“Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who designed his negative income tax plan.”

Some millennials aren’t saving for retirement because they don’t think capitalism will exist by then
by Keith A. Spencer / March 18, 2018

“CNN reported last week that 66 percent of millennials aged 21 to 32 have nothing saved for retirement. And while their writer chalks up this inequity to student loans, “stagnant wages” and “high unemployment,” there may yet be a deeper cause: many millennials honestly don’t see a future for our economic system. The aforementioned CNN article about millennials’ (lack of) retirement savings went semi-viral, partly because many saw humor in how it missed how many truly felt. “RT if socialism is your retirement plan,” Holly Wood, 32, a political organizer, wrote on Twitter.

The idea that we millennials’ only hope for retirement is the end of capitalism or the end of the world is actually quite common sentiment among the millennial left. Jokes about being unable to retire or anticipating utter social change by retirement age were ricocheting around the internet long before CNN’s article was published. Older generations, and even millennials who are better off and who have managed to achieve a sort of petit-bourgeois freedom, might find this sentiment unimaginable, even abhorrent. And yet, in studying the reaction to the CNN piece and reaching out to millennials who had responded to it, I was astounded not only at how many young people shared Wood’s feelings, but how frequently our expectations for the future aligned.

Many millennials expressed to me their interest in creating self-sustaining communities as their only hope for survival in old age; a lack of faith that capitalism as we know it would exist by retirement age; and that alternating climate crises, concentrations of wealth, and privatization of social welfare programs would doom their chance at survival. “In general, I regard the future as a multitude of possibilities, but most of them don’t look good,” Elias Schwartzman, 29, a musician, told me. “When I’m at retirement age, around 2050, I think it’s possible we’ll have seen a breakdown of modern society.” Schwartzman said that he saw the future as encompassing one of two possibilities: an apocalyptic “total breakdown of industrial society,” or “capitalism morphing into a complete plutocracy.” “I think the argument can be made that we’re well on the way to that reality,” he added.

Wood, 32, a political consultant, told me via Twitter that she felt similarly. “I don’t think the world can sustain capitalism for another decade,” she explained. “It’s socialism or bust. We will literally start having resource wars that will kill us all if we don’t accept that the free market will absolutely destroy us within our lifetime [if] we don’t start fighting its hegemony,” she added. “Capitalism might still exist [in 2050], but I don’t expect people will be happy about it,” Jon Good, 34, a chocolatier and small business owner, said. “If [capitalism] is replaced [by then], my ideal economic model is one where all basic necessities are abundant and free, everyone works a few hours a week at the necessary chores of society like garbage collection and machine maintenance, then has the rest of their lives free to pursue whatever projects—be they art, leisure, or industry—that they desire.”

That utopian hope, that we could theoretically end up in a sort of fully-automated post-work social democracy à la “Star Trek,” was expressed by others too. “I think a system with universal basic income is inevitable if we’re going to survive the automation of jobs as a society,” Becca Cook, 30, told me over Facebook chat. “We need to shift our understanding and expectations to a world where not everyone has to have a job.” Sarah Frasco, 26, a student, saw a gulf between her and the young people who even thought about things like retirement. “For the most part, the idea of retirement or how you plan for it is really the privilege of the few people my age who have access to that kind of security and stability,” Frasco told Salon. “I know a few people from school who are on that track right now and sometimes I compare myself to them and wonder how I’ll ever catch up.”

Good agreed with Frasco that retirement savings plans were the domain of bourgeois millennials. “In the 12 years since graduating college, I’ve spent one year working a job with benefits,” Good told Salon. “The rest of the time I’ve been cobbling together gigs and part-time jobs and under-the-table work that hasn’t paid me enough to save anything. The economic realities of my generation make the expectations for my parents’ generation seem ludicrous to me—having a job with benefits and that pays enough that I can make rent, and save for retirement and also maybe for a down payment on property seems like a lottery,” Good continued. “Maybe 15 percent of my peer group has this, and having it is a combination of luck and family connections rather than skill and work ethic.”

“Chart of intentions to do something about it”

Most intriguing, many millennials said that their life plans, goals and careers had been affected by their expectations of the future and the dismal economic circumstances into which they were born. “I was someone who very much wanted to have children by age 35 and no longer think that [is] even a remote possibility, even with two parents,” Wood told Salon. “And having the role of parent so squarely removed from my trajectory of life possibility has made me take bigger risks and made me unlikely to take on any job just for the sake of my résumé.”

Of course, many millennials are not even in a position of considering retirement savings, much less having options when it comes to work or life decisions. More millennials live in poverty than any other generation, according to a recent Pew Research poll, which noted that “5.3 million of the nearly 17 million U.S. households living in poverty were headed by a Millennial.” But for millennials who had more economic agency, the expectation of an unstable future meant trying to find happiness in the present. “I just blew all my savings on a nine-month road trip on the assumption that something is going to change drastically in the next few years,” Cook said. “Not only am I not saving for retirement, I have never had a serious job because I have thought capitalism would be fucked by [the time I retired] since I was a teenager,” Shannon Malloy, 31, a student, organizer and bartender, said.

They say every generation thinks that it will be the last, as alt-country crooner Jeff Tweedy of Wilco rhapsodized. And yet, for millennials, it is perhaps understandable given the environmental and political situation at hand. Our ecological survival on the planet seems incompatible with the ever-hungry maw of capitalism, which requires ever-accelerating industrial production and consumption. Just as pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation and planned obsolescence are “good” for capitalist economies, they are horrendous for the environment and seem to be driving us to extinction in ways that are now manifesting in extreme weather events. Meanwhile, the planet’s tilt toward authoritarian politics and privatization do not bode well for the young.

Interestingly, privileged millennials on the higher end of the economic spectrum had trouble comprehending these kinds of attitudes. John Hagensen, 35, founder and managing director of investment advisory firm Keystone Wealth Partners, couldn’t fathom his struggling coevals’ alternative visions of the future. “I guess my argument to [their points] would be whether [societal collapse] happens or not, where does that change the personal responsibility for you to prepare yourself to take care of yourself and be responsible for yourself?” Hagensen told Salon. “They may be right, so does that mean that for the next 25 years they should save nothing?” Despite Hagensen’s preconceptions that lack of retirement planning indicated a lack of personal responsibility, the millennials I interviewed had all planned thoughtfully and carefully for their retirement — just not in the “traditional” manner, via investment accounts, that Hagensen was accustomed to.

Indeed, there was a surprising congruity among what “planning for retirement” meant for most of those whom I interviewed. “If I don’t die in the revolution I imagine I’ll be living in an intentional community,” Malloy said. “Either because we have no other options or because we’re trying to have as much autonomy as possible so we can keep doing [political organizing] work. I don’t count on ‘the work’ being finished enough to chill out in our lifetime,” she added. “I’m absolutely convinced over how quickly friends have lost their pensions, 401ks and IRAs to bubble crashes that there is no safe place to ‘save’ for retirement,” Wood said, “And the best way to plan for retirement is by building tribes of like-minded peers who have committed themselves to group survival. I’m way more invested in the family I’m building now than any fake sense of security that some mutual fund may or may not provide for me 20 years from now,” she added.

“When I’m at retirement age, around 2050, I think it’s possible we’ll have seen a breakdown of modern society,” Schwartzman told Salon. “I do see it as a real possibility that nuclear holocaust or environmental apocalypse will make money completely meaningless, and that reinforces my approach of living in the now. If I can find my way to saving, or creating a lot of wealth, I’ll use it to buy land and build toward self-sufficiency as a way to hopefully protect myself against the various unpleasant futures that I can see ahead of us.” The remarkable consensus suggests that us millennials lacking traditional retirement savings plans might still have a happy retirement outlook, just not in the conventional way that previous generations did. If political organizers and mass movements succeed, we’ll have a post-work, post-scarcity future to look forward to; and if not, it seems that many are committed to building their own solidarity networks, intentional communities, and like-minded cooperatives to carry us through the darker years of the 21st century.”

Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions

“In August, Science published a landmark study concluding that poverty, itself, hurts our ability to make decisions about school, finances, and life, imposing a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points. It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are “to blame” for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own. Sometimes, science doesn’t stick without a proper anecdote, and “Why I Make Terrible Decisions,” a comment published on Gawker‘s Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study.

I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing. Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.


When neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire studied time, uncertainty and decision-making, they found that virtues like patience and self-control weren’t as simple previous studies suggested. In the ubiquitous Marshmallow study, for example, kids who ate the treat quickly were deemed impatient and kids who waited had self-control and, on the whole, went on to lead more productive lives, the study found. But rational self-control in the real world, Kable says, isn’t so black-and-white. Perhaps you have enough patience to wait an hour for a train, or to lose one pound each week with exercise and dieting. That sounds responsible. But what happens if the train isn’t there in 90 minutes? If you never lose weight and you’re making yourself miserable with your diet? Maybe you should give up! “In this situation, giving up can be a natural — indeed, a rational — response to a time frame that wasn’t properly framed to begin with,” Maria Konnikova summed it up for the Times.

As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty’s stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short-term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. The train is just not coming. What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually “the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes,” he wrote. None of this is an argument against poorer families trying to save or plan for the long-term. It’s an argument for context. As Eldar Shafir, the author of the Science study, told The Atlantic Cities‘ Emily Badger: “All the data shows it isn’t about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they’re inhabiting.”


“…Machine-based unemployment has led many people, including Martin Luther King, Elon Musk, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to support the Basic Income. This could be a way to harness the work saving potential of artificial intelligence inside of a capitalist system as it allows for both the private ownership of the machines and provides for those left unemployed by them. Ideas on how this system could work abound.

There is also the model of the Alaskan Permanent Fund to be considered. Alaska receives a portion of the revenue from oil production in the state and deposits it in the fund, alongside other income sources. A yearly dividend is issued to all long-term residents of the state from this fund, and the legislature can also use the money for public projects. It is not difficult to imagine a similar system that uses Bill Gates’ proposed tax on robotic workers as the income source for a similar dividend paid to everyone…”

“A resident rides past an image depicting German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Shanghai, China, 2016.”

by Feng Xiang / May 3, 2018

[ Feng Xiang, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, is one of China’s most prominent legal scholars. He spoke at the Berggruen Institute’s China Center workshop on artificial intelligence in March in Beijing. ]

“The most momentous challenge facing socio-economic systems today is the arrival of artificial intelligence. If AI remains under the control of market forces, it will inexorably result in a super-rich oligopoly of data billionaires who reap the wealth created by robots that displace human labor, leaving massive unemployment in their wake.

But China’s socialist market economy could provide a solution to this. If AI rationally allocates resources through big data analysis, and if robust feedback loops can supplant the imperfections of “the invisible hand” while fairly sharing the vast wealth it creates, a planned economy that actually works could at last be achievable. The more AI advances into a general-purpose technology that permeates every corner of life, the less sense it makes to allow it to remain in private hands that serve the interests of the few instead of the many.

More than anything else, the inevitability of mass unemployment and the demand for universal welfare will drive the idea of socializing or nationalizing AI. Marx’s dictum, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,” needs an update for the 21st century: “From the inability of an AI economy to provide jobs and a living wage for all, to each according to their needs.”

Even at this early stage, the idea that digital capitalism will somehow make social welfare a priority has already proven to be a fairytale. The billionaires of Google and Apple, who have been depositing company profits in offshore havens to avoid taxation, are hardly paragons of social responsibility. The ongoing scandal around Facebook’s business model, which puts profitability above responsible citizenship, is yet another example of how in digital capitalism, private companies only look after their own interests at the expense of the rest of society.

One can readily see where this is all headed once technological unemployment accelerates. “Our responsibility is to our shareholders,” the robot owners will say. “We are not an employment agency or a charity.” These companies have been able to get away with their social irresponsibility because the legal system and its loopholes in the West are geared to protect private property above all else. Of course, in China, we have big privately owned Internet companies like Alibaba and Tencent. But unlike in the West, they are monitored by the state and do not regard themselves as above or beyond social control.

It is the very pervasiveness of AI that will spell the end of market dominance. The market may reasonably if unequally function if industry creates employment opportunities for most people. But when industry only produces joblessness, as robots take over more and more, there is no good alternative but for the state to step in. As AI invades economic and social life, all private law-related issues will soon become public ones. More and more, regulation of private companies will become a necessity to maintain some semblance of stability in societies roiled by constant innovation.

I consider this historical process a step closer to a planned market economy. Laissez-faire capitalism as we have known it can lead nowhere but to a dictatorship of AI oligarchs who gather rents because the intellectual property they own rules over the means of production. On a global scale, it is easy to envision this unleashed digital capitalism leading to a battle between robots for market share that will surely end as disastrously as the imperialist wars did in an earlier era.

For the sake of social well-being and security, individuals and private companies should not be allowed to possess any exclusive cutting-edge technology or core AI platforms. Like nuclear and biochemical weapons, as long as they exist, nothing other than a strong and stable state can ensure society’s safety. If we don’t nationalize AI, we could sink into a dystopia reminiscent of the early misery of industrialization, with its satanic mills and street urchins scrounging for a crust of bread.

The dream of communism is the elimination of wage labor. If AI is bound to serve society instead of private capitalists, it promises to do so by freeing an overwhelming majority from such drudgery while creating wealth to sustain all. If the state controls the market, instead of digital capitalism controlling the state, true communist aspirations will be achievable. And because AI increasingly enables the management of complex systems by processing massive amounts of information through intensive feedback loops, it presents, for the first time, a real alternative to the market signals that have long justified laissez-faire ideology — and all the ills that go with it.

Going forward, China’s socialist market economy, which aims to harness the fruits of production for the whole population and not just a sliver of elites operating in their own self-centered interests, can lead the way toward this new stage of human development. If properly regulated in this way, we should celebrate, not fear, the advent of AI. If it is brought under social control, it will finally free workers from peddling their time and sweat only to enrich those at the top. The communism of the future ought to adopt a new slogan: “Robots of the world, unite!”


Parasites trick their rat hosts into being eaten by cats
by Alasdair Wilkins / 8/18/11

“The single-celled parasite Toxoplasma gondii infects rats, but it needs to be inside a cat’s digestive system in order to reproduce. The parasite actually alters the brain of its rat host so that it won’t be afraid of cats. Specifically, Stanford researchers discovered that Toxoplasma affects the rat’s brain so that the fear centers of the brain no longer respond to cat odors. Even more crazily, it appears that Toxoplasma makes the rat brain think it’s sexually attracted to the cat odor. Those factors are likely more than enough to get rats hanging around dangerously close to cats, and thus gives the parasite a chance to complete its reproductive cycle.

The parasites appear to be very precise in their alterations – the rats still function normally in all areas not directly related to the fear of cats. Researcher Patrick House explains: “These findings support the idea that in the rat, Toxoplasma is shifting the emotional salience of the detection of the cat. They also suggest that fear and attraction might lie on the same spectrum, or at least that the emotional processing of fear and attraction are not entirely unrelated.”

We don’t know how the parasite has this remarkable effect. Previous research indicates that Toxoplasma tends to enter the rat’s brain and take up residence near the amygdala, a part of the brain heavily involved in fear and other emotional responses. Somehow, Toxoplasma is causing certain subsections of the amygdala to decrease the fear response to cat odor. And it might not be only rats who are affected by this. A third of all humans carry Toxoplasma, and we don’t really have a clear grasp on what – if anything – these parasites might do to the human brain. There’s some evidence that Toxoplasma is linked to incidents of schizophrenia in humans, but what we don’t know still far outweighs what we do.”

How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy

“No one would accuse Jaroslav Flegr of being a conformist. A self-described “sloppy dresser,” the 53-year-old Czech scientist has the contemplative air of someone habitually lost in thought, and his still-youthful, square-jawed face is framed by frizzy red hair that encircles his head like a ring of fire. Certainly Flegr’s thinking is jarringly unconventional. Starting in the early 1990s, he began to suspect that a single-celled parasite in the protozoan family was subtly manipulating his personality, causing him to behave in strange, often self-destructive ways. And if it was messing with his mind, he reasoned, it was probably doing the same to others.

The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.” An evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague, Flegr has pursued this theory for decades in relative obscurity. Because he struggles with English and is not much of a conversationalist even in his native tongue, he rarely travels to scientific conferences. That “may be one of the reasons my theory is not better known,” he says. And, he believes, his views may invite deep-seated opposition. “There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite,” he says. “Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. Reviewers [of my scientific papers] may have been offended.”

