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I'm making a mental condition that spreads through social contact. It is infectious, but having contact with someone who has it does not guarantee an infection. However, someone who is unwell might have an increased chance of infection. This may be physically or mentally unhealthy.

I'm not looking for a condition that is caused by physical damage to a part of the brain, for example because of a virus or bacteria, or due to a concussion. Epilepsy or similar is also out. A change of hormones that affect the brain is fine. The point is, the condition should be reversible (so it can be cured).

What I'm looking for is something that makes the person feel sad when the infection is successful. The infection may spread through anything that can be considered social contact; directly or indirectly (such as via a letter, or hearing an announcement from a town crier). It's a modern world, so social media and chat apps count as social contact.

Is such condition plausible? If not, is there any real world example or analogue to this condition?


This question graduated from the Sandbox.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 17 '17 at 3:38

13 Answers 13

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This is going on on Earth even as we speak!

We're talking about ... Ideas. They are spread through social contact, some prospective hosts can fight them off, but some succumb and spread them further.

Examples:

  • Memes

  • Multi-level marketing recruitment

  • Philosophical movements (planned and unplanned). You've heard of a civilization going through a malaise; this is just what you're asking for!

  • Heck, just plain good and bad news. These affect people's mental state as well.

Now if you want to get a little more science-fictiony about it, check out "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson. He posits that there are special phrases (and maybe images, can't quite remember) which have special impact, like backdoor commands into the brain.

Is it any surprise we speak of ideas "going viral?" ;D

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    $\begingroup$ In fact, that is how the concept of "meme" developed (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetics). Treating ideas/concepts (memes) as components of self-propagating entities (memeplexes) that mutate and evolve, much like organisms do via their genes. $\endgroup$ – JAB Oct 13 '17 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ Can I have additional +1 for that last line? $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 13 '17 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget fake news, that stuff spreads like a bushfire... $\endgroup$ – Samwise Oct 13 '17 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ CGPGrey has a video on this: youtube.com/watch?v=rE3j_RHkqJc $\endgroup$ – matsjoyce Oct 14 '17 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianZhang it is possible. You might get convinced by a "counter-meme", or the meme might kind of ... fade. This last isn't really a cure, it's more like the meme goes into remission and can be revived. Think of TV or radio jingles here. In my community one of the most pernicious buried jingles is "1 877 Kars for Kids". Cue the screaming. $\endgroup$ – akaioi Oct 15 '17 at 1:33
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You may consider a new religion of some sort. "Infection" would just be conversion to the new religion, and that's something that must by nature happen via social means. The "cure" would involve convincing converts to give up the religion somehow. This may not best fit your requirements as one aspect of religion is that it usually makes believers feel better about themselves/etc. (nobody really wants to be sad, at least not all the time), but the religion could encourage self-destructive behavior (not something unknown to real-life religions, actually: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-flagellation) despite having a seemingly innocuous message as shown to the general public. You might want to look at Scientology as an example of just how such a religion might be created and evolve.

Alternatively, something like Science Related Memetic Disorder from A Miracle of Science, which has as a plot point that certain documents (speeches, books, etc.) can actually turn people into mad scientists (the real kind, not just self-delusion) who, via psychiatric treatment, are eventually able to lead normal lives again. Of course, those mad scientists normally don't want to subject themselves to the treatment, as they have the typical mad scientist nature of believing the scientific establishment is out to get them, etc. It's a good read and I'd recommend it if you have the time, it may give you some good ideas.

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    $\begingroup$ The idea of "sin" can make the believer sad, or whatever that he/she is unable to do which is taught by the religion. For example, being holy. This is not what I'm going for initially, but this fits what I need. Great answer! $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 13 '17 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ Successful religions typically make people feel hope, awe, fear, guilt, smug superiority and/or xenophobic rage, not sadness. $\endgroup$ – Beta Oct 14 '17 at 0:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Beta Religions make me sad (amongst other emotions). $\endgroup$ – bye Oct 16 '17 at 8:20
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Induced delusional disorder --> Psychotic symptoms

What you are looking for is called Folie à deux. DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) lists it as 'delusional symptoms in partner of individual with delusional disorder'. ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Edition) lists it as Induced Delusional Disorder (folie à deux).

There are several different forms of it. The most suitable for your purposes is the one where a genuinely psychotic individual induces psychotic symptoms on an otherwise mentally healthy person. In this case, the majority of initially non-psychotic patients are easily and fast cured by separation from psychotic inducers.

This disorder typically occurs within pairs or small tightly-knit groups. The transmission mechanism is close social contact.

Sufferers of Folie à deux are usually isolated from the rest of the society. However, historic examples of mass hysteria prove that delusions can spread much wider than just two people or a family. The main difference between Folie à deux and mass hysteria is that the latter tends to have milder symptoms (psychosis-wise).

