Neuroscience and the zombie brain
S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , Kpbs cinema junkie Beth Accomando. She really loves zombies. And as proof of that , she is co-hosting a 14 hour horror marathon at the Comic-Con Museum on September 23rd. It's called The Secret Morgue Zombie Autopsy Edition. To add some insight into the zombie brain. She invited a pair of neuroscientists to introduce the films. One of them is UC San Diego professor of cognitive science , Bradley Voytek. She interviewed him in 2014 when he just published the book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep. Here's that interview to put you in the mood for the upcoming zombie marathon.
S2: So Bradley , you use zombies to help make neuroscience a little easier for the layperson to understand.
S3: He united our PhD's together at UC Berkeley in neuroscience , and we were both horror movie fans. And we would do these movie nights and we'd get a couple of drinks and have a couple of beers and a bunch of neuroscientists talking about zombie movies and inevitably turning to zombie brains. That's the unofficial version. The official version is I got a phone call from Matt Moak , who's the head of the Zombie Research Society back in 2010. Matt Moak was at the time doing a zombie blog and he didn't want to call it Matt's zombie blog. He wanted to call it the Zombie Research Society and started getting phone calls from press about the science behind zombies. And so he started reaching out to academics and scientists and clinicians to see if they wanted to help with his crazy project. And that's how it all happened.
S3: They appear to be able to take over the brains and some behavior of insects , cockroaches or ants. And it's totally fascinating the fact that you can have a fungus that can infect , for example , an ant to the fungus is called the cordyceps and actually features prominently in the video game The Last of Us , where the cordyceps fungus jumps into humans and it changes the behavior of the ants. And so people call it the zombie fungus. Of course , there isn't really anything plausible that would that would really do that in humans , but it makes for a very good way to connect strange real science with strange fiction in a way that people actually are interested in. So if I give a public lecture to a bunch of high school students or something like that , and I talk about the role that ongoing neural oscillations play in biasing neuronal firing in order to affect perception and cognition , people's eyes glaze over by the third word. 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 actually pay attention. It's a trick , but it seems to work and people like it , and so do we. I enjoy it a lot.
S2: Now , you actually tested out the zombie idea at a like a trade show or an academic science fair. And how did how did that go ? I mean , was that part like the first clue that you were on to something that was useful ? Yeah.
S3: So every year there's this annual Society for Neuroscience Conference. It's an international conference. It's 35,000 neuroscientists from around the world attend. Think about your high school science fair , where you've got your posters , except it's a multimillion dollar , massively funded neuroscientific projects. And so you've got thousands of these posters up on the research floor simultaneously , and all of these PhDs and MDs walking around looking at the latest and greatest research. And my buddy Jen , Tim and I , we decided to test this out there. And so we created a fake poster about the zombie brain , and we couched it in medical terms so you wouldn't get it immediately. But if you started reading it , you would clearly see what we were on about. And we found an empty spot in the poster hall and just hung it up and waited to see what happened. And it kind of spread around the neuroscience Twitter where graduate students were then tweeting each other and they're saying , You have to go see this poster at aisle three , Section eight. And people were pretending like it was a real amazing piece of breakthrough research. And so they're getting people over there. And we just sort of sat back and watched as people would kind of do this funny take when they realized what was happening that made us realize it would work among grad students and things like that. But what really hit home for me that it would work among even the public was one of the security guard who was working at the conference center is standing over by this poster and sort of reading it and smiling and chuckling. And never once have I seen a security guard working at this conference , reading a poster at the solid scientific jargon. Gobbledygook. Right. But this guy was looking at it and laughing. And that was. A very big moment for me thinking , okay , this actually might entice people who aren't scientists a little bit into this.
S2: You got an acronym. For.
S3: Your entire condition ? Yeah , the PhD. It's the Consciousness Deficit Hyperactivity disorder. It's a little bit of a joke about how the field tends to create these funny terms for everything , really.
