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The neuropsychology of zombies

Posted by Christopher Shea  April 9, 2009 10:16 AM

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A scene from "Night of the Living Dead"

Braaaains! Including the mediation of subcortical fear by the anterior cingulate gyrus! On Monday night, Science on the Screen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre will sponsor a showing of the classic zombie film "Night of the Living Dead," preceded by a talk by Dr. Steven Schlozman -- zombie enthusiast and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

George Romero, the man behind "Night of the Living Dead," may not be a neuroscientist, but he and the zombie-auteurs who followed him have an uncanny understanding of the brain works, according to Schlozman. The first part is fairly intuitive. Zombies are humans whose own brains have regressed to the level of a crocodile's, the filters between primal urges and action entirely erased. (See flesh, eat flesh.) In contrast, the protagonists in zombie films, the survivors, retain the brain functions that tamp down primal reactions before passing them on to the higher cortical regions. They think before they act -- at first.

And that's the crux of one of Schlozman's arguments: The story changes as the situation grows grimmer. Here, the professor draws on "mirror neuron" theory, which holds that humans are hard-wired to reflect the psychological states of the people around them. (Show a test subject a short film of a face displaying disgust, or pleasure, and regions of the brain associated with those feelings activate in the subject.)

Unable to relate to the hordes of undead, the survivors in zombie films enter a spiral of despair, feeding off the panic and hopelessness of the uninfected people around them. At the bottom of the spiral comes a crucial psychological moment, Schlozman tells Brainiac, one that you'll find in most zombie flicks:

The protagonists rush out of whatever symbolic structure they happen to be walled up in (churches, malls, etc) and rather than letting the Zombies simply devour them, they try to kill as many Zombies as they can even though they know it's useless! They fully expect to die.

Since not even Romero has a bleak enough vision to annihilate all of his characters*, the psychological bottoming-out is followed by a shameful reawakening.

Schlozman will present the fully-fleshed-out version of his zombie spiel at 7 p.m., at the independent Brookline theater.

* A commenter disputes this point. I defer to him -- the generalization about Romero was mine, not Schlozman's. Still, Schlozman sees this as a standard trope in the genre. (The comment in question contains a spoiler, so beware.)

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15 comments so far...
  1. A great article for Easter week. Thanks!

    Posted by Phil Studge April 9, 09 01:29 PM
  1. Zombies! Man, they creep me out!

    Posted by Gerry April 9, 09 01:38 PM
  1. Beware Zombie Jesus

    Posted by Mark D April 9, 09 02:03 PM
  1. Can I bring my Zombie survival kit with me , of course I can leave the chainsaw and guns at home, but bring my protective forearm and body gear

    Posted by Eaton April 9, 09 02:11 PM
  1. "Since not even Romero has a bleak enough vision to annihilate all of his characters"
    Not so. Night of the Living Dead ends with every single main character dead or undead.

    Posted by Matt April 9, 09 02:16 PM
  1. I'm there!

    Posted by Noel April 9, 09 03:18 PM
  1. Why don't Zombies eat each other?
    Wouldn't make a great film I suppose :-)

    Posted by Peter April 9, 09 03:48 PM
  1. We at the Zombie Anti Defamation League dispute the hypothesis stated above. We will be sending members of the Zombie Mission to the screening, and early indications are that many, many members intend to show up. Vitalist hate speech is an artifact of the past, and through education we hope to bring our message of understanding to the public at large.

    Remember, inside every living person is a dead one waiting to get out.

    Posted by ZADL dot ORG April 9, 09 04:09 PM
  1. I submit that if you do not yet know how Night of the Living Dead ends, then you've more than had your chance to find out in the 41 years since its release, and that the comment indicating the fate of the non-zombies in the film has been unfairly referred to as a "spoiler".

    Posted by Bill April 9, 09 04:53 PM
  1. Zombies give me the hibbigibbies!

    Posted by Eric April 9, 09 07:17 PM
  1. Great article!

    Posted by shedigszombies April 9, 09 11:08 PM
  1. You might want to check with Richard Cheney and the extreme right wing of the Republican party over the past eight years to verify the entire neuropsychological spectrum of activity of zombies and their ilk. These undead deserve credit for placing a not-fully-matured zombie in the office of President of the US whose own neurotransmitters were of course not close to being functional. Thank badness Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are still around to provide "Days of the Living Dead" for all of us true zombie fans.

    Posted by Merle Schirmer April 10, 09 08:03 AM
  1. Brains. Brains brains brains, brains brains brains brains. Brains brains!

    Posted by zombah harmman brainz April 10, 09 09:44 AM
  1. Merle Schirmer- must everything be viewed through the prism of politics? What a joyless sack you must be. I don't even pity you.

    Posted by JohnnySquares April 13, 09 02:31 PM
  1. A theory of autism contends that the mirror neurons of people on the autistic spectrum are disrupted, and this leads to the difficulties that autistic people have relating to others and showing expression themselves. Even blind people have more facial expressions than autistic, leading me to believe that expressions are hard-wired. I am on the spectrum, and even when I really want to show expression, I cannot properly. However, the zombie theory is discredited because autistic people live in a state of wanting to communicate despite limited flawed neurons. .

    Posted by Stephanie April 14, 09 04:34 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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