But after years of being ignored or discounted, Flegr is starting to gain respectability. Psychedelic as his claims may sound, many researchers, including such big names in neuroscience as Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, think he could well be onto something. Flegr’s “studies are well conducted, and I can see no reason to doubt them,” Sapolsky tells me. Indeed, recent findings from Sapolsky’s lab and British groups suggest that the parasite is capable of extraordinary shenanigans. T. gondii, reports Sapolsky, can turn a rat’s strong innate aversion to cats into an attraction, luring it into the jaws of its No. 1 predator. Even more amazing is how it does this: the organism rewires circuits in parts of the brain that deal with such primal emotions as fear, anxiety, and sexual arousal. “Overall,” says Sapolsky, “this is wild, bizarre neurobiology.” Another academic heavyweight who takes Flegr seriously is the schizophrenia expert E. Fuller Torrey, director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, in Maryland. “I admire Jaroslav for doing [this research],” he says. “It’s obviously not politically correct, in the sense that not many labs are doing it. He’s done it mostly on his own, with very little support. I think it bears looking at. I find it completely credible.”

What’s more, many experts think T. gondii may be far from the only microscopic puppeteer capable of pulling our strings. “My guess is that there are scads more examples of this going on in mammals, with parasites we’ve never even heard of,” says Sapolsky. Familiar to most of us, of course, is the rabies virus. On the verge of killing a dog, bat, or other warm-blooded host, it stirs the animal into a rage while simultaneously migrating from the nervous system to the creature’s saliva, ensuring that when the host bites, the virus will live on in a new carrier.

But aside from rabies, stories of parasites commandeering the behavior of large-brained mammals are rare. The far more common victims of parasitic mind control—at least the ones we know about—are fish, crustaceans, and legions of insects, according to Janice Moore, a behavioral biologist at Colorado State University. “Flies, ants, caterpillars, wasps, you name it—there are truckloads of them behaving weirdly as a result of parasites,” she says. Consider Polysphincta gutfreundi, a parasitic wasp that grabs hold of an orb spider and attaches a tiny egg to its belly. A wormlike larva emerges from the egg, and then releases chemicals that prompt the spider to abandon weaving its familiar spiral web and instead spin its silk thread into a special pattern that will hold the cocoon in which the larva matures. The “possessed” spider even crochets a specific geometric design in the net, camouflaging the cocoon from the wasp’s predators.

Flegr himself traces his life’s work to another master of mind control. Almost 30 years ago, as he was reading a book by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Flegr was captivated by a passage describing how a flatworm turns an ant into its slave by invading the ant’s nervous system. A drop in temperature normally causes ants to head underground, but the infected insect instead climbs to the top of a blade of grass and clamps down on it, becoming easy prey for a grazing sheep. “Its mandibles actually become locked in that position, so there’s nothing the ant can do except hang there in the air,” says Flegr. The sheep grazes on the grass and eats the ant; the worm gains entrance into the ungulate’s gut, which is exactly where it needs to be in order to complete the circle of life. “It was the first I learned about this kind of manipulation, so it made a big impression on me,” Flegr says. After he read the book, Flegr began to make a connection that, he readily admits, others might find crazy: his behavior, he noticed, shared similarities with that of the reckless ant. For example, he says, he thought nothing of crossing the street in the middle of dense traffic, “and if cars honked at me, I didn’t jump out of the way.” He also made no effort to hide his scorn for the Communists who ruled Czechoslovakia for most of his early adulthood. “It was very risky to openly speak your mind at that time,” he says. “I was lucky I wasn’t imprisoned.” And during a research stint in eastern Turkey, when the strife-torn region frequently erupted in gunfire, he recalls being “very calm.” In contrast, he says, “my colleagues were terrified. I wondered what was wrong with myself.”

His bewilderment continued until 1990, when he joined the biology faculty of Charles University. As it happened, the 650-year-old institution had long been a world leader in documenting the health effects of T. gondii, as well as developing methods for detecting the parasite. In fact, just as Flegr was arriving, his colleagues were searching for infected individuals on whom to test their improved diagnostic kits, which is how he came to be asked one day to roll up his sleeve and donate blood. He discovered that he had the parasite—and just possibly, he thought, the key to his baffling self-destructive streak. He delved into T. gondii’s life cycle. After an infected cat defecates, Flegr learned, the parasite is typically picked up from the soil by scavenging or grazing animals—notably rodents, pigs, and cattle—all of which then harbor it in their brain and other body tissues. Humans, on the other hand, are exposed not only by coming into contact with litter boxes, but also, he found, by drinking water contaminated with cat feces, eating unwashed vegetables, or, especially in Europe, by consuming raw or undercooked meat. Hence the French, according to Flegr, with their love of steak prepared saignant—literally, “bleeding”—can have infection rates as high as 55 percent. (Americans will be happy to hear that the parasite resides in far fewer of them, though a still substantial portion: 10 to 20 percent.) Once inside an animal or human host, the parasite then needs to get back into the cat, the only place where it can sexually reproduce—and this is when, Flegr believed, behavioral manipulation might come into play

Researchers had already observed a few peculiarities about rodents with T. gondii that bolstered Flegr’s theory. The infected rodents were much more active in running wheels than uninfected rodents were, suggesting that they would be more-attractive targets for cats, which are drawn to fast-moving objects. They also were less wary of predators in exposed spaces. Little, however, was known about how the latent infection might influence humans, because we and other large mammals were widely presumed to be accidental hosts, or, as scientists are fond of putting it, a “dead end” for the parasite. But even if we were never part of the parasite’s life cycle, Flegr reasoned, mammals from mouse to man share the vast majority of their genes, so we might, in a case of mistaken identity, still be vulnerable to manipulations by the parasite.

In the Soviet-stunted economy, animal studies were way beyond Flegr’s research budget. But fortunately for him, 30 to 40 percent of Czechs had the latent form of the disease, so plenty of students were available “to serve as very cheap experimental animals.” He began by giving them and their parasite-free peers standardized personality tests—an inexpensive, if somewhat crude, method of measuring differences between the groups. In addition, he used a computer-based test to assess the reaction times of participants, who were instructed to press a button as soon as a white square popped up anywhere against the dark background of the monitor. The subjects who tested positive for the parasite had significantly delayed reaction times. Flegr was especially surprised to learn, though, that the protozoan appeared to cause many sex-specific changes in personality. Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women. The findings were so bizarre that Flegr initially assumed his data must be flawed. So he tested other groups—civilian and military populations. Again, the same results. Then, in search of more corroborating evidence, he brought subjects in for further observation and a battery of tests, in which they were rated by someone ignorant of their infection status. To assess whether participants valued the opinions of others, the rater judged how well dressed they appeared to be. As a measure of gregariousness, participants were asked about the number of friends they’d interacted with over the past two weeks. To test whether they were prone to being suspicious, they were asked, among other things, to drink an unidentified liquid.

The results meshed well with the questionnaire findings. Compared with uninfected people of the same sex, infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. And when it came to downing the mystery fluid, reports Flegr, “the infected males were much more hesitant than uninfected men. They wanted to know why they had to do it. Would it harm them?” In contrast, the infected women were the most trusting of all subjects. “They just did what they were told,” he says. Why men and women reacted so differently to the parasite still mystified him. After consulting the psychological literature, he started to suspect that heightened anxiety might be the common denominator underlying their responses. When under emotional strain, he read, women seek solace through social bonding and nurturing. In the lingo of psychologists, they’re inclined to “tend and befriend.” Anxious men, on the other hand, typically respond by withdrawing and becoming hostile or antisocial. Perhaps he was looking at flip sides of the same coin.

Closer inspection of Flegr’s reaction-time results revealed that infected subjects became less attentive and slowed down a minute or so into the test. This suggested to him that Toxoplasma might have an adverse impact on driving, where constant vigilance and fast reflexes are critical. He launched two major epidemiological studies in the Czech Republic, one of men and women in the general population and another of mostly male drivers in the military. Those who tested positive for the parasite, both studies showed, were about two and a half times as likely to be in a traffic accident as their uninfected peers.

When I met Flegr for the first time, last September, at his office on the third floor of Charles University’s Biological Sciences building, I was expecting something of a wild man. But once you get past the riotous red hair, his style is understated. Thin and slight of build, he’s soft-spoken, precise with his facts, and—true to his Toxo status—clad in old sneakers, faded bell-bottom jeans, and a loose-fitting button-up shirt. As our conversation proceeds, I discover that his latest findings have become—to quote Alice in Wonderland—“curiouser and curiouser,” which may explain why his forehead has the deep ruts of a chronic worrier, or someone perpetually perplexed. He’s published some data, he tells me, that suggest infected males might have elevated testosterone levels. Possibly for that reason, women shown photos of these men rate them as more masculine than pictures of uninfected men. “I want to investigate this more closely to see if it’s true,” he says. “Also, it could be women find infected men more attractive. That’s something else we hope to test.”

