Cerebriraptor, the Imminent Threat of a New Disease
17 november 2006
Science, it is said, is value-free. That implies that science itself does not intrinsically lead to either good or bad and therefore the scientists themselves must guide science, navigating with their own moral compass or with the compass they borrow from those people they have to account to. A lot of human activities are equally value-free, such as the economy, the exploitation of raw materials and the media. These are merely tools that can be put to good use or to evil use—it is up to the user alone to decide how he or she will use the tools.
There is little to be said against this argument, except that most of these human activities are nowadays taking placing on such a scale that it has become rather unclear who is in charge, i.e. who is the independent user, or who lays down the standards and values, who guards them and who benefits from them.
In this respect, the media, the frail but sticky cement of our global society, are perhaps the most intangible element, all the more so in their present many-headed appearance—press, television and radio, but above all the Internet, which outdoes all other media and also steers them. In the worldwide spiderweb of information, disinformation, signal and noise, which covers the whole planet, the spiders are hard to distinguish from the flies and both those who would want us to believe that there are no spiders and those who claim to know the spiders, should be distrusted. And if the medium is the message, today the message sounds like an inhumanly loud babel, even menacing. It must be quite obvious that there is no chance of winning the battle against such a formidable, value-free opponent.
A new disease
Against the background of this emergent evolution, we now place the signals of a new, serious infectious disease. What we are faced with, is a mysterious, pathophysiologically entirely new syndrome. Despite a lot of vagueness still surrounding it, we will try to describe the disease as well as we can in this text, using the scarce information that is available today.
The working title for this new disease is the “Delrue's syndrome” (after the artist who first signalled the problem). Briefly put, Delrue's syndrome is a slow degenerative disease of the brain, probably caused by a new type of infectious agent, which has been named Cerebriraptor. The disease seems to hit people of all walks of life, and it consequently constitutes a serious threat to world health. In the following paragraphs we will treat various aspects of the disease, to the extent information is available.
The existence of the disease was first suspected by the Belgian artist Ronny Delrue in the early years of the new millennium. In his drawings and paintings sometimes a small animal appeared, consisting of a simple spherical body and with thin, rudimentary legs. The creature stooped over a prey, usually a human head. Ronny Delrue's illustrations in this book show some of the manifestations of the animal. The black, grey or brownish silhouette is clearly without face or sensory perception; it also lacks paws, teeth or any other organs with which it could attack or defend itself. The round belly, thin legs and stooping posture over the prey suggest that the animal is mainly equipped to suck in as much food as possible, i.e. that it has probably no other functions or faculties. Phylogenetically, it seems hard to classify the animal. As it seems covered with a brownish hair and appears to be equipped to suck in food, we may suspect it to be a mammal or marsupial, but because of the simplified shape, it is also reminiscent of an insect (e.g. a tick). Neither the size, nor the number of legs are certain, as these vary in the different figures. Furthermore, often there is no object in the figures we could refer to measure its size. Sometimes we notice the animal on a human head, sometimes inside. The simplified shape we already mentioned, along with its functional reduction that seems solely aimed at taking in food, may indicate a sort of devolution, i.e. the loss of evolutionary acquired functions. This phenomenon is known to occur in e.g. parasites, in which a number of functions and the matching organs (for protection, movement, preserving temperature, etc.) have disappeared, because they are provided by the host.
The artist called this animal Braineater or Cerebriraptor. It is a purely artistic creature that symbolizes the thoughts and feelings that poison, distract or paralyse the mind, cloud the mental visual field and move the mind away or alienate it from that which is essential. For the artist Cerebriraptor represents the struggle between sense en non-sense, which for the artist, and by extension for all contemporary humans, becomes increasingly fierce and unequal. In other words, the Raptor symbolises an immaterial (psychological, philosophical and spiritual) issue. Yet Raptor is not an intellectual or moralistic construction: it is a creation that was born from the perception we confront a specific spiritual and social problem. But unconsciously the artist's antennae have discovered something more concrete: the infectious disease we now know as Delrue's syndrome.
The disease was first described in 2004, when some general practitioners from the area of Le Grand Hornu (Belgium, in the Walloon province of Hainaut) wrote about a handful of case studies in a professional journal, which involved the development of an unusual emotional indifference in the patients. This emotional numbing had occurred in the course of only a few months, was inexplicable and proved resistant to antidepressants.
