When I enrolled in a Zoology course this semester, I knew I would have to balance my work life and school life, but I never really thought the two would intersect in any meaningful or substantial way. Like most college students who also work full-time, I figured the most my attempt to work by day and study by night would do is screw up my sleeping pattern and make my social life non-existent.
I never thought studying zombie ants would help me understand what it meant to be addicted.
Now, hear me out- follow the bouncing ball:
There is a parasitic roundworm in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America that relies on ants in order to complete its lifecycle. In order to do this, the parasite takes complete control of the ant, forcing it to turn bright red, climb to the top if a leaf or blade of grass, then hang from it by its mandibles- all day. At night this torturous feat of strength ends and the ant is allowed to return to its home, only to repeat the cycle day in and day out until it is eaten, thus passing on the parasitic larvae in it’s abdomen to the next host- the ultimate goal of the roundworm.
Honestly, even before I took this course I’d heard of this particular parasite; I mean, mind control is pretty awesome, right?
But then, weeks after I learned about what actually happens when this roundworm finds an ant host, I realized that there’s more one can learn from this parasitic relationship than what the lifecycle of a nematode. There’s a lot of parallels between the mind-control of this roundworm and the mind-altering nature of addiction.
What? What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous, Alex.
No, no, hear me out:
Substance abuse and addiction has physical effects, yes- but it also has some pretty damaging mental effects, too. Addiction can completely overwrite one’s thought processes, rewriting priorities and negating one’s knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s evidence of the physical effects of substance abuse on the brain and the corresponding mental and behavioral effects: not unlike the parasitic nematode.
Part of the reason addiction is so difficult to overcome on one’s own is because it goes beyond physical cravings into mental dependence; we become convinced that the drug or alcohol is the only thing providing us pleasure or, at the very least, relieve the undesirable side effects of withdrawal. To do so, people can and will go to incredible lengths such as theft, sex work, robbery, and- in extreme cases- murder.
If that’s not evidence that substance abuse takes over the mind, I don’t know what is.
People often note that being under the influence of illicit substances or entrapped by the overwhelming urges, they feel out of control of their actions. While of course this doesn’t necessarily negate responsibility for one’s actions, understanding the way addiction affects the mind and taking that into account would go a long way in prison reformation. Florida has finally begun to recognize the need to treat addiction and mental illness when it comes to the criminal system- hopefully soon the entire country will do the same.