Mass psychogenic illness (MPI) --> Somatic symptoms

MPI is a special case of mass hysteria. It also affects a great number of people but unlike aforementioned mental disorders causes symptoms of a physical disease in absence of organic basis. Females are more susceptible to MPI.

Interestingly, the symptoms tend to appear first in people of older age or higher social status and spread down the social hierarchy.

The recovery from MPI is usually fast. Although, the symptoms can come back again at a later time.


These are the most realistic explanations if you want to stick with mental illness idea.

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  • $\begingroup$ For an entertaining (from sufficient distance...) example see glass delusion. $\endgroup$ – Tgr Oct 15 '17 at 1:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Tgr, unfortunately, the OP specified the symptoms he wants to have: "something that makes the person feel sad when the infection is successful". It has to be one of the depressive spectrum disorders. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 15 '17 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ This is what I'm initially looking for, but 'meme' will help with my story better. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 15 '17 at 7:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Vylix, meme is not a mental condition, though. It is at best a method of spreading it. I also would strongly advise against using memes as a disease vector. It is not believable since mental conditions are quite hard to induce especially for a prolonged time. PTSD can be inflicted by a single event, however, such an event must be tremendously traumatic. I do not think that a meme can be anything close it. Not to mention that there is a growing body of research showing how ineffective social media (the main distributor of memes) are in changing human behaviour. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 15 '17 at 10:18
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You can easily get depression hanging around depressed people and not having any other social contact. It is generally reversible but in some cases depression is chronic and requires medication. Some people are more susceptible to depression than others.

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  • $\begingroup$ So, depression is infectious? I haven't known that! $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 13 '17 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Vylix, MOODS are infectious. Someone laughing, smiling broadly, glooming around with a frown, etc, can all "infect" your own mood. $\endgroup$ – user41674 Oct 13 '17 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Thomas Depression is not some mood. Depression is a clinical condition cause by chemical imbalances in the brain. And yes, depression can cause codependence. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Oct 13 '17 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ I have clinical depression and take medication for it (for quite some time now). So yes, I know... That's incredibly common knowledge. I never said ANYTHING that even closely repudiates what you are saying. BUT, moods of any kind can infect your mood as well. I was saying that IN ADDITION to depression causing co-dependence, moods can infect you AS WELL. $\endgroup$ – user41674 Oct 13 '17 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK, according to ICB-10, depressive type disorders (F32, F33) belong to Mood [affective] disorders. Moreover, the most important symptoms of depression affect mood. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 14 '17 at 7:40
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Many believe that Morgellons, and to a lesser extent Electromagnetic hypersensitivity, are examples of "diseases" that spread over the internet. People read about it, get worried and then convince themselves that they are sufferers.

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    $\begingroup$ I recall there is a condition where people read symptoms of disease, and convinced they contract the disease. I think this is very similar to what you've described. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 14 '17 at 6:03
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So scientists have created a microbe capable of creating LSD

You could say people get infected with a bacteria that creates LSD, or some other compound. If you just want to make people sad, then perhaps you could have a bacterium that produces depressants (plenty to choose from).

There are plenty of bacterium that, when they infect us, produce toxins like E-coli or botulism(I think).

Edit clarification: Bacterial infections are reversible, that's why we don't die or become debilitated every time we catch a bug. The damage and curability of bacteria is largely dependent on its genetic adaptations. This is why anti-biotics have any value at all in medicine. If they didn't do anything we wouldn't use em.

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  • $\begingroup$ I believe this meets the criteria of being reversible, although I specifically say no bacteria :D So it's fine! (I'm kinda afraid of what scientists be able to do with genetic engineering nowadays) $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 13 '17 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Vylix Actually no from what I can tell you never explicitly said no bacteria, what you did say was no bacteria damaging the brain which this respects whole heartedly. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 13 '17 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ @anon, technically, if bacteria produce any psychoactive substances they damage the brain. These substances affect brain neurochemistry, sometimes permanently altering it. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 14 '17 at 5:54
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Actually a few ideas come to mind:

Love, or lack of it

In many dystopian future-type stories, the idea that a person can have feelings, is emotive over analytic, and the such, is usually constructed as a social disease that causes imperfect human beings with the characteristic flaw of being defeated by their emotions.

Self-awareness

Like in our current world, the idea that self-awareness is a social construct that only creates a person to be self-conscious about their appearance, their mannerisms, their beliefs, and so on. Because of this sudden awareness, it is likely to bring people to a depression about their "sub-standard" existence. This can be considered a social disease.