Some psychiatrists were sceptic and believed that these were merely atypical symptoms of depression, schizophrenia or autism, and that the dose of antidepressants administered had been too low. New cases, however, were noted worldwide during the past two years, confirming the hypothesis that we are facing a new type of disease, caused by a biological, infectious agent. It seemed the disease could be passed on by long term contact with patients, though it has been reported to occur spontaneously. Controversy has surrounded the nature of the disease from its first description, and there is still some scepticism in medical circles whether it actually exists.
The pathology expresses itself mainly through a progressive callousness in the broadest sense of the word and through an equally progressive, albeit limited decrease in intellectual faculties.
Patients suffer on the one hand from psychological indifference: they are less than usual touched by emotional events and they are less involved with others with whom they have a meaningful relationship. The indifference is also directed towards the patients themselves, who are unmoved by their lives falling apart. There are certain similarities with the so-called anesthésie douloureuse, a distressing absence of emotions that characterizes depression, but in this instance without explicit psychic pain. There are also similarities with the so-called negative symptomatology that is found in schizophrenics: patients suffer from emotional numbing, decreased involvement with the environment and personal needs, which results in a tendency towards social isolation and apathy. It is curious that for a short while the attention can be focussed on television programmes intended for small children; however, the focus quickly weakens and degrades to a lower level.
On the other hand, patients also tend to suffer from neurological hypaesthesia, a diminished sensitivity of the tactile sense in general and the receptors for warmth, vibrations and pain more in particular. Because of this, the patients' ability to avoid harmful situations is decreased and as a result they suffer frequently form injuries and burns. As their tactile sense deteriorates, the patients become clumsy and they often drop objects.
Finally, there is also a decrease of the intellectual faculties, both with regard to verbal intelligence (compiling and managing knowledge) and performatory intelligence (logical faculties). The disease can therefore be considered a form of dementia. Current data indicate a progressive decrease of intellectual faculties, which eventually stabilizes; on average the IQ decreases between 15 and 25 points.
The overall clinical image is that of a patient who is little responsive, whose psychomotor skills have slowed down, who looks around with a glazed expression, has visible bruises on the body, is surrounded by objects he or she has dropped, and who can usually be found near a television set.
Aetiology and pathogenesis
The cause of the condition remains hypothetical. The idea that the disease is caused by an infectious agent is now widely accepted, since researchers have established temporal links between several cases and the discovery that in some areas the pathology seems endemic. Yet cases have been described in which the disease apparently emerged spontaneously, though also these patients turned out to be infectious. In this instances it was as if Cerebriraptor materialized from thin air. There remains, in other words, a lot of uncertainty about the exact genesis of the disease.
A quite remarkable, but not implausible hypothesis, postulates the existence of an entirely new type of infectious agent that is not of biological origin. For a clear understanding of this hypothesis, is it useful to digress on two related, homonymous concepts from entirely different areas, namely the biological virus and the computer virus. The biological virus is an extremely rudimentary life form, which consists of a protein coat with inside it the code to synthesize the coat itself. The evolutionary origin of viruses is still unclear. They may originate from a devolutionary process (see above), in which complex life forms were reduced to a simplified, entirely parasitic life form. Viruses are equipped to enter a host cell and use the genetic material of the host (DNA) as building blocks to replicate themselves and thus multiply. In this process the host cells are destroyed to a certain extent, which may cause damage to the host (a unicellular or multicellular organism) or even cause it to die.
Computer viruses are small computer programs that may interfere with other programs (e.g. e-mail programs) and cause them to send the virus to other computers. Apart from infecting other computers with copies of themselves, they may damage the software or even the hardware of the computer infected, causing it partly or entirely to dysfunction. Computer viruses are deliberately designed to obtain certain —usually destructive—effects. That makes them different from biological viruses, though some people believe this to be true for the AIDS virus as well. The similarities between biological viruses and computer viruses are not only to be found in the infectious and often disruptive character of both: both are simple structures that are actually little more than “code”, i.e. DNA or RNA in the case of biological viruses, command lines in the case of computer viruses, and both need the host to obtain building blocks. In other words, the signifier (the element of the system that carries meaning) is used to disrupt the entire system, using an improper form of the signifier that has no meaning with regard to the system, but solely with regard to the disruptive mechanism. Furthermore, the parasite is solidly constructed in order that it can replicate efficiently.
