Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen, Bradley Voytek
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Even if you've never seen a zombie movie or television show, you could identify an undead ghoul if you saw one. With their endless wandering, lumbering gait, insatiable hunger, antisocial behavior, and apparently memory-less existence, zombies are the walking nightmares of our deepest fears. What do these characteristic behaviors reveal about the inner workings of the zombie mind? Could we diagnose zombism as a neurological condition by studying their behavior? In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, neuroscientists and zombie enthusiasts Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek apply their neuro-know-how to dissect the puzzle of what has happened to the zombie brain to make the undead act differently than their human prey.
Combining tongue-in-cheek analysis with modern neuroscientific principles, Verstynen and Voytek show how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. In each chapter, the authors draw on zombie popular culture and identify a characteristic zombie behavior that can be explained using neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and brain-behavior relationships. Through this exploration they shed light on fundamental neuroscientific questions such as: How does the brain function during sleeping and waking? What neural systems control movement? What is the nature of sensory perception?
Walking an ingenious line between seriousness and satire, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? leverages the popularity of zombie culture in order to give readers a solid foundation in neuroscience.
What about the identity of our own body parts? Neuroscience is still just beginning to understand how our brains can form concepts like “the self. ” Like many other philosophical and psychological problems, self-identity is very tricky to define well enough to allow careful study using something like an MRI machine. It is very likely that the concept of the self and our perceptions of self are dispersed across many different brain areas. Where neurology and neuroscience may be limited, we can turn to our sister field of psychiatry for a little bit of help.
Let’s take a look at the various parts that make up the human brain. THE REPTILE BRAIN Our tour of the human brain starts in an area already linked to zombism. In the novel The Zombie Autopsies (2012), psychiatrist Steven Schlozman presents a case that the walking dead have had their brains destroyed in such a way that only the so-called “crocodile” or “reptile” brain is left functioning. What is this crocodile brain and how is it different from other parts of the brain? Neuroscientist Paul MacLean originally formalized the idea of a primitive “reptilian” brain that resides in each of us.
SPINOCEREBELLAR ATAXIA—A movement disorder characterized by atrophy of the cerebellum as well as other brainstem areas. STIMULUS-DRIVEN BEHAVIOR—Automatic and often involuntary responses to sensory stimuli. STRIATUM—The input parts of the basal ganglia that initiate the direct and indirect pathways. The striatum consists of the caudate nucleus, the putamen, and the nucleus accumbens. See also basal ganglia. SUBSTANTIA NIGRA—A brain area that is part of the basal ganglia. Cells in the substantia nigra provide dopamine, which is used by a variety of different brain areas.
It is as if, in the absence of knowing the waxing and waning patterns of the Earth’s daylight, the body’s natural tendency is to live by a different period of a 25-plus-hour day. But no matter how long our internal circadian rhythm is, the fact that people with damage to the suprachiasmatic nucleus still need regular sleep illustrates one important thing: sleep is vital to us humans. DREAMING AS A REPLAY OF THE DAY What happens when we eventually sleep? So far we’ve talked about sleep as being a sort of “off” state.
In this split second of time, how does your brain know where the shotgun is, while simultaneously attending to it for just long enough to grab the handle, aim the gun, and take care of the undead walker coming at you? The process of attending to the shotgun begins with the simple act of seeing the weapon. It turns out that your brain sees the world by making a little map of the environment in your head. In fact, the brain is filled with maps of the outside world. There are maps of sound frequencies (see chapter 6), maps of smells, maps of muscles, maps of the body.