The Neurobiology of the (Romero) Zombie

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Academy, audio, discussion, Media, Movies, Uncategorized, Video

Dr. Steven Schlozman, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, gave a fascinating account of the neurobiology of the Romero zombie as part of his introduction to the classic Night of the Living Dead, shown as part of the ‘Science on the Screen’ at the Coolidge Corner Theater in the US last year.

Go watch this movie or download the podcast for a great introduction to neurobiology, and a clear scientific explanation for what might be going on with the Romero zombie. The distinction between the Romero zombie and the Rage zombie is made clear in Dr Schlozman’s talk, with attention to the different parts of the brain that would distinguish between the two versions of the zombie.

I really enjoyed this public lecture, especially at about 30 minutes in when Dr Schlozman suggests why it is that we find zombie films (and games) entertaining as he talks about Mirror Neuron theory and the ‘wiring’ of the human brain to form strong emotional responses to other’s displays of emotions – a wiring of connectivity. He suggests that we enjoy zombie movies because they give us permission to look at things that appear human, but are easily understood as being categorically non-human, and then blow their heads off. This ultimately starts to feel uncomfortable – for the protagonist and the audience – and we are forced to consider how eager or willing we are to forsake our own humanity in giving up attempting to make that empathic connection with the zombie. He draws attention to that critical question of zombie narratives, like the Walking Dead: at what point do we throw in the towel, when is it not enough simply to survive?

Another great observation Dr Schlozman’s makes is in response to the question about the recent exponential growth of the popularity of zombies. He suggest that because we live in ‘scary times’ the popularity has to do with what animates the dead being that which scares us the most at the time: in the 1960s it was radiation, in the 1970s/1980s it was biowarfare and the plague, in the 1990 and 2000s it’s is contagion and viral outbreak.

The best defense against these fears is humour, the zombie movie lets us see this fear written large on the screen and typically to find humour in the situation. Humour is the best defence against the loss or disconnection of empathy represented by the zombie. In the movie Pontypool, language become the vector for the zombie outbreak, and the survivors attempt to switch language, avoid contractions and words that have lost their meaning through overuse, but perhaps humour might have worked just as well as a defense against the zombiefication and destruction of empathy.

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