Examples of even more primitive (but also less efficient) improper codes are prions (which cause e.g. mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), small pieces of protein that cannot really be considered life forms, and “bugs” in computer programs. Both of these, however, should rather be considered “flaws” in the code than autonomous entities.
It is quite conceivable that, analogous to this “malign code”, structures originate in the human brain, that feed on the signifier, software or code—in this instance cognitions—and destroy the system. The term cognitions refers to discrete mental processes or contents that are both “rational” and “emotional”, i.e. thoughts, feelings, concepts, reasonings, etc. We assume here that “evil cognitions” may possibly exist. These are structured in such a way that if they reach the mind of the host via the senses, they attack it, multiply themselves inside the host and subsequently infect new victims when the host spreads the cognitions through communication with others. The more or less general functional breakdown of the brain could result from the fact that various systems are overwhelmed by this cognition. Familiar, more benign processes that are to a certain extent similar are obsessive thoughts, such as in obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the intrusive thoughts and re-experiences that occur in post-traumatic stress disorder. In these instances certain thoughts, emotions or ideas may overrun the mind, yet the symptoms are not infectious.
To summarize: in this view the Cerebriraptor is presented as a parasitic and metastising cognition that affects the brain functions and can be spread by communication. Though this is an entirely new and as yet non-objectified pathogenetic concept, the hypothesis not only accounts for the familiar symptoms of the disease, but also explains the apparently contradictory coincidence of an infectious and spontaneous origin of the pathology, for it is both possible that a cognition is transferred and that it emerges spontaneously in the mind of the host. In this instance, too, there is an analogy with prions, which can be both transferred through infection, mutation and the genes. Important in this respect—and alarming— is the fact that the infection can be passed on to distant people through communication devices such as telephone, television and the Internet.
First it should be noted that momentarily no immune factor against Cerebriraptor infection is known. To stay on the safe side, we should therefore presume that no person is immune for the disease—everyone can be infected by Cerebriraptor. What factors play a part in a person's susceptibility to infection? Definitely not age, sex, race, intelligence, sexual orientation, religious or philosophical views. Theoretically, it can be surmised that people who lead an isolated life and use few telecommunication means, are less at risk of catching the disease. Yet, as we mentioned above, spontaneous emergence can never be excluded.
Careful epidemiological research has shown on the other hand that exposure to the so-called mass media probably puts people at risk. Two qualities of these information technologies—television, Internet or public advertising—probably play a part: quantity and content. The fact that the quantity of information we have to process every day has become very high and continues to increase, is beyond dispute. We could even go as far as to say that a semantic tsunami engulfs contemporary society. Though we may not be aware of it, this considerably strains our brain, which continually has to find out what is the proper signal and what is noise in this stream of data. It is important that a lot of these data are meaningless and redundant. Precisely this redundancy, this non-sense makes it harder to filter out the relevant information. The particularly complex machine that has to notice useful data and respond adequately (the term salience is used in this respect to refer to data that “stand out”) can become dysfunctional if the proverbial filter gets blocked by an excessive amount of redundant data. The phenomenon can also be understood as a sort of generalized habituation: the sensors and receptors are overexcited, which causes them to become less sensitive and which leads to the evaporation of their faculty to differentiate between stimuli. This habituation can even extend to the higher functions of the moral and aesthetical sense. The moral or aesthetic salience of valuable contents can be lost because of an excess of meaningless, qualitatively weaker or sensational messages; the faculty to distinguish deteriorates. The condition of overexcitement, habituation and blocking of the filter is probably favourable to the festering malignant cognition and allows the Cerebriraptor to reproduce. The condition that precedes the actual semantic infection is called pre-raptus.
