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Zombies Versus Real Science: Which Is Scarier?

UC San Diego’s Bradley Voytek Uses Pop Culture To Reanimate Neuroscience

Zombies Versus Real Science: Which Is Scarier?

Bradley Voytek is the new Assistant Professor of Computational Cognitive Science and Neuroscience at UC San Diego. He's also a member of the Zombie Research Society. So when not contributing to "Scientific American," he’s giving pointers on how to survive the zombie apocalypse. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando looks at how Voytek is using zombies to demystify science.

Transcript

Bradley Voytek is the new Assistant Professor of Computational Cognitive Science and Neuroscience at UC San Diego. He's also a member of the Zombie Research Society. So when not contributing to "Scientific American," he’s giving pointers on how to survive the zombie apocalypse.

Voytek wants to get people’s synapses firing about neuroscience. That’s why he embraces any opportunity to teach and share his passion. Take last Friday when he dissected a human brain for a crowd at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

"We’re going to do a bit of a 'Hannibal' kind of thing, does anyone want some frontal lobe?" Voytek asked the crowd of onlookers at the Digital Gym Cinema.

Credit: Beth Accomando

UC San Diego professor Bradley Voytek uses a Jello brain to talk about the cerebellum at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival on Oct. 10, 2014.

Okay, that was just a Jello brain, but Voytek’s enthusiasm and ability to engage an audience are clear. As a neuroscientist and a member of the Zombie Research Society he’s devoted to applying science to the zombie brain, which makes perfect sense to a zombie enthusiast like me.

"If I give a public lecture to a bunch of high school students and I talk about the role that neural oscillations play in coordinating information transfer via spiked timing relative to oscillatory phases, people’s eyes glaze over by the third word," Voytek explained. "Whereas if I go into a classroom and I start talking about why do zombies crave human flesh, what in their brains might make them do this, then people pay attention."

Voytek said it’s a trick to get people to accidentally learn something. Voytek and fellow neuroscientist Timothy Verstynen, have just written a book called “Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?” They define the zombie condition as Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder or CDHD. It's characterized, they say, by “the loss of rational, voluntary, and conscious behavior” and is replaced by "the inability to coordinate motor-linguistic behaviors and an insatiable appetite for human flesh.”

Well not exclusively human flesh as a zombie explains in "Return of the Living Dead." When asked why she eats people, the rotting, severed at the waist zombie explains, "not people, brains… it makes the pain go away."

Voytek and Verstynen wanted to explore more about zombies and what makes them tick. They call their book a forensic neuro-scientific approach to understanding the zombie.

"So what do we know about how the brain coordinates movements, how is it that we are able to walk? What do we know about this stuff and what can we infer about the zombie’s brain based on how they behave," Voytek said. "So every chapter is a different symptom, one is walking, talking, but told from the perspective of zombie brains, but it is all modern neuroscience research, everything we know about how these things happen."

Credit: Princeton Press

From "Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?": Action potentials are the result of the buildup of an imbalance in the electrical charge of the neuron, represented here by the imbalance between humans and zombies on either side of the exterior wall. When excitatory neurotransmitters bind to their receptors in the dendrites of the target neuron, ion channels (here, windows) open up in the cell’s protective membrane (the walls) allowing positively charged sodium (Na+, zombies) to rush into the cell. With enough sodium, the electrical charge builds up to the point that an action potential strikes like a lightening bolt down the axon while positively charged potassium (K+, humans) go rushing out of the cell to renormalize the charge. (Verstynen)

But decades ago the scientist in George A. Romero's film "Day of the Dead" drew this conclusion about the reanimated corpses: "They are us, they are the extensions of us, they are the same animal simply functioning less perfectly."

"But there’s always this issue of who are we and what makes us human, and zombies are us minus that spark of awareness," Voytek stated.

That’s precisely why zombies make such a good metaphor and why I’ve had such a fascination with them. They represent the terror of losing one’s identity, and the fear of how a virus or disease could cause us to change so that we or our loved ones are no longer us.

"I think to some extent we encounter that, be it a loved one who can’t remember us any more because of Alzheimer’s or you can see in real life something that can happen to cause someone to be not quite who you remember them to be," Voytek said.

Voytek saw this happen when his step-grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and he went from being a brilliant engineer to someone who could no longer take care of himself.

"That’s one of the things that really made me interested in neuroscience, how can this happen, who are we and why is it that fragile?"

When not dealing with reanimated corpses, Voytek is studying how groups of neurons communicate with one another in order to coordinate our behaviors, and sometimes real science can be scarier than fiction.

"Somehow these really noisy, leaky biological cells are all able to communicate and coordinate in a way that you and I can be sitting here having this conversation," Voytek explained. "The fact that this can happen at all is amazing to me. Especially considering how many things can go wrong in normal development. The more I learn about neuroscience and the brain the scarier it becomes, I have to not think about how many different ways things can go wrong but it is really exquisite and amazing that this works."

Voytek wants to inspire others to love science the way he does and he’s hoping zombies — with their insatiable appetite for brains — will be an invaluable teaching tool.

Bradley Voytek’s new book "Do Zombies Dream Of Undead Sheep?" is currently available on Amazon and at the UCSD Bookstore.

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