Meanwhile, two Turkish studies have replicated his studies linking Toxoplasma to traffic accidents. With up to one-third of the world infected with the parasite, Flegr now calculates that T. gondii is a likely factor in several hundred thousand road deaths each year. In addition, reanalysis of his personality-questionnaire data revealed that, just like him, many other people who have the latent infection feel intrepid in dangerous situations. “Maybe,” he says, “that’s another reason they get into traffic accidents. They don’t have a normal fear response.”

It’s almost impossible to hear about Flegr’s research without wondering whether you’re infected—especially if, like me, you’re a cat owner, favor very rare meat, and identify even a little bit with your Toxo sex stereotype. So before coming to Prague, I’d gotten tested for the parasite, but I didn’t yet know the results. It seemed a good time to see what his intuition would tell me. “Can you guess from observing someone whether they have the parasite—myself, for example?,” I ask. “No,” he says, “the parasite’s effects on personality are very subtle.” If, as a woman, you were introverted before being infected, he says, the parasite won’t turn you into a raving extrovert. It might just make you a little less introverted. “I’m very typical of Toxoplasma males,” he continues. “But I don’t know whether my personality traits have anything to do with the infection. It’s impossible to say for any one individual. You usually need about 50 people who are infected and 50 who are not, in order to see a statistically significant difference. The vast majority of people will have no idea they’re infected.”

Still, he concedes, the parasite could be very bad news for a small percentage of people—and not just those who might be at greater risk for car accidents. Many schizophrenia patients show shrinkage in parts of their cerebral cortex, and Flegr thinks the protozoan may be to blame for that. He hands me a recently published paper on the topic that he co-authored with colleagues at Charles University, including a psychiatrist named Jiri Horacek. Twelve of 44 schizophrenia patients who underwent MRI scans, the team found, had reduced gray matter in the brain—and the decrease occurred almost exclusively in those who tested positive for T. gondii. After reading the abstract, I must look stunned, because Flegr smiles and says, “Jiri had the same response. I don’t think he believed it could be true.” When I later speak with Horacek, he admits to having been skeptical about Flegr’s theory at the outset. When they merged the MRI results with the infection data, however, he went from being a doubter to being a believer. “I was amazed at how pronounced the effect was,” he says. “To me that suggests the parasite may trigger schizophrenia in genetically susceptible people.”

One might be tempted to dismiss the bulk of Flegr’s work as hokum—the fanciful imaginings of a lone, eccentric scholar—were it not for the pioneering research of Joanne Webster, a parasitologist at Imperial College London. Just as Flegr was embarking on his human trials, Webster, then a freshly minted Ph.D., was launching studies of Toxo-infected rodents, reasoning, just as Flegr did, that as hosts of the parasite, they would be likely targets for behavioral manipulation. She quickly confirmed, as previous researchers had shown, that infected rats were more active and less cautious in areas where predators lurk. But then, in a simple, elegant experiment, she and her colleagues demonstrated that the parasite did something much more remarkable. They treated one corner of each rat’s enclosure with the animal’s own odor, a second with water, a third with cat urine, and the last corner with the urine of a rabbit, a creature that does not prey on rodents. “We thought the parasite might reduce the rats’ aversion to cat odor,” she told me. “Not only did it do that, but it actually increased their attraction. They spent more time in the cat-treated areas.” She and other scientists repeated the experiment with the urine of dogs and minks, which also prey on rodents. The effect was so specific to cat urine, she says, that “we call it ‘fatal feline attraction.’”

She began tagging the parasite with fluorescent markers and tracking its progress in the rats’ bodies. Given the surgically precise way the microbe alters behavior, Webster anticipated that it would end up in localized regions of the brain. But the results defied expectations. “We were quite surprised to find the cysts—the parasite’s dormant form—all over the brain in what otherwise appeared to be a happy, healthy rat,” she says. Nonetheless, the cysts were most abundant in a part of the brain that deals with pleasure and in another area that’s involved in fear and anxiety (post-traumatic stress disorder affects this region of the brain). Perhaps, she thought, T. gondii uses a scattershot approach, disseminating cysts far and wide, enabling a few of them to zero in on the right targets.

To gain more clarity on the matter, she sought the aid of the parasitologist Glenn McConkey, whose team at the University of Leeds was probing the protozoan’s genome for signs of what it might be doing. The approach brought to light a striking talent of the parasite: it has two genes that allow it to crank up production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the host brain. “We never cease to be amazed by the sophistication of these parasites,” Webster says. Their findings, reported last summer, created immediate buzz. Dopamine is a critical signaling molecule involved in fear, pleasure, and attention. Furthermore, the neurotransmitter is known to be jacked up in people with schizophrenia—another one of those strange observations about the disease, like its tendency to erode gray matter, that have long puzzled medical researchers. Antipsychotic medicine designed to quell schizophrenic delusions apparently blocks the action of dopamine, which had suggested to Webster that what it might really be doing is thwarting the parasite. Scientists had already shown that adding the medicine to a petri dish where T. gondii is happily dividing will stunt the organism’s growth. So Webster decided to feed the antipsychotic drug to newly infected rats to see how they reacted. Lo and behold, they didn’t develop fatal feline attraction. Suddenly, attributing behavioral changes to the microbe seemed much more plausible.

As the scientific community digested the British team’s dopamine discoveries, Robert Sapolsky’s lab at Stanford announced still more attention-grabbing news. The neuroscientist and his colleagues found that T. gondii disconnects fear circuits in the brain, which might help to explain why infected rats lose their aversion to cat odor. Just as startling, reports Sapolsky, the parasite simultaneously is “able to hijack some of the circuitry related to sexual arousal” in the male rat—probably, he theorizes, by boosting dopamine levels in the reward-processing part of the brain. So when the animal catches a whiff of cat scent, the fear center fails to fully light up, as it would in a normal rat, and instead the area governing sexual pleasure begins to glow. “In other words,” he says, “Toxo makes cat odor smell sexy to male rats.” The neurobiologist Ajai Vyas, after working with Sapolsky on this study as a postdoctoral student, decided to inspect infected rats’ testicles for signs of cysts. Sure enough, he found them there—as well as in the animals’ semen. And when the rat copulates, Vyas discovered, the protozoan moves into the female’s womb, typically infecting 60 percent of her pups, before traveling on up to her own brain—creating still more vehicles for ferrying the parasite back into the belly of a cat.

Could T. gondii be a sexually transmitted disease in humans too? “That’s what we hope to find out,” says Vyas, who now works at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. The researchers also discovered that infected male rats suddenly become much more attractive to females. “It’s a very strong effect,” says Vyas. “Seventy-five percent of the females would rather spend time with the infected male.”

After I return from Prague, Flegr informs me that he’s just had a paper accepted for publication that, he claims, “proves fatal feline attraction in humans.” By that he means that infected men like the smell of cat pee—or at least they rank its scent much more favorably than uninfected men do. Displaying the characteristic sex differences that define many Toxo traits, infected women have the reverse response, ranking the scent even more offensive than do women free of the parasite. The sniff test was done blind and also included urine collected from a dog, horse, hyena, and tiger. Infection did not affect how subjects rated these other samples. “Is it possible cat urine may be an aphrodisiac for infected men?,” I ask. “Yes. It’s possible. Why not?” says Flegr. I think he’s smiling at the other end of the phone line, but I’m not sure, which leaves me wondering. When I ask Sapolsky about Flegr’s most recent research, he says the effects Flegr is reporting “are incredibly cool. However, I’m not too worried, in that the effects on humans are not gigantic. If you want to reduce serious car accidents, and you had to choose between curing people of Toxo infections versus getting people not to drive drunk or while texting, go for the latter in terms of impact.”

In fact, Sapolsky thinks that Toxo’s inventiveness might even offer us some benefits. If we can figure out how the parasite makes animals less fearful, he says, it might give us insights into how to devise treatments for people plagued by social-anxiety disorder, phobias, PTSD, and the like. “But frankly,” he adds, “this mostly falls into the ‘Get a load of this, can you believe what nature has come up with?’ category.”