Before attempting a diagnosis, the clinician needs to protect himself or herself against infection. In direct contact with the patient, Cerebriraptor usually spreads through verbal communication. Normally a solid hearing protection will therefore suffice, preferably the ear muffs type used at airports
Currently the diagnostics of Delrue's syndrom is particularly imperfect. The diagnosis is based mainly on clinical facts (see symptomatology). Because the symptoms are rather unspecific, the clinician often makes an exclusion diagnosis, i.e. disorders with similar symptoms have been excluded, viz. depression, schizophrenia, drug abuse, autism and dementia. The classical physical examinations such as blood test, CT scan of the brain and electroencephalogram usually reveal no special problems. In serious cases an NMR scan or a functional brain scan may reveal discrete loss of mass or function.
The hope is that a suitable psychotechnical examination may lead to conclusive results, notable a special version of the Voight-Kampff test, in scientific circles broadly accepted as an implementation of the Turing test. The test should allow the diagnostician to detect the specific loss of emotional faculties due to the harmful effect of Cerebriraptor.
Currently no treatment for the disease is available. Patients are usually admitted into hospitals or nursing homes, where care is taken that they are put in an environment with few stimuli. It is assumed that this may stop the progression of the disease, though at present there is no evidence that it does.
Future possibilities for treatment have been suggested, but these remain speculative. One researcher has proposed a sort of mental antibiotherapy with cognitions that cripple the cognitions of the braineaters, but as yet these cannot be developed, for the precise structure of Cerebriraptor remains unknown. By analogy, a mental vaccination has been proposed with weakened malignant cognitions, which will engage in a Darwinian competition with the Cerebriraptor in the victim's head. Currently, however, there is not even a realistic beginning that might enable the development of a vaccine.
This brings us to the important aspect of prevention. With regard to individual persons, these are advised to remain careful with the media. That means that people are advised to read texts, watch images and films, listen to music or audio clips only if it is certain that the source is reliable or that the files have been protected. In every mail that contains an advertisement, in every video clip, in every jingle, but also in books, letters and even traffic signs, a Cerebriraptor may lurk. Modern town-dwellers are particularly at risk because their environment is rich in redundant data. A classical advice is to avert the eyes if one is confronted with advertising billboards or other potential sources of infection during a walk through town. In shopping malls and especially in large furniture business (typical reservoirs of the bug) the danger of infection is even greater. People are also advised to cover their ears to avoid exposure to musical braineaters. Still better is to avoid high-risk behaviour and try to achieve an optimal mental hygiene.
As the infection is spread by the media, some voices have proposed to abolish these. However, such a goal seems not feasible without help of... the media, which means the measure bites its own tail. Yet in several places low-media communities have been founded, but little is known about these, because naturally these shy away from the media.
As we mentioned earlier, anyone who comes into contact with infected persons should take extreme care. A major problem is the fact that Cerebriraptor is hard to recognize and cognitive contact with the bug de facto implies infection. From patients who were still able to tell their story, we know that infection can occur through listening to an absurd sentence, looking at an incomprehensible image or watching a film, or listening to a distressing sound or piece of music through the telephone, via Internet or other media, all of which can reach the brain and start to fester.
The exact nature of these guises of the Cerebriraptor is very difficult to find out because of the huge risk of infection involved in research, as can be seen from some painful cases of infected researchers. Currently some researchers are frenetically seeking a method to handle the bug without risk for the people involved. With regard to Cerebriraptors that are passed on through language, a possible method might be found in using a modified form of the bug that is harmless to the researcher.
The prognosis in case of a Cerebriraptor infection is unfavourable. As no treatment is available, the disease usually develops into a chronic form, leading to a permanent loss of mental faculties. The patients are sometimes disrespectfully compared with zombies, because of their apathy and callousness. Though they are not aggressive, that does not make the disease less contagious. A terminal development like that of Alzheimer's disease or Huntington's chorea has not yet been attested, though it has been noted that patients descend to a lower level of functioning.
Though the information referred to in this text is still the object of scientific controversy, we think that, considering the imminent risk of an epidemic or possibly even a pandemic, we cannot be careful enough. As such we strongly appeal to the authorities to make more means available for prevention, information and research. More in particular, we ask for extra means for the artists. As the work of Ronny Delrue convincingly demonstrates, precisely artists posses the delicate perceptiveness that allows them to sense cultural, social or medical developments in the earliest stage. Artists are therefore an excellent early warning system. Furthermore, it cannot be excluded that their creations will one day be an essential part of a treatment for this terrible disease. Maybe art can save the world.