Hungry and angry: could we survive a zombie apocalypse?
Published Online: 15 December 2014
“The brain is a pretty complicated piece of goop.” Words that you might not expect from a neuroscientist, but an accurate statement nonetheless. When two members of the Zombie Research Society came up with a brainy idea to write a book in preparation for the coming zombie apocalypse, you might be tempted to dismiss it as cult fantasy—topical, entertaining, frightening even, but not serious, surely?
In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? the zombie phenomenon is studied in depth. Psychological evaluation and neuroscientific principles are applied to analyse the brain of the walking dead. Authors Timothy Verstynen, Department of Psychology and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA, USA), and Bradley Voytek, University of California, San Diego (CA, USA), are self-confessed zombie nerds, and experts in brain cognition. What they have created is a satirical but oddly plausible and engaging investigation that leads to a diagnosis of zombism as a neurological disorder called consciousness deficit hypoactivity disorder (CDHD). CDHD is an affliction caused by starvation of oxygen and nutrients to the brain (essentially brain damage) with the speed of the zombification process (time-to-resurrection) determining the rapidity and agility of the awakened zombie. How they reached this conclusion is delivered in bite-size chunks of deductive reasoning.
Because they do not assume a working knowledge of the brain, the authors zip through a fairly rudimentary lesson on brain parts, brain functions, and cognitive processes, but always refer back to the zombie, and the parallels drawn between the human brain and the damaged brain of the zombie. A substantial portion of content is technical, and is translated with metaphor and analogy for the layperson (usually recreating a situation with you and the ravenous zombie). However, for those with some interest in the brain, this book undeniably provides a deeper understanding of zombies through playful linguistic interactions with the reader. Voytek and Verstynen are patient and thorough teachers, and inclusive in this process with an ingenious touch of conscious nerdy sophistication.
The book breaks down areas of relevant interest: sleeping and waking; which neural systems control movement; what is the nature of hunger and anger (the two most visible traits of the zombie); how we speak and how we are understood; facial recognition; voluntary and involuntary control; and memory. Zombies can be friends, family, neighbours—we recognise them, but they have no emotional connection to us anymore, we are nothing but meat. This is a hard fact to swallow, described perfectly by Verstynen and Voytek; “As a human with a loved one who has just turned into a zombie, it can sometimes be difficult to understand that this bloody, drooling, groaning beast lumbering toward you will not recognise you as the person she once loved. No matter how long you have known her, once she has turned into an undead walker that spark of recognition will never again appear in her eyes—ever.” The hypothesis drawn is that zombies no longer possess facial perception abilities. As seen in Shaun of the Dead (one of the many movies alluded to in the book), one survival method might be to act like a zombie—moaning, drooling, and ghoulish. This would lead us to suppose that zombies use other clues, such as sound and movement to differentiate zombies from non-zombies, and that “one component of the zombie syndrome is acquired prosopagnosia”; damaged functioning of the ventral visual stream.
Then there is the insatiable hunger and all-consuming rage. The authors compare this abnormal behaviour to the stimulus driven and impulsive–reactive behaviour of a primitive being. Thus, they conclude that the orbitofrontal cortex is dysfunctioning; the limbic system is too dominant; the amygdala, hypothalamus, and thalamus are overactive; and the hormonal system is massively disturbed. As for the appetite, zombies just don't feel full—the neurons that process leptin signals from the gut are not doing their job. These, and many more evidence-based hypotheses, supported by what science has already discovered, are the thrust of this project. Through popular culture, neuroscience becomes more interesting, more relevant, and not so esoteric.
The book wades through a lot of information, and with an enthusiastic stride, Verstynen's and Vortek's excitement and passion for their topic is infectious. The illustrations resemble a cult-comic book style, and are not immediately helpful as visual tools, but they are fun. And fun is exactly how I would describe the reality of this book. If you really do believe in an imminent zombie apocalypse you could increase your chances of survival, and if you don't, you can enjoy imagining one. In keeping with a tongue-in-cheek flair, hopefully Verstynen and Voytek will be successful in securing a grant to research the coming zombie apocalypse, and then we can all sleep more soundly at night (without dreaming of undead sheep).