We all have a worm in our brain: Welcome to 2024

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I always assumed the term “brain worm” was slang for a repetitive thought that hijacks one’s mind and won’t leave.

It might be a recurring bad memory, such as all three years of middle school. Or an unpleasant sight you can’t unsee, like the new Apple ultrathin iPad ad. Or worse, an invasive loop of vivid testimony from a former porn star about her unprotected sexual encounter with a former president.

But no. Brain worm is a real medical condition, and this week it went viral (in a digital sense) when it was revealed that independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said he’d harbored the parasite in his head and it had consumed parts of his brain.

The stranger-than-fiction tale was revealed by the New York Times on Wednesday when it reported on testimony stemming from a contentious 2012 divorce case involving Kennedy’s second wife.

He said he had brain scans after suffering from memory loss and mental fogginess, and a doctor at New York-Presbyterian Hospital told him that a spot discovered on the scan could be caused by “a worm that got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died.” He alleged that he suffered cognitive issues as a result of the neural-nesting parasite, which in turn affected his earning potential.

It’s a bizarre claim, even from RFK Jr. The son of the late Robert F. Kennedy is renowned for spreading misinformation and conspiracies around the alleged nefarious plots of billionaire Bill Gates, “deadly” vaccines, “weaponized” medicine and spy technology powered by 5G cell towers. His unusual worldview has made him a standout candidate for a niche of the voting public who feel he’s speaking truth to power.

Overall, his tendency to search in odd corners for byzantine answers to simple questions hasn’t been a winning strategy. A recent NBC poll of five presidential candidates found President Biden at 39%, Republican nominee and former President Trump at 37% and Kennedy at 13%. Jill Stein and Cornel West got 3% and 2%, respectively. That’s enough of a margin to throw the election to one of the main contenders should it be a close call in November.

Kennedy has to find a way to get past his testimony, but it won’t be easy. The dead worm is making its way into the 2024 election cycle, and it could be a potential spoiler for the third-party candidate.

Kennedy has built a campaign around his claims of good health. The 70-year-old has presented himself to voters as a younger, stronger alternative to the oldest presidential candidates ever to run for reelection — Biden, 81, and Trump, who turns 78 next month. Judging by the sporting photos on his campaign website, Kennedy would like to be seen as the virile, athletic and spry choice for the White House.

By his own admission, he suffered from the mental lapses often attributed to the two other senior candidates — but Kennedy was in his 50s when that happened and now says the issue has since subsided and he’s recovered. In other words, the worm is dead, let’s move on.

But in a campaign year where policy debate has taken a back seat to discussions about geriatrics and jail time, it almost seems a shame to pull this highly entertaining story from the mix. It’s given us something to talk about that’s not as dire as the “what if” scenarios of another contested election … or a Trump dictatorship. And brain worms are not as uncommon as you might imagine, so there’s also the potential to turn our worries inward, away from the implosion of democracy and toward our own paranoia about personal health.

If that’s all too much, consider that Brain Worm is also the name of a heavy metal band (naturally), whose music may also embed in your mind like an unwanted guest.

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