S3: So the classic case is Roman gladiatorial times. There is a physician named Galen who worked with the Gladiators and they would get stabbed a lot and injured a lot. And he would see , okay , if they got stabbed in the spinal cord , what happened ? Okay. They'd be paralyzed from here on down or something like that. If they got a blunt force trauma to this part of the brain , what would happen ? And so that was that was it. That's the only method that we had for 2000 years of linking behavior to the brain. And so we took a similar approach , except instead of having real people to make that inference on , we use zombies , by which I mean we've watched a lot of zombie movies and said , okay , what are some of the zombie stereotypes ? If I ask anybody to mimic a zombie , they would usually immediately just do that kind of thing. And they walk really slowly , unless they're fast zombie. But there's the original. Romero Zombies were really slow , uncoordinated , and we say , okay , well , what do we know about how the brain coordinates movements ? How is it that we are able to walk ? How is it that we're able to talk ? What do we know about this stuff ? And then what can we infer about the zombies brain based on how they behave ? And so every chapter is a different symptom walking , talking , but told from the perspective of zombie brains. But it's all modern neuroscience research and everything that we know about how these things happen.
S3: I think people who have an interest in neuroscience or science in general but may not know that they have an interest in the brain and trying to use it as a way to get them enticed into learning a little bit more about how the brain works.
S2: And do you have a section from your book that you could read to us to give us an example of what ? Sure.
S3: Well , so-called higher cognitive functions , also known as thinking , tend to get all the glory in neuroscience before the brain did a lot of deep thinking. It just did a lot of moving. In fact , scientists have argued that the entire reason we have a brain at all is to get us moving around in the environment. The logic for this argument arises from observations in a little ocean creature called a sea squirt. Seriously , that's its name. The sea squirt is a small and evolutionarily old animal of the phylum chordata. When scientists say evolutionarily old , by the way , we mean that the life form has been in a relatively unchanged state for millions and millions of years in its young life , The sea squirt is a little larval creature that has a very primitive brain and sensory organs. Its goal during its larval stage of development is to swim around and find a rock to perch on. Once it's found a suitable home , like , say , a nice secure rock with plenty of organic food just flowing by the sea , squirt will attach itself with its head facing out. Then it basically just sits there catching food as it floats by , as it matures into a full grown adult creature , the sea squirt does something quite strange. It digests its own brain.
S2: I love that story. Did you see it as a little like fairy tale ? It does actually write like. Yeah.
S2: And then it eats its own brain. And the moral of that story is.
S3: You don't need a brain if you just sit there.
S2: One of the things that is scary about zombies in films is the sense of you no longer are yourself and you're facing zombies who might be your family members or someone you loved. So there's a genuine fear in that zombie universe.
S3: So in the original Night of The Living Dead by Romero in 1968 , there is a heavy narrative about class and race in modern times. It's biomedical engineering , genetics and things like that. But there's always this issue of ultimately , who are we and what makes us human ? And zombies are us , minus that spark of awareness. And I think that's enticing to a lot of people and scary. I think that's really what makes it scary is that loss of control. The idea that something can flip a virus can cause us to change our behavior in some way , that we and our loved ones are no longer us. We are this monster. And I think that's really a driving point for a lot of the movies. And I think that's what draws people to it. And to some extent , we encounter that either be it , be it a loved one who doesn't remember us anymore because of some disease like Alzheimer's , where you can see in real life there's something that can happen to cause someone to be not quite who you remember them to be. The idea of a zombie movie is pushing that to a ludicrous degree. But that's kind of the point of art , right ? Is taking something real and pushing its boundaries as far as you can to see what what does that do to us and how does it make us.
S3: So this is precisely what got me into neuroscience. When I was an undergraduate , I was studying physics initially , and I grew up with my step grandfather , who was an engineer , very smart guy. And when I started college shortly beforehand , he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease , and he quickly went from being this really smart guy that I could talk to about math and science to somebody that wasn't himself anymore. And my interests went from cosmology and the big scale questions about where is the universe from and what is all this matter and what are we doing here ? But seeing that happen to him changed that from , okay , well , wait , none of that matters. If we don't understand how can that happen to somebody ? How can we go from being a person that can think about these big questions to not really being able to take care of ourselves anymore and having that happen so quickly ? And so that's that's one of the things that really got me interested in neuroscience was how can this happen ? Who are we and why is it that fragile and.
S2: How did that lead to your particular field of research ? Because in addition to teaching , you are also doing research , correct ? Yeah , of. Course.
