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Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain

by Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2014
272 pp. Trade: $19.95
ISBN: 9780691157283.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith
Coll¸ge de 'Pataphysique, Paris

The dodgy premise of this book is that a consideration of the zombie brain, or of the lack of most of it, might help the uninitiated accidentally learn some science and in particular neuroscience. It's all a bit boisterous, and in part apparently written for idiots, or the living dead themselves: "At first glance it might seem that the brain is just a random set of wrinkles and folds, but in fact it is quite consistently organised." No, really? I thought it was just nice to eat.

The problem is that the most interesting part of zombie studies lies not in their differences from us, as exemplified by their staggering, relentless pursuit of brains to eat in movies, but their similarities, not to mention identity, to us. Zombies are about one thing and one thing only, and that is consciousness. For the rest, we might as well learn about neuroscience by looking at differences between us and, I don't know, cats or giraffes. Zombies, in this context, are nothing special at all. The authors, both assistant professors in psychology and neuroscience, do mention the philosophical or p-zombie in a footnote, but that's it. Their description of how zombies are produced, apparently even today, as slaves for the Bokor in the Haitian religion of Vodou, using the puffer fish poison tetrodotoxin to induce coma and datura to wake the victim up, to resurrect him, is presented as fact, though it is in fact still controversial.

Of course, much neurology has proceeded by studying what symptoms are caused by damage to particular parts of the brain, and Zombies are mostly damaged brain, and so afford a spectacular array of causes and effects. The problem is that these zombies are not real. They are absurd, mostly incompetently conceived fictions masquerading here as coherent, in some sense, medical oddities. Still, as a jumping off point for a guide to neuroscientific wonders and alarums, it might do.

In general, there need hardly be zombies in the book at all. The living dead are forced, rather than staggering and biting their way, in. An illustration shows a potassium woman with a cricket bat, homage to Shaun of the Dead, ready to smash to silly mid off zombified sodium ions clambering through windows marked ion channels. Elsewhere, damage to the central thalamus might make you unable to attend to stimuli occurring on your right side, just for example "a rotting hand reaching out and grasping at your right leg". Oh dear.

However, take the zombies with a skull-full of salt, wade through prose that sometimes verges on the patronising, and there's a useful introduction to neuroscience skulking in here, somewhere. Both authors are members of the Zombie Research Society. Had they been into vampires, slime moulds or model railways, they would no doubt still have written a book much like this, with those obsessions as pegs on which to hang some quite interesting neuro-stuff.

Last Updated 2nd Mar 2015

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