Webster is more circumspect, if not downright troubled. “I don’t want to cause any panic,” she tells me. “In the vast majority of people, there will be no ill effects, and those who are affected will mostly demonstrate subtle shifts of behavior. But in a small number of cases, [Toxo infection] may be linked to schizophrenia and other disturbances associated with altered dopamine levels—for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and mood disorders. The rat may live two or three years, while humans can be infected for many decades, which is why we may be seeing these severe side effects in people. We should be cautious of dismissing such a prevalent parasite.” The psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey agrees—though he came to this viewpoint from a completely different angle than either Webster or Flegr. His opinion stems from decades of research into the root causes of schizophrenia. “Textbooks today still make silly statements that schizophrenia has always been around, it’s about the same incidence all over the world, and it’s existed since time immemorial,” he says. “The epidemiology literature contradicts that completely.” In fact, he says, schizophrenia did not rise in prevalence until the latter half of the 18th century, when for the first time people in Paris and London started keeping cats as pets. The so-called cat craze began among “poets and left-wing avant-garde Greenwich Village types,” says Torrey, but the trend spread rapidly—and coinciding with that development, the incidence of schizophrenia soared.

Since the 1950s, he notes, about 70 epidemiology studies have explored a link between schizophrenia and T. gondii. When he and his colleague Robert Yolken, a neurovirologist at Johns Hopkins University, surveyed a subset of these papers that met rigorous scientific standards, their conclusion complemented the Prague group’s discovery that schizophrenic patients with Toxo are missing gray matter in their brains. Torrey and Yolken found that the mental illness is two to three times as common in people who have the parasite as in controls from the same region. Human-genome studies, both scientists believe, are also in keeping with that finding—and might explain why schizophrenia runs in families. The most replicated result from that line of investigation, they say, suggests that the genes most commonly associated with schizophrenia relate to the immune system and how it reacts to infectious agents. So in many cases where the disease appears to be hereditary, they theorize, what may in fact be passed down is an aberrant or deficient immune response to invaders like T. gondii.

Epstein-Barr virus, mumps, rubella, and other infectious agents, they point out, have also been linked to schizophrenia—and there are probably more as yet unidentified triggers, including many that have nothing to do with pathogens. But for now, they say, Toxo remains the strongest environmental factor implicated in the disorder. “If I had to guess,” says Torrey, “I’d say 75 percent of cases of schizophrenia are associated with infectious agents, and Toxo would be involved in a significant subset of those.”

Just as worrisome, says Torrey, the parasite may also increase the risk of suicide. In a 2011 study of 20 European countries, the national suicide rate among women increased in direct proportion to the prevalence of the latent Toxo infection in each nation’s female population. According to Teodor Postolache, a psychiatrist and the director of the Mood and Anxiety Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a flurry of other studies, several conducted by his own team, offers further support of T. gondii’s link to higher rates of suicidal behavior. These include investigations of general populations as well as groups made up of patients with bipolar disorder, severe depression, and schizophrenia, and in places as diverse as Turkey, Germany, and the Baltimore / Washington area. Exactly how the parasite may push vulnerable people over the edge is yet to be determined. Postolache theorizes that what disrupts mood and the ability to control violent impulses may not be the organism per se, but rather neurochemical changes associated with the body’s immune response to it. “As far-fetched as these ideas may sound,” says Postolache, “the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention was willing to put money behind this research.” Given all the nasty science swirling around this parasite, is it time for cat lovers to switch their allegiance to other animals?

Even Flegr would advise against that. Indoor cats pose no threat, he says, because they don’t carry the parasite. As for outdoor cats, they shed the parasite for only three weeks of their life, typically when they’re young and have just begun hunting. During that brief period, Flegr simply recommends taking care to keep kitchen counters and tables wiped clean. (He practices what he preaches: he and his wife have two school-age children, and two outdoor cats that have free roam of their home.) Much more important for preventing exposure, he says, is to scrub vegetables thoroughly and avoid drinking water that has not been properly purified, especially in the developing world, where infection rates can reach 95 percent in some places. Also, he advises eating meat on the well-done side—or, if that’s not to your taste, freezing it before cooking, to kill the cysts.

As concerns about the latent infection mount, however, experts have begun thinking about more-aggressive steps to counter the parasite’s spread. Inoculating cats or livestock against T. gondii might be one way to interrupt its life cycle, offers Johns Hopkins’ Robert Yolken. Moving beyond prevention to treatment is a taller order. Once the parasite becomes deeply ensconced in brain cells, routing it out of the body is virtually impossible: the thick-walled cysts are impregnable to antibiotics. Because T. gondii and the malaria protozoan are related, however, Yolken and other researchers are looking among antimalarial agents for more-effective drugs to attack the cysts. But for now, medicine has no therapy to offer people who want to rid themselves of the latent infection; and until solid proof exists that Toxo is as dangerous as some scientists now fear, pharmaceutical companies don’t have much incentive to develop anti-Toxo drugs. Yolken hopes that will change. “To explain where we are in Toxo research today,” he says, “the analogy I always give is the ulcer bacteria. We first needed to find ways of treating the organism and showing that the disease went away when you did that. We will have to show that when we very effectively treat Toxoplasma, some portion of psychiatric illness goes away.”

But T. gondii is just one of an untold number of infectious agents that prey on us. And if the rest of the animal kingdom is anything to go by, says Colorado State University’s Janice Moore, plenty of them may be capable of tinkering with our minds. For example, she and Chris Reiber, a biomedical anthropologist at Binghamton University, in New York, strongly suspected that the flu virus might boost our desire to socialize. Why? Because it spreads through close physical contact, often before symptoms emerge—meaning that it must find a new host quickly. To explore this hunch, Moore and Reiber tracked 36 subjects who received a flu vaccine, reasoning that it contains many of the same chemical components as the live virus and would thus cause the subjects’ immune systems to react as if they’d encountered the real pathogen.

The difference in the subjects’ behavior before and after vaccination was pronounced: the flu shot had the effect of nearly doubling the number of people with whom the participants came in close contact during the brief window when the live virus was maximally contagious. “People who had very limited or simple social lives were suddenly deciding that they needed to go out to bars or parties, or invite a bunch of people over,” says Reiber. “This happened with lots of our subjects. It wasn’t just one or two outliers.” Reiber has her eye trained on other human pathogens that she thinks may well be playing similar games, if only science could prove it. For example, she says, many people at the end stages of AIDS and syphilis express an intense craving for sex. So, too, do individuals at the beginning of a herpes outbreak. These may just be anecdotal accounts, she concedes, but based on her own findings, she wouldn’t be surprised if these urges come from the pathogen making known its will to survive.

“We’ve found all kinds of excuses for why we do the things we do,” observes Moore. “‘My genes made me do it.’ ‘My parents are to blame.’ I’m afraid we may have reached the point where parasites may have to be added to the laundry list of excuses.” She has a point. In fact, I’ve been wondering whether T. gondii might in some small way be contributing to my extreme extroversion—why I can’t resist striking up conversations everywhere I go, even when I’m short of time or with strangers I’ll never see again. Then it occurs to me that cysts in my brain might be behind my seesaw moods or even my splurges on expensive clothes. Maybe, I think with mounting conviction, the real me would have displayed better self-control, had I not been forced to swim upstream against the will of an insidious parasite.

With my feline pal Pixie on my lap (for the record, she’s an outdoor cat), I call to get the results of my Toxo test. Negative. I don’t have the latent infection. I call to tell Flegr the good news. Even though I’m relieved, I know my voice sounds flat. “It’s strange to admit,” I say, “but I think I’m a little disappointed.” He laughs. “People who have cats often feel that way, because they think the parasite explains why they behave this way or that,” he says. “But,” I protest, “you thought the same way.” Then it hits me. I may have dodged T. gondii, but given our knack for fooling ourselves—plus all those parasites out there that may also be playing tricks on our minds—can anyone really know who’s running the show?”