S3: Course. Yeah. Initially my research was looking at how the changes in brain structure , changes in behavior. I use a lot of physics looking at how these different dynamical systems interact , how do groups of neurons communicate with one another in order to coordinate our behaviors ? To give a really quick example , this is £3 of 100 billion neurons and 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. The fact that that can happen at all is amazing to me , especially considering how many things can go wrong in normal development. I mean , the more I learned about neuroscience in the brain , the scarier it becomes. I have to not think about how many different ways things can go wrong , but it's really exquisite. It's amazing that this works , and I think it's one of the biggest problems we we can tackle as a scientist , obviously I'm biased because I love this field , but it sure as heck makes for a fun day to day job.
S3: Neurology is the medical study of brain and its dysfunctions. Neuroscience is the scientific study of the relationship between the brain and behavior. Psychology is the study of human behavior , sometimes related to the brain , sometimes related to social context. And psychiatry is specifically the study of mental disorders and again , sometimes related to the brain , sometimes not. What do you.
S3: It's not hard to get people. I feel like it's not hard to get people engaged in neuroscience , but there's always tricks and there's always better ways of talking about it. So we've actually played around with a couple of things. My collaborator , Tim and I , we did another poster at a conference prior to the remake of the RoboCop movie talking about what would a modern day RoboCop look like ? How would it have changed since the RoboCop of the 80s , given all the advancements that we have in brain computer interfacing ? So we've played around with other ideas , but nothing , nothing concrete yet on the horizon. But I definitely will continue to be doing the zombie brain stuff and continue doing the public outreach. I feel like I got really lucky finding this job in this field and I feel like everybody should be a scientist because I think it's so much fun.
S2: Thank you very much. Thank you.
S1: That was Beth Accomando speaking with neuroscientist Bradley Voytek. He'll be introducing zombie films and performing a brain dissection on September 23rd for the Secret Morgue zombie autopsy edition at Comic-Con Museum.
I love zombies. So it should be no surprise that I will be co-hosting a 14-hour horror marathon on Sept. 23 devoted to them. The event is "The Secret Morgue 4: Zombie Autopsy Edition," co-presented by Film Geeks SD and Media Arts Center San Diego at Comic-Con Museum.
I love those shambling, reanimated corpses but they also scare me. Because as neuroscientist Bradley Voytek says, "Zombies are us minus that spark of awareness."
Us, minus that spark that makes us human. So zombies allow me to work through my fears about such real things as Alzheimer's and dementia, diseases that can leave us looking like ourselves, but also no longer being us.
Zombies in movies are a perfect blank slate to reflect the times that spawn them. In 1968, George A. Romero used them to comment on racism in “Night of the Living Dead.” In the '70s he resurrected them to address consumerism; in the '80s to condemn vivisection. In 2004, zombies became a metaphor for apathy in Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.”
But in addition to the social commentary, they reflect our fears about what makes us human and the fear of being othered.
Voytek is a neuroscientist, UC San Diego professor of cognitive science, and member of the Zombie Research Society. He is devoted to applying science to the zombie brain, which makes perfect sense to a zombie enthusiast like me.
I interviewed Voytek in 2014 when he had just published the book, “Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep.” Since he will be one of two neuroscientists (Eric Leonardis is the other) introducing zombie films and performing a brain dissection, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to replay that interview.
Below is the poster we discussed in the interview. He along with fellow neuroscientist Timothy Verstynen, defined the zombie condition as Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder. CDHD is characterized by “the loss of rational, voluntary, and conscious behavior replaced by delusional/impulsive aggression, stimulus-driven attention, the inability to coordinate motor-linguistic behaviors and an insatiable appetite for human flesh.”
There is definite tongue-in-cheek humor to this, but it is also a great tool for demystifying science.
“I try to figure out new ways of explaining complicated stuff and the zombie hook seems to have really caught on and caught people’s attention," Voytek said. "I like to say I’m accidentally getting people to learn stuff. I can come in and talk about zombie brains under the guise of a fun talk but by the time they walk away they have actually learned something."
Below is a story I did when Voytek introduced a film at Digital Gym Cinema and dissected a Jello brain. He will dissect a real brain at "The Secret Morgue 4: Zombie Autopsy Edition" on Saturday, Sept. 23 to provide some insight into what parts of the brain, if damaged or not functioning, might lead to certain zombie behaviors.
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