating at night since perimenopause took hold. I am also extremely forgetful, and while I don’t recall being depressed, my anxiety makes up for that.
This specimen wormed its way into a woman’s brain. There’s extremely little chance a worm would make its way to your brain or mine, but that won’t stop us imagining it. Credit: Canberra Health Services via AP
I concede that I probably don’t have a brain worm, but having anxiety in this complex modern world is absolutely exhausting. It seems that every week I pull out a new fear from my ever-shuffling collection of worry cards. This week it is parasitic brain worm. Last week, after the perilous rescue of a group of students in Pakistan 274 metres above the ground, it was a cable car crash. The week before, it was a helicopter disaster. (That card comes up every few years.)
My brain is not designed to cope with so many and varied concerns. None of our brains are. In terms of fight or flight, our brains haven’t evolved significantly since Neanderthal times, when all we had to worry about was being eaten by a lion or dying in childbirth. These days we have a smorgasbord of stressors, including global warming, social media, wellness, processed foods, cancer, mental health, right-wing extremism, ageing gracefully, war, inequity, body image, natural disasters, being hacked. And we still have to worry about dying in childbirth, although, happily, being eaten by lions is less of a concern.
Now, I’m aware that dying of a parasitic brain worm is a ridiculously remote possibility. But my brain hasn’t evolved to discern ridiculously remote dangers from real and present ones. How could it? It’s a Neanderthal brain, which sees threats and reacts to them with surges of primal anxiety. It doesn’t matter if the threat is coming to me via the internet or radio or newspaper. It doesn’t matter if it is coming from the other side of the world, or if it’s a once-in-a-million event. It plays out in my imagination as if it’s happening to me. I can imagine dangling from the line in that cable car. I can feel the slinky horror of the worm in my head.
The more horrifying the scenario, the greater the impact. We fear the threats that capture our imaginations, not the threats that are the most pervasive. We have evolved to be anxious, not to calculate probabilities. This is why, for example, as my son heads off on a trip to South Asia, I am fretting about him being bitten by a rabid dog, and not about him falling sick with food poisoning. Sure, gastro is far more likely than rabies, but it just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch.
This is also why I spend far more time visualising being abducted by a stranger in the street than I do getting into a car crash or falling down my stairs. I merrily zoom about in my car and run around with shoelaces untied but watch out fearfully for murderous strangers on every dark corner.
Almost none of our dark fears will be realised. Our tiny brains are wasting boundless energy worrying about things that will never happen, and aren’t devoting enough energy to the things that will. We are in the midst of a genuine global crisis, the greatest threat in human history to the survival of our species. We all know it’s happening, we all know we need to do something, but the threat of climate change is far too mundane for us to act. Perhaps if fossil fuels led to kidnappings or parasitic worms in the brain, we would have banned them long ago.
As for my dark fears, well, I am still a prisoner of my unevolved brain, a mind that cannot fully grasp probability. My son is highly unlikely to catch rabies, but I still made the poor kid get the (very expensive) rabies vaccine. Honestly, if I could vaccinate him against parasitic brain worms, I’d probably do that too.
What we really need, though, is a vaccine against irrational fears. I’d speed in my car with my shoelaces untied and dash to the front of the line.
Kerri Sackville is an author, columnist and mother of three. Her new book is The Secret Life of You: How a bit of alone time can change your life, relationships and maybe the world.
Fascinating answers to perplexing questions delivered to your inbox every week. Sign up to get our Explainer newsletter here.Kerri Sackville is an author, columnist and mother of three. Her new book is The Secret Life of You: How a bit of alone time can change your life, relationships and maybe the world.