Highly Toxic Pigments

  • antimony white (antimony trioxide)
  • barium yellow (barium chromate)
  • burnt or raw umber (iron oxides, manganese silicates or dioxide)
  • cadmium red, orange or yellow (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide)
  • chrome green (Prussian blue, lead chromate)
  • chrome orange (lead carbonate)
  • chrome yellow (lead chromate)
  • cobalt violet (cobalt arsenate or cobalt phosphate)
  • cobalt yellow (potassium cobalt nitrate)
  • lead or flake white (lead carbonate)
  • lithol red (sodium, barium and calcium salts of azo pigments)
  • manganese violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)
  • molybdate orange (lead chromate, lead molybdate, lead sulfate)
  • naples yellow (lead antimonate)
  • strontium yellow (strontium chromate)
  • vermilion (mercuric sulfide)
  • zinc sulfide
  • zinc yellow (zinc chromate)

Moderately Toxic Pigments

  • alizarin crimson
  • carbon black
  • cerulean blue (cobalt stannate)
  • cobalt blue (cobalt stannate)
  • cobalt green (calcined cobalt, zinc and aluminum oxides)
  • chromium oxide green (chromic oxide)
  • Phthalo blue and greens (copper phthalocyanine)
  • manganese blue (barium manganate, barium sulfate)
  • Prussian blue (ferric ferrocyanide)
  • toluidine red and yellow (insoluble azo pigment)
  • viridian (hydrated chromic oxide)
  • zinc white (zinc oxide)

“The Feast of the Rose Garlands-the painting that won the paint-off in 1506 between the Italian painters and Duerer. Duerer won”

by Dr. Elizabeth Garner and Joe Kiernan  /  January 2014


“Oil painting was an extremely dangerous occupation. All pigments were hand made using various extremely toxic materials, that if not handled with extreme caution AND CORRECTLY, could kill.

The process to develop the medium was usually made from a linseed oil base and or a variety of other similar oils as an additive.  Olive oil was a popular oil base mixture of the time, until it was discovered olive oil works it’s way through the paint and “drips out.”  This happens because the olive oil virtually never dried fully, and in time, with the added help of moisture in the patron’s home or church, it comes to the surface. It is known Leonardo da Vinci was adding wax to his paints to thicken them for better working because of this problem with olive oil.  Another trick Renaissance painters discovered was adding 5-10% honey to the mixture to preserve discoloration, especially in darker colors.

When producing pigments for colors a chemical changing process, known back then as alchemy, was needed in order to attain the copper sulfate necessary.  The more arsenious oxide used to do this, the deadlier the fumes produced and the more concentrated was the toxicity of the pigment powders. Apprentices were the ones usually assigned this mixing tasks.  The Masters knew this and had to teach them to be very very careful.

The colors of Green, Yellow, Red and Blue as being toxic in preparation and application and without a sealing coat to lock in fumes these would all continue to release poisonous fumes for its lifetime.  Even with a clear coat, in , as it cracks and chips, it releases toxic fumes again.  It’s really good that all of Dürer’s paintings are in museums now, where only the staff could be getting poisoned.


“Emperor Maximillian, the guy who didn’t pay Duerer for a year. Notice how Green the background is”

Greens pigments used in the Renaissance included Verdegreen, Malachite, Emerald Green, and Paris green. If green pigments are not sealed by a clear binding coat, this pigment will deliver a slow dose of concentrated arsenic gasses. The greens produced this way today are just as deadly. Mercury is a biproduct of creating green pigments. Green was deadly, the greener the color, the deadlier it was!


“Two of the apostles for the City Council Chambers”

Lighter colors used as in the whites and soft yellows were created using “white lead”.  White lead was a favorite choice of many for its consistancy and pliability to create an image over a few days.  It was highly toxic during production and application. We must also know that all these paintings including whites or flesh tones have had white lead added to the mixtures, palatte or surface of these works. If not sealed by a protective sealing top coat when applied, it will release poisonous lead gasses throughout its lifetime.


“The Haller Madonna. Notice it has red, blue, green and white”

For the pigments of blue, it was known that lapis lazuli was the prime choice, as was aquamarine.  These two pigments were very expensive and usually only ended up on the dress of royalty until the end of the 15th century.  Azurite was another excellent option for making a strong blue pigment in the 14-16th centuries.  It was acquired in deposits in silver veins and also through copper ore.  The mines that produced these minerals during the Renassaince time were in central Europe, mostly owned by the Nuremberg Patricians, and in France.

Azurite, on many paintings of the day, was often mislabled as lapis lazuli to cheat customers.  No matter how one worked with this product, the production and application of this color created many noxious fumes from arsenic sulphate. Another manufacturing process produced a highly toxic gas known as mercury cyanide.  Both byproducts were deadly.


“Realgar crystals”

Making red paint was a hugely sought out color by customers in their paintings during this time.  Realgar is the most likely choice of pigments in Germany.  This mineral was produced in Hungary, Bohemia, and Saxony, from mines once again owned by Nuremberg Patrician corporations and syndicates.  It can be found in the mines along veins of lead, silver and gold.

“Two of the four Apostle paintings”

Realgar was known at the time as “Ruby of arsenic” or “Ruby of Sulpher”.  It has wonderful qualities and is brilliant red, after a mining brutal production which spewed arsenic gasses into the air. Mining was very dangerous.  The powder was then collected and ground into the pigment powder.  If this powder were left in the sunlight, it would turn a shade of yellow.  This yellow is known as Orpiment another highly valued color in paintings.

“Orpiment pigment from realgar”

Mercury was a strong bi-product of producing the reds, especially Realgar and Vermillion when making copper sulphate.  The mercury is what was used to make the copper suphates.  For copper engraved metal plates because they have copper, using mercury to speed up the chemical reaction to polish the plate would be used, because they could.  These chemicals were always on hand. This mercury is a bi-product of producing the powder for the reds and the greens.

In the 15th-16th centuries, Spain was using Realgar to kill rats, some nations still use it for the same purpose today.  Even today Realgar and Orpiment are 2 of the 3 top elements used in the production of arsenic. Deadly stuff.


“Burkhard von Speyer”

Black at the time was made using the same toxic mediums, however the pigment itself was acquired mostly by scrapping the soot from lamps and or grinding up burnt bones and horns.  The process wasnt toxic, it was the oil base it was added to that was fatal.  It was to this mixture that Renaissance artists perfected the 5-10% honey addition to avoid color fading to a grey.


“The Borgias, the original crime family”

Arsenic is colorless and odorless. Arsenic poisoning was the choice of poisons of the period ala the Borgias.   Symptoms of arsenic poisoning begin with headaches, confusion, severe diarrhea, and drowsiness. As the poisoning develops, convulsions and changes in fingernail pigmentation called leukonychia striata  occurred. When the poisoning became acute, symptoms included diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and more convulsions. The organs of the body that are usually affected by arsenic poisoning are the lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver. The final result of arsenic poisoning is coma and death.  Arsenic is related to heart disease (hypertension related cardiovascular), cancer, stroke (cerebrovascular diseases), chronic lower respiratory diseases, and diabetes.

Mercury poisoning – Let’s remember also that in the Renaissance people with depression and syphilis were being treated with mercury, it was commonly available. They were all adding mercury to wine and it was known but not controlled that mercury made the wine taste a bit sweeter, so bad wine usually got more mercury added, although most of Nuremberg was consuming beer because the water was so polluted. A law was passed in late 16th century banning any land to add mercury to the wine.

Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include peripheral neuropathy (presenting as paresthesia or itching, burning or pain), skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips and toes), swelling, and desquamation (shedding of skin), profuse sweating, tachycardia (persistently faster-than-normal heart beat), increased salivation, and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Affected children may show red cheeks, nose and lips, loss of hair, teeth, and nails, transient rashes, hypotonia (muscle weakness), and increased sensitivity to light. Other symptoms may include kidney dysfunction (e.g. Fanconi syndrome) or neuropsychiatric symptoms such as emotional lability, memory impairment, and / or insomnia.

Lead posioning – Symptoms may be different in adults and children; the main symptoms in adults are headache, abdominal pain, memory loss, kidney failure, male reproductive problems, and weakness, pain, or tingling in the extremities. Early symptoms of lead poisoning in adults are commonly nonspecific and include depression, loss of appetite, intermittent abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and muscle pain. Other early signs in adults include malaise, fatigue, decreased libido, and problems with sleep. An unusual taste in the mouth and personality changes are also early signs.

All of these above said pigments are created, applied and continue to be deadly toxins until they are sealed within a clear coat of lacquer to seal in these toxins.  If they are left unsealed, or begin to flake or turn to a dust, it becomes a deadly painting of toxins. Deteriorating lead paint can produce dangerous lead levels in household dust and soil. Deteriorating lead paint and lead-containing household dust are the main causes of chronic lead poisoning.”


“In Part I of this series you were informed about how poisonous the pigments were that Albrecht or Margret Durer used in paintings, especially the reds, the greens, the blues, the whites, the yellows and the blacks. And we learned that German curators have already established that many of the paintings are overpainted, thus not sealing off the poison pigment(s) by either those who were jealous, understood the Cipher and wished to cover it up, or were bad restorers.