Relative pathology

Have you ever heard say that there are people who believe they are sick and by way of self-fulfilling prophecy, they do become sick with whatever they think they're afflicted with? This is a type of mental illness that manifests itself as physical symptoms, which are socially acquired by being either "brainwashed" into believing so, or by receiving the idea and nurturing it in your mind until it manifests.

Not actually ill, but cursed or haunted

This is one for suspense or horror-type stories. The idea that maintaining a social relationship with a being that presents themselves as human, walks and talks like a human, behaves like a human, ages like a human, but is actually otherwordly, and is inflicting those it comes in contact with, with a curse or by allowing their soul to be haunted by another spirit, whether willingly or unwillingly. They may even believe themselves to be a normal human being, but are not entirely sure of their upbringing, but their mere presence and initiating social interaction is enough to bring ill to the other party.

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Here is some lateral thinking: you might be interested that a remotely similar idea that has been exploited by Robert Heinlein, in his 1977 novel Puppet Masters: a couple of aliens (some kind of jelly thing) multiply to invading the Earth, by sticking on human hosts. They multiply by separating and "jumping" from one host to another on social contact.

The genre is that of "alien invasion" (distinct from yours, I believe), but with a twist: the external element does not alter or damage the body of the person, but only modifies their will and behaviour, without the person being aware of it, so that people individually and socially think they are fine and "it doesn't exist". Here the was not feeling sad, but just plain normal, though they had lost their free will (but I guess it could be tweaked). And if I remember well, the condition is reversible, by physically removing the external animal. In practice however, mankind is defenseless, for psychological and social reasons, rather than physical reasons.

Hence some kind of parasite in (perhaps just precarious) contact to the skin could be used a device plot, to explain the contagion of the mental condition; removing it physically would end the mind alteration.

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    $\begingroup$ You're using "social contact" to mean physically touching in some context, or at least coming close enough to someone that the physical object and "hop" from one body to another. I believe the OP intended "social media contact" meaning you can "catch" the illness by reading an ebook. Good catch with the Puppet Masters, though. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 14 '17 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ It's an excellent point... it couldn't propagate through telecom media (phone at the time). When the book was written it was barely relevant, but today it would be essential. Perhaps there would be a way for the critters around that limitation... some kind of "social engineering"? ... It looks like "cracking"? $\endgroup$ – fralau Oct 14 '17 at 10:42
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Depressor: Scientists announce a world destroying meteorite will collide with Earth in 1 year and the human race will be annihilated.

Reverser: Governments announce they have destroyed the meteor

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  • $\begingroup$ I cant think of any idea more universally depressing than the world is factually going to end. Other than god showing up and announcing "surprise your all wrong and going to hell" $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 13 '17 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Thomas Do I really need to explain why the world coming to end would generally be a depressor? $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 13 '17 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ Thomas as addressed by my answer "Scientists announce.." in other words a credible official source. Also the SE rules do not explicitly mandate a length for an answer, In many ways a simple concise answer is preferable to a book. Sure I could delve into the minutia of every detail although that is beyond the requirements set by the OP. I feel its a rather safe, simple, clear argument for the general person to follow that credible news of imminent doom is depressing and that resolution of that danger is relieving. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 13 '17 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ The fact that you need to comment your answer to make it more clear already says it is not enough to convey its message... $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Oct 14 '17 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ My knee-jerk reaction was that this failed the OP's requirements as information is neither an infection nor a disease. However, the OP states that it can be spread by "hearing an announcement from the town crier." Consequently, this is as good an answer as any. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 14 '17 at 6:34
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Aside from patterns that act as a backdoor to modify mental state like in Snow Crash or BLIT, basilisks or information hazards are two more memetic versions of your pathogenic mental state. I shouldn't really give real-world examples of these for obvious reasons, but two not-quite-instances that I can gesture at are (1) the case of Roko's basilisk, which was a thought experiment that didn't quite work wherein you could be blackmailed by a future superintelligence but only if you had been exposed to the specific line of reasoning that made it clear that the blackmail should in fact work, and (2) an exaggeration of Randian selfishness in which, despite someone wanting to be altruistic, they hear a specific argument for why altruism is all about selfishness and then lose their ability to feel real unconditional altruism. Basilisks are so named because just looking at them will cause the tragedy. These are both google-able for more info.

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This is related to a actual mental condition, sort of like "Memento." Contact with an airborne bacteria causes a cascade of hormonal fluctuation which leads to anterograde amnesia. The hormones affected would be norepinephrine and cortisol, lodging the bacterium in the frontotemporal lobe. The afflicted would walk around completely confused, hilarity ensues (not). This even has some real-world support. Alternately, the infection causing this illness could be affecting episodic or semantic memory,the hippocampus, etc. Treatment could be through medication designed to re-balance hormone levels, so it would be a pretty quick recovery after discovered.

