Skip to main content

Book Excerpt: "Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?"

October 8, 2014 8:11 a.m.

Bradley Voytek reads an excerpt from the book he just co-authored, "Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?"


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

There are three major symptoms that we see in modern zombies that make us think that these deep brain systems regulating sleep are dysfunctional. First, zombies never really appear to sleep. They can wander around day and night looking for prey, without rest. This extreme form of insomnia suggests that the reticular activating system is chronically engaged and may never shut off. This is similar to what you see in animals with lesions (localized tissue damage) to the sleep- promoting VLPO neurons.

Second, while they are awake enough to move around and act, zombies appear to lack definite forms of awareness that are the hallmark of being completely awake. Instead they appear to move with the stupor and slowness that we all experience in those liminal moments between being asleep and being awake. Thus, there appears to still be some engagement of the sleep promoting neurons in the deep brain. This at first seems counterintuitive, given the first symptom of insomnia . . . but remember, the switch between awake (“on”) and asleep (“off ”) normally happens in fast cascades. If the cascades don’t happen in such a fast “flip- flop” fashion then you get sleep disorders like somnambulism.

Third, zombies appear to have horribly deficient spatial and experiential memories such as are encoded by the hippocampus. They get lost fairly easily, even in indoor malls where they’ve been stuck for weeks. We know that the creation of this form of memory is a sleep- dependent process. This further supports the hypothesis that zombies do not have well- formed sleep cycles. Now does that mean that zombies do not dream? Not necessarily. Severely sleep- deprived individuals will eventually exhibit rapid bouts of REM- like neural activity, even when awake. It is as if the part of the brain is briefly experiencing REM sleep while the rest of the brain is awake. So, it is still possible that zombies may dream, even though they never really appear to sleep.