Even if a Dürer sealed a painting, all they would have to do is overpaint on the sealed coat to poison clients, just even a little bit.  Or if any paintings were covered with new pigments to conceal any trace of the Cipher by others who realized there were clues or were doing restoration, the new paint would be sitting on the surface in brilliant fashion, poisoning by the day.


You are now going to see who the Durers hated as obviously shown by the colors he selected, starting from the end of his life.  There are too many paintings that the Durers made sure were poisonous, but there are so many paintings, we will only be giving some of the top most obvious examples in this second part and continue in PART III.


Dürer did not paint these four paintings on commission. It was he who wanted to donate them to Nuremberg, his native city. On 6 October 1526 the artist offered The Four Holy Men to the city fathers of Nuremberg: `I have been intending, for a long time past, to show my respect for your excellencies by the presentation of some humble picture of mine as a remembrance; but I have been prevented from so doing by the imperfection and insignificance of my works… Now, however, that I have just painted a panel upon which I have bestowed more trouble than on any other painting, I considered none more worthy to keep it as a memorial than your excellencies.’ As it was common in many cities in Italy to bestow the town hall with a work of art that would serve as an example of buon governo, so did Dürer want to provide his native city with a work of his that had been purposefully made to this end.

The council gratefully accepted the gift, hanging the two works in the upper government chamber of the city hall. Dürer was awarded an honorarium of 100 florins. The four monumental figures remained in the municipality of Nuremberg until 1627, when, following threats of repression, they had to be sold to the elector of Bavaria, Maximilian I, a great enthusiast of Dürer’s work. On that occasion, however, the prince had the inscriptions, at the bottom of the paintings, sawed off and sent back to Nuremberg, as they were considered heretical and injurious to his position as the sovereign Catholic. The city handed them over to the museum in Munich in 1922, where they were rejoined with their respective panels.

“The Four Apostles”

Notice that these paintings are almost all lead white, vermillions, green, orpiment, and black.  Albrecht really wanted to take revenge on the whole government, the CITY COUNCIL, where every day they would be inhaling the noxious fumes. He even donated them! and got paid for his work!

“Way to Calvary made for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the son of Maximillian”

WAY to CALVARY, 1527

Made for EMPEROR CHARLES V, 1527, the boy king from whom Albrecht had to beg for his pension back. I don’t think you can find a blacker black painting with white lead poison than this.  It speaks for itself.  The Black pigments were DEADLY.


“Portrait of Hieronymous Holzschuher”

One of the top Nuremberg Patricians.  Lead White, Black, some orpiment


“Jacob Fugger, the Wealthy”

The presence of this portrait is documented, in the eighteenth century, in the gallery of the elector of Bavaria. Because of successive restorations, the top layer of colour is missing.

During the Diet of Augsburg, in 1518, Dürer portrayed Jakob Fugger in a charcoal drawing. The final painting, on canvas, differs from the drawing in the wealthier clothing of the subject, and, above all, in the framing: a half-bust in the drawing, a half-length in the painting.

Everybody hated the Fuggers in Nuremberg.  Blues, Lead white, black



Look at how green the background is, with reds, orpiment, white lead and black. Albrecht really hated his patron, two prints tell of his biggest humiliations and the Emperor didn’t even pay Albrecht for one year.


The man in the portrait holds a message on which the first few letters of his name can be read `P[or B]ernh’, the rest being hidden by the fingers of his left hand. This is almost certainly the painting to which Dürer refers in his Antwerp diary in late March 1521, recording that he had `made a portrait of Bernhart von Resten in oils’ for which he had been paid eight florins. Dürer’s reference is probably to Bernhard von Reesen (1491-1521), a Danzig merchant whose family had important business links with Antwerp. His name suggests that his family originated from Rees, a town on the Lower Rhine 100 miles east of Antwerp.


Look at how much red, black and lead white is in this painting

the 1521 ST. JEROME

Dürer painted St Jerome in Antwerp in March 1521 and presented the panel to his friend Rodrigo Fernandez d’Almada. He wrote in his diary: `I painted a Jerome carefully in oils and gave it to Rodrigo of Portugal.’ The panel was displayed in the merchant’s private chapel in Antwerp and was later taken back to Portugal. It is the only religious picture that Dürer painted in the Netherlands.

The figure of the saint is based on a drawing of an old bearded man. On the drawing, Dürer inscribed: `The man was 93 years old and yet healthy and strong in Antwerp.’

“The 1521 St Jerome painting”

This is an extremely encoded painting, with many nasty messages. Look at the green, the red, the orpiment


“The apostles James and Philippe”

Could we get any more white lead than in these paintings?  and Black and red? EVEN WHITE LEAD LETTERING


After he had achieved great fame, Dürer depicted the master who had taught him to paint. On it he inscribed: `This portrait was done by Albrecht Dürer of his teacher, Michael Wolgemut, in 1516′, to which he later added, `and he was 82 years old, and he lived until 1519, when he departed this life on St Andrew’s Day morning before sunrise.’ It is unclear from the inscription whether Wolgemut was 82 when he died or when the portrait had been painted three years earlier.

The fact that curators clearly say that Albrecht overpainted this painting with an additional inscription would have been enough to activate all the poisons.  Look at how green the deadly green background is, all the black, the inscription in orpiment.



There is an inscription near his head, monogrammed and dated 152(?). The last digit of the date is not clearly legible (1 or 4?), but the fact that the panel is oak indicates that the painting must have been carried out during Dürer’s trip to the Netherlands. The hypotheses regarding the name of the subject are various. The most frequent are: the one of Lorenz Sterck, an administrator and financial curator of the Brabant and of Antwerp, WHO WAS INVOLVED IN GETTING ALBRECHT’S PENSION BACK, and that of Jobst Plankfelt, Dürer’s innkeeper in Antwerp. These names are frequently suggested since Dürer writes in his diary that he had done oil portraits of them.

It is difficult to imagine an innkeeper who made himself depicted with a scroll in his hand. Whereas it seems much more plausible that the imposing subject characterized by a severe and scrutinizing gaze – clad in a silk shirt, a cloak with a fur collar, and a large beret – corresponds to a tax collector



This panel is mentioned in the inventory, dated 1598, of the Kunstkammer of Munich. The cloth around the hips was presumably expanded upward around 1600. The opinion that the Lucretia, all things considered, was “Dürer’s most unpopular work,” is undoubtedly widely shared.  THAT’S BECAUSE IT’S AN ENCODED PAINTING.


Lots of lead white, red, greenish-grey”



“We don’t know for whom these paintings were commissioned but we do know they were acquired by the Bishop of Breslau, Johan V Thurzo, a distant relation to the Fugger Family and then ended up in the collection of the Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. It’s clearly obvious by the  use of poisonous colors, it wasn’t someone the Dürers liked

“The 1507 Adam and Eva paintings”

Look at Eva’s flesh, it’s described as “whiter than white” than Adam’s skin-white lead everywhere, with the poisonous green right at the genitals, with the killer black paint in extraordinary amounts.


The Heller Altar was an oil on panel triptych by German Renaissance artists Dürer  and Mathhias Grünwald, executed between 1507 and 1509. In 1615, Dürer copyist Jakob Harrich painted a duplicate, which is now at the Staedel Museum of Franfurt. In 1615, the central panel, the only one by Dürer alone, was sold to Maximilian of Bavaria; a copy was ordered to replace the original in its location at the church’s high altar. The central panel was destroyed by a fire in Munich in 1729. The side panels, executed by Dürer’s assistants, were completed by four others commissioned to Matthias Grünewald in 1510. The side shutters were detached in the 18th century, and each of the two panels composing them were separated in 1804.

This altarpiece was commissioned by Jakob Heller (1460-1522), a wealthy merchant, member of the town council, and mayor of Frankfurt, either before or after Dürer’s second trip to Italy. Only the central element depicting the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin was executed by Dürer himself. The altarpiece was destroyed by a fire in the residence of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria in Munich. Fortunately, a copy of the work, executed c. 1614 by Jobst Harrich of Nuremberg (c. 1580-1617) survived.  Albrecht was receiving many commissions after having won the “paint-off” with the Italians in Venice in 1506, especially from his old patron the Elector, Duke Friedrich of Saxony.  Albrecht wrote to Heller (of course the originals were lost but there were copies paid for by the Archduke Maximillian of Bavaria who acquired the paintings and wanted the provenance and documentation as well-those German scribe copyists were very busy).