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    $\begingroup$ What's a memento? $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 14 '17 at 6:06
  • $\begingroup$ Momento, not A momento. It's a psychological thriller movie imdb.com/title/tt0209144 $\endgroup$ – user41674 Oct 14 '17 at 17:28
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To expand on GEO's comment about the Bye Bye man, perhaps the infection is caused by a repetition of a phrase, physical tic or both. When a person hears/witnesses another person doing these things it produces "bad" memory patterns. For whatever reason these patterns reinforce themselves and cause the person to start to repeat the phrase/tic.

The resolution could either be some method of removing the initial memory or visual and audio stimuli that allows retraining of the altered pathways.

This would also be a rather horrifying disease as the simple act of observing it would cause you to be infected. Also making it nearly impossible to cure, how do you cure something you can't study? The fear of how it's contracted (and possible outcome, sadness, death etc...) could be a large part of the story.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean "latah" ? One of the most common occurence is echolalia, which is actually common here. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 14 '17 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ Actually I was inspired by the movie pontypool. Though I don't know that it explores it appears that well. $\endgroup$ – Theo Oct 15 '17 at 19:27
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There is a disease that is something like what you are looking for. Toxoplasmosis is spread by undercooked meat that is infected with spores, or contact with cat feces, usually through litterboxes.

It's asymptomatic for the most part, as far as what we think of typical sickness symptions. In some places of the world, it's pandemic, meaning that some 90% of the population are infected.

What's interesting is that researcher Jaroslav Flegr has looked into how toxoplasmosis affects human behavior:

His work on how toxoplasmosis—an infection caused by the protozoan parasite T. gondii—influences personality,[5] sex ratios,[6] and rates of traffic accidents,[7][8] has received coverage in The Atlantic,[9] Salon,[10] and The Guardian.[11] Flegr maintains that toxoplasmosis might increase the rate of traffic accidents by as much as one million collisions per year.[12][13][14] He also believes that T. gondii contributes to suicides and mental disorders such as schizophrenia.[9]

His work has shown that Toxoplasmosis increases sociability and risk-taking in people who are infect by it:

Feeling sociable or reckless? You might have toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which the CDC estimates has infected about 22.5 percent of Americans older than 12 years old. Researchers tested participants for T. gondii infection and had them complete a personality questionnaire. They found that both men and women infected with T. gondii were more extroverted and less conscientious than the infection-free participants. These changes are thought to result from the parasite's influence on brain chemicals, the scientists write in the May/June issue of the European Journal of Personality.

“Toxoplasma manipulates the behavior of its animal host by increasing the concentration of dopamine and by changing levels of certain hormones,” says study author Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

Although humans can carry the parasite, its life cycle must play out in cats and rodents. Infected mice and rats lose their fear of cats, increasing the chance they will be eaten, so that the parasite can then reproduce in a cat's body and spread through its feces [see “Protozoa Could Be Controlling Your Brain,” by Christof Koch, Consciousness Redux; Scientific American Mind, May/June 2011].

There is even some extreme speculation that, since the origin of toxoplasmosis infection is ultimately from cats, and it causes changes in behavior, it may have played a role in the development and spread of early civilization, when cats and humans first began to dwell together in the middle east.

Toxoplasma – the brain parasite that influences human culture

Carriers tend to show long-term personality changes that are small but statistically significant. Women tend to be more intelligent, affectionate, social and more likely to stick to rules. Men on the other hand tend to be less intelligent, but are more loyal, frugal and mild-tempered. The one trait that carriers of both genders share is a higher level of neuroticism – they are more prone to guilt, self-doubt and insecurity.

In individuals cases, these effects may seem quirky or even charming but across populations, they can have a global power. T.gondii infection is extremely common and rates vary greatly from country to country. While only 7% of Brits carry the parasite, a much larger 67% of Brazilians are infected. Given that the parasite alters behaviour, infection on this scale could lead to sizeable differences in the general personalities of people of different nationalities. This is exactly what Lafferty found.

Neuroticism is one of the most widely-studied of all psychological traits and Lafferty found that levels in different countries correlated well with the levels of T.gondii infection. The parasites’ presence was also related to aspects of culture associated with neuroticism. Countries where infection was common were more likely to have ‘masculine sex roles’, characterized by greater differences between the sexes and their part in society and a stronger focus on work, ambition and money rather than people and relationships. Strongly infected societies were also more likely to avoid risk and embrace strict rules and regulations.

So, if instead of through spores in undercooked meat, or cat feces, your disease spread through normal social contact, the same way that a cold or the flu spreads through handshakes, etc, and the disease made people more sociable and liable to take risks, you have a model for a disease that would quickly become pandemic.

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