Neurobiology of the Undead

Neurobiology of the Dead

I’m kind of all over the place when it comes to learning things. I constantly pick up books on topics I know nothing about, and often spend hours lost in the labyrinth that is Wikipedia. Two of my favorite topics to look into are Neuroscience (the study of the brain) and zombies (the ones you have to shoot in the brain).

The elasticity of the brain is incredible. Basically, we are higher evolved thinkers than other primates because our ability to cook food rather than constantly foraging provides us with a larger number of neurons in the cerebral cortex. Our brains are a firework show of neurons lighting up as they are used throughout the day. I always laugh when I hear people parrot the myth that we only use 3%, 10%, or some other small portion of our brains. The truth is, we use 100% of our brain on a daily basis. According to studies done by neurologist Barry Gordon, at least 45% of our brain is active at any point in our life (given that you are not suffering from any type of brain damage). I’m also fascinated by the way that neurotoxins like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin alter our emotions and the way we interpret our environments. A hug from a friend shoots flares up in one sector of the brain, while playing Call of Duty lights up a completely different part. Our brains have the ability to develop, adapt, and even self-repair to some extent; they are the most enigmatic and ever-mysterious part of human anatomy.


Zombies are also extremely interesting to me. Not many people know, but the true origin of the zombie folklore comes from Haiti. In Haiti, bokors (tribal witch doctors/sorcerers) would create a powder containing tree frog poison, crushed spiders (for skin irritation), crushed human bones, and blowfish poison (which contains tetrodotoxin). The poison in the mixture causes the inflicted person to completely pass out and lose all bodily function (caused almost entirely by the tetrodotoxin). The victim’s breathing and heartbeat fades almost entirely out of existence giving the appearance to the victim’s loved ones that they have passed on from this world. Only then does the bokor dig the victim’s body back out of the ground, give the victim a dissociative hallucinogenic drug (harvested from the Datura plant, nicknamed “zombie cucumber”) which causes the victim to return to life awaken in a psychotropic and suggestible state of mind. The bokor then suggests that the newly made zombie should do whatever his new master bids him to do if he wishes to stay alive. Over time, the zombie franchise has taken off from it’s first film White Zombie (1932) to the current TV mega-hit series, The Walking Dead. Zombies, in modern society, have become one of the most popular franchises of fantasy/fiction (or as a future bi-product of advances in medical’s only a matter of time people). People are obsessed with zombies…we even have races.

Phineas Gage

I think if you asked most people today how to kill a zombie, the majority would answer “You gotta destroy the brain.” Zombie pop-culture has done a terrific job of solidifying this major rule of zombie-survival. However, is it really enough to just say “destroy the brain” without ever specifying? The brain is an intricate organ, every piece has a specific function. Less than 200 years ago, we thought it was one solid piece conducting our entire body, but then Phineas Gage (shown above) came along and accidentally led to the field of Neuroscience. Gage was a railroad worker for the Rutland and Birmingham Railroad. One day as he was compacting a charge using a tamping iron, the charge exploded and shot the tamping iron up through Gage’s skull, firing straight out the top. Somehow, Gage made an incredible recovery, even though the iron shot through his frontal lobe. Aside from an alteration in his behavior (he was more prone to temper), Gage suffered very little mental degradation and change. It was from this case that doctor’s really began to ask, “Is the brain really only one part, or do different parts of the brain control different aspects of the human anatomy?” If Phineas Gage had been killed in a post-apocalyptic zombie reality, would he have come back to life? Would zombie-Gage really need his frontal lobe to chase down the living? The answer is yes, he would definitely still be able to run you down as you try to make it to a safe-house. For a zombie to carry out the two responsibilities given to them by the absence of death: running after the living and eating said living people, zombies need only two areas of the brain to remain active. The first of these two areas is the Cerebellum. The Cerebellum is the part of your brain that is responsible for motion, balance, and motor memories. So, since zombies are not typically higher thinking sorts of individuals, they are probably relying entirely on motor memory. Basically, without the cerebellum, you aren’t going anywhere. The next is the Hypothalamus. The Hypothalamus controls the second part of the zombie code: hunger. The hypothalamus is only the size of an almond, but is responsible for body temperature, parenting and attachment, fatigue, sleep, thirst, and hunger. So, in a zombie it is pretty much redirected to be responsible for body temperature hunger, parenting and attachment hunger, fatigue hunger, sleep hunger, thirst hunger, and HUUUUUUNGGGGGRRRRR.

All of this is to say, the next time you are out at a bar, having a couple of drinks with friends, and talking about how to survive a zombie apocalypse, just remember that you have three options: Aim low (just behind the eyes and the nose) to hit the cerebellum and cut off zombie movement, have insane precision (to hit the walnut-sized Hypothalamus) to cut off hunger, or learn how to run very, very fast.

Just remember this all you future-zombies, if you had just spent a bit more time outdoors, you may not have been eaten alive.



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About Jordan Carver

I just love life, experiencing it all, and it is definitely better with more people participating. Whether it's surfing, rock climbing, or exploring the forests, it's always better to share the magic.

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