He tells us that he was sick returning from Venice (all that partying) and he had to finish The Elector’s altarpiece first-The Martyrdom of the 10,000, and then he would start on Heller’s altarpiece. The outcome of the whole situation was that Heller misunderstood all of Albrecht’s intentions, almost sued him for breach of contract, trashed Albrecht’s reputation to everyone in town and pissed off Albrecht beyond comprehension.  In his last letter to Heller, Albrecht makes the following remarks: “I have painted it with great care, as you will see, using none but the best colors. It is painted with good ultramarine under and over about 5 or 6 times. And then after it was finished I OVERPAINTED IT TWICE MORE so that it may last a long time, for it is NOT MADE AS ONE USUALLY PAINTS. So don’t let it be touched or sprinkled with holy water…….And place the painting so that it hangs forward two or three finger-breadths, so it can be seen without glare.  And when I come to you in a year or two, or three, IF THE PICTURE IS PROPERLY DRY, it must be taken down and I will varnish it again with some excellent varnish THAT NO ONE ELSE CAN MAKE…”

“What the original painting of the Heller altarpiece is believed to have looked like”

Do we see enough blues and reds, and greens, and orpiment, and lead white to kill a horse, especially if the painting wouldn’t be dry for possibly three years?


The altarpiece depicts the legend of the ten thousand Christians who were martyred on Mount Ararat, in a massacre perpetrated by the Persian King Saporat on the command of the Roman Emperors Hadrian and Antonius. Dürer had depicted this massacre a decade earlier in a woodcut. The painting was commissioned by Frederick the Wise, who owned relics from the massacre, and it was placed in the relic chamber of his palace church in Wittenberg (ie. at home). Although Dürer had never before tackled a painting with so many figures, he succeeded in integrating them into a flowing composition using vibrant colour. Dürer’s gruesome scene depicts scores of Christians meeting a violent death in a rocky landscape, providing a veritable compendium of tortures and killings. The oriental potentate in the blue cloak and turban who is directing the action in the lower right corner of the picture, would in Dürer’s time have been perceived as a reference to the threat of Turkish invasion, because of the seizure of Constantinople in 1453. In the centre of the painting is the rather incongruous figure of the artist, holding a staff with the inscription: `This work was done in the year 1508 by Albrecht Dürer, German.’ The man walking with him through this scene of carnage is probably the scholar Konrad Celtis, a friend of Dürer’s who had died just before the painting was completed.

“The Marytrdom of the Ten Thousand made for the Elector, Duke Friedrich of Saxony, probably the 5th most powerful person in Germany. The duke later became protector of Martin Luther; without the Duke’s protection, Luther would never have survived”

I think you can see enough poisonous paints in this  painting to realize the Dürers also hated the Duke. 


“Unknown man”

Blacks, lead white, reds.  This striking portrait, painted in Venice, shows a thoughtful young man, richly dressed and dramatically set against a black background. His thick ginger hair, partly hidden by his dark hat, frames his face. The small part of his red shirt showing adds a dramatic touch of colour. Charles I acquired this work for the Royal Collection.


“Portrait of Burkhard von Speyer”

The sitter was identified as Burkard von Speyer after it was realized that he looks just like the man in a miniature in Weimar by an unknown artist, also dated 1506 and inscribed with his name. Nothing more is known about him, although presumably he originally came from Speyer, a town on the Rhine near Heidelberg. Burkard von Speyer also appears in The Altarpiece of the Rose Garlands. Wearing the same clothing, he is on the left side of the picture, just to the right of the first kneeling cardinal. You can’t get a blacker portrait with the reds, and the lead white than the one Albrecht made for Charles V


This is the painting that won the “paint-off” between the Venetian Italians and Dürer in 1506. This panel was painted for an altar for the German community in Venice, in the church of S. Bartolomeo near the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the social and commercial centre of the German colony, where it remained until 1606. It was then acquired, after many negotiations, for 900 ducats by Emperor Rudolph II. According to Sandrart (1675), four men were hired to bring the packaged painting to the emperor’s residence in Prague. Stationed elsewhere during the invasion of the Swedish troops, the painting, already very damaged, returned to its place in 1635. It underwent a first restoration in 1662. In 1782, it was sold in an auction for one florin. After having passed through the hands of various collectors, it was acquired by the Czechoslovakian state in 1930. The painting, severely damaged chiefly in the centre portion, from the head of the Madonna and continuing downward to the bottom, was clumsily restored in the nineteenth century; in this restoration, the upper side portion, left of the canopy and to Saint Dominic’s head, was also included. Three copies of the work are known: one – considered the most important and which now belongs to a private collection – is attributed to Hans Rottenhamer, who sojourned in Venice from 1596 to 1606, where he took care of many acquisitions on behalf of Rudolph II; another is in Vienna; and the third, a rather modified version of the original, is in Lyon.

“Feast of the Rose Garlands”

Enough toxic paint to kill all the Italians and the Germans too.


The portrait is one of the first works of the artist during his second sojourn in Venice. It was painted in the autumn or in the winter of 1506.With reference to some of the details, it has been repeatedly made known that the portrait is unfinished.

“Portrait of an unknown Venetian Woman”

Reds, Lead white and black added for extra danger, left unfinished.


The Elector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony ordered this painting for the Schlosskirche (the church in the castle) in Wittenberg. It was once believed to be the central part of a polyptych, with, on the side wings, the story of Job, in Frankfurt and Cologne. However, this hypothesis has already been called into question. The Elector of Saxony then donated the painting to Emperor Rudolph II in 1603. An exchange with the Presentation at the Temple by Fra Bartolomeo brought it in 1793 from the gallery in Vienna to the Uffizi. Dürer framed and delimited a large space by an architecture composed of arches of a very refined perspective. The three kings arrived at this slightly elevated space from the back and after having climbed two steps. A single figure, sharply foreshortened, followed in their footsteps from the distant background. Only the upper half of his body is shown where he now stands at the bottom of the two steps. He is Oriental and wearing a turban. The heavy traveling bag he holds probably contains precious gifts for the infant Jesus. The Madonna is clad in azure clothes and cape, a white veil covering her head. She is holding out the infant, who is wrapped in her white veil, to the eldest king (who wears deadly GREEN clothing). He is offering the infant a gold casket with the image of Saint George, which the infant has already taken with his right hand. This is the only action that unfolds in the principal scene, except for the Oriental servant’s gesture of putting his hand in his bag. All the other characters are motionless; immersed in thought, they look straight ahead or sideways, creating the effect of a staged spectacle set with immobile characters.

Every color in this painting is horrendously toxic and right in the viewer’s face and nostrils.

“Adoration of the Magi made for The Elector, Duke Friedrich of Saxony”


“The Paumgartner Altar”

This triptych was commissioned by the brothers Stephan and Lukas Paumgartner for St Catherine’s Church in Nuremberg. The main panel depicts the Nativity, set in an architectural ruin. The left wing shows St George with a fearsome dragon and the right wing St Eustace, with both saints dressed as knights and holding identifying banners. A seventeenth-century manuscript records that the side panels were painted in 1498 and that the two saints were given the features of the Paumgartner brothers (with Stephan on the left and Lukas on the right). This is the earliest occasion on which an artist is known to have used the facial features of a donor in depicting a saint. But of course, Stephan was Albrecht’s lover.

The small figures at the bottom corners of the central panel are the Paumgartner family with their coats of arms. They were painted over in the seventeenth century, when donor portraits went out of favour, and were only uncovered during restoration in 1903. On the left behind Joseph are the male members of the family, Martin Paumgartner, followed by his two sons Lukas and Stephan and an elderly bearded figure who may be Hans Schönbach, second husband of Barbara Paumgartner. On the far right is Barbara Paumgartner (née Volckamer), with her daughters Maria and Barbara. Every color in this altarpiece is toxic and especially with the restoration could still be.


This panel is a large picture depicting Mary as the Mother of Sorrows. It was severely damaged in an attack when acid was thrown at it in 1988, and ten years have been spent restoring it. It is the central picture of the seven scenes from the Passion which are in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. The work was presumably ordered by Elector Frederick the Wise for the Wittenberg university chapel.

“The Virgin of the Seven Sorrows made for the Elector, Duke Friedrich of Saxony”

Black, lead white, Orpiment and blue (which doesn’t show in this picture well but I just saw the painting at the Staedel)-a deadly toxic painting for all to look at, worship, and inhale. And this brings us to the end of the examples of deadly toxic paintings the Dürers made for their “patrons.”  Thank goodness these are all in Museums where only the staff are still exposed to such dangers. We will discuss the family portraits, which are also made with deadly pigments in a future article.”