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Exquisite Corpse: Why a Frighteningly Multifaceted Imaginary Creature can Help Tie Neuroscience to Society

Signs of the times:  candy corn is on clearance, already-cheap makeup and costumes are further discounted in bins at Wal-mart, and you’re wondering when the next occasion will be where it is socially acceptable to dress like a sexy Klingon in public.  To add to the post-Halloween zeitgeist, here’s a report on a recent zombie-themed neuroethics conference.

AMC’s The Walking Dead. Which, if you aren’t familiar with it, is about the zombie apocalypse and is watched religiously by all of your friends. From

Why Zombies?

One of the themes throughout the conference was the question of what exactly is it about zombies, among all the rest of the undead and other monstrous phyla, that is so… appealing? The speakers often used the AMC series “The Walking Dead” as the zombie example du jour, highlighting the human-zombie interaction that series excels at as key for perking our interests. (Dr. Steve Schlozman, MD, writer of “The Zombie Autopsies” and die-hard zombie nerd made the point that a film about a bunch of zombies and no humans would be rather boring.  I might see this as a challenge to David Attenborough.)

Well, at least with most zombie movies it isn’t about you.

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The point was made (again by Dr. Schlozman) that with zombies, it isn’t about you – the fight is impersonal, like fighting against a natural disaster.  And that is part of what makes it so frustrating, and what makes us eventually turn against ourselves- in the end, you really can’t hate a zombie for what it does, since it is by definition doing it thoughtlessly.  This idea of zombies as a fictionalized natural disaster was echoed through numerous hypotheses of what particular societal fears zombie movies and TV shows were helping us, as a culture, deal with (and perhaps the fact that there were so many that fit into this category spoke to the richness of genre).  These included the fear that “science” would enter our bodies and make us material (with a virus turning normal humans into soulless zombies in many versions of the story),  the fear of loss of individuality within a community, the fear of death, the fear of the futility of dieting and cosmetic salvage of physical beauty, the disenchantment of the body (as a physical mechanism rather than as a Godly miracle), as a reaction to selfishness through a loss of self, as a background consideration that allows us to imagine what a new post-apocalyptic community would look like, even as a fear of relentless and irrational religious fundamentalism.

In addition to this discussion of what the fear of zombies means about western culture, there was also talk of what zombies themselves could mean when viewed through philosophical and religious lenses.  Scott Poole and John Morehead suggested that zombies could be considered objects of religious contemplation in a(n increasingly) secular world (though it was admitted that the zombie apocalypse was in many ways a parody of the Christian vision of the apocalypse).  For example, the zombie could be thought of as a depiction of an “anti-angel,” or as the “void,” the sadness that is basic to human existence within certain worldviews.  Even the cosplay (or ‘costume play’) act of the “zombie walk” can be put in a religious context, as a discarding of one’s own individuality and personhood in favor of joining a strange new kind of community.  In addition to these religious interpretations, Dr. Bob McCauley brought in the famous philosophical view of zombies–  entities that look and act human but lack that internal world that you are sure you have, and suspect others have as well.  (Note that Dr. McCauley quickly “de-animated” the philosophical zombies using an argument of philosophical zombie slayer  Dr. Daniel Dennett).

Where does Neuroscience come in?

Yes, there was a neurological explanation for zombies presented at the conference- and the reader is encouraged to look into the work of Steve Schlozman  as well as the Zombie Research Society for the meat on that – but what is more telling about fictional zombies than the details of their hypothesized neuropathology is the fact that the neurological explanation made the most sense for explaining what was happening. No one talked about genetic causes, gamma radiation, aliens, rotting flesh, rigor mortis, or moral/spiritual failings when providing a ‘rational’ explanation for zombies- somehow, we were all buying the idea that this looked a lot like something that was in neuroscience’s turf (an explanation that has been used to great success by “The Walking Dead”).

From this perspective, zombie-ism is an illustration of a neurological disorder that has cultural, philosophical, and even religious significance. This provides us with a host of neuroethical questions that zombies can help us answer by acting as cultural guideposts. What sorts of brain damage might inhibit or destroy “free will,” “personhood,” or “consciousness”? Zombies are a familiar example where many think those qualities have been destroyed.  How extensive must brain damage be before we consider someone “brain dead”?  The zombie might provide an example of a “high-functioning” individual that is written off as “no longer human” or at the very least “no longer worth protecting” (in a fictional post-apocalyptic setting). What sorts of resuscitation (or even “resurrection”) might be desirable, in the face of traumatic brain injury? Probably not the zombie case (though Fido voices some disagreement on this). What sorts of brain functions are the root of theological concepts such as “the void” and “basic human sadness?” Potentially those are still present in zombies. Beyond just connecting the science to pop culture, this is a way to connect the science to familiar points in human values – through a thoroughly value-laden and often discussed monster.

I look forward to next year’s symposium, and between now and then, whether in idyll horrific fantasy or in use of popular memes as guideposts for mapping out societal values, I suggest you consider the zombie.

Want to cite this post?

Zeller-Townson, RT. (2012). Exquisite Corpse: Why a Frighteningly Multifaceted Imaginary Creature can Help Tie Neuroscience to Society. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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