Knowing Neurons
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Book Review: Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?

By Paige Nicklas

As I sit watching a medical TV show with my sister, an imaging technologist, she critiques the accuracy of the procedures the characters are claiming to perform. “The x-rays in the background are even hung upside-down!” Her expertise gives her a unique perspective when it is introduced on a fictional platform, and I appreciate the insider view she provides. Many of us have found ourselves saying phrases like “Well, this is how it actually happens”, or, “Did you know that really…” as attempts to blend the truth of our world with the fictional ones we watch or read about. We want to make some sense of the stories we are told.

In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? authors and neuroscience professors, Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek, want to do the same. The two neuroscientists’ goal is to take one of pop-culture’s favorite ghouls – the zombie – and explain what would need to happen to different areas of the brain to produce these familiar ever-hungry, wandering, undead creatures. Which brain regions would need to be under- or over-active in just the right combination that it would transform ordinary people that we know and love – even someone as sweet as your grandma – into an unrelenting zombie?

breaking down the intricate systems of the brain…and generating reading material that can be consumed by any zombie-curious individual is impressive, but doing so in a humorous and easy-going way is a fantastic achievement

I first came across this book at SfN 2018, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting that attracts over 30,000 researchers seeking to learn more about the brain and nervous system. As a zombie fanatic and an undergraduate psychology major with hopes of pursuing a graduate neuroscience degree, it was like someone had personally wrote the book for me. I devoured the entire thing on the airplane rides home from the conference. The authors present what could easily become very complex and nuanced information in a manner that is both accessible and fun to read, even for neuroscience novices such as myself at the time. Additionally, the authors’ enthusiasm for the topic is evident, which made the read engaging and memorable. I later re-read the book in my second year of a PhD program in neuroscience (thank you, COVID lockdowns, for the extra reading time). With more in-depth training and education in neuroscience under my belt at that point, I formed a new appreciation for the discussion that Verstynen & Votek put forward. The difficulty of breaking down the intricate systems of the brain and the respective behaviors they create, and generating reading material that can be consumed by any zombie-curious individual is impressive, but doing so in a humorous and easy-going way is a fantastic achievement.

The title of the book is a play on the science-fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, possibly because both books are trying to differentiate human beings from their respective “other” beings. Taking an evidence-driven approach, Verstynen & Votek use each chapter to walk through different behaviors that are commonly observed in the classic zombie – behaviors such as never needing to sleep, always being hungry (no matter how many humans you manage to sink your teeth into!), and not having any memory of their previous human lives. They dissect these behaviors from a neuroscientific view to reveal the possible inner workings of the zombie-fied nervous system, envisioning each of the zombie’s behaviors as symptoms of a hypothetical clinical disorder which they title “Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder”, or CDHD. What would CDHD’s effect on our motor system have to be in order to create the slow, meandering “walkers” from The Walking Dead, versus the stealthy, speedy ‘“infected” from The Last of Us? In their proposed definition of CDHD zombie-ism, the authors suggest that “…persons afflicted with this syndrome lack full waking consciousness and, typically, present with reduced overall brain activity (unless, of course, they get hungry or angry).” Using current knowledge of how the healthy brain works, along with studies of patients with very specific brain damage, the book conveys the remarkable complexity of our brain and behaviors, all while explaining the essential puzzle pieces that click together to create the fascinating zombie.

If you’re looking to read neuroscience that is thoroughly explained and unapologetically goofy, this may be the book for you

While a zombie’s only interest is to consume human brains, in Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? the authors flip the perspective and wonderfully convey their human interest in understanding the zombie brain. By weaving key principles of neuroscience with a variety of zombie media references, the book achieves a uniquely entertaining, nerdy, and understandable exploration of the undead monsters depicted in works ranging from children’s cartoons like Scooby-Doo, to gory horror movies like Dawn of the Living Dead. If you’re looking to read neuroscience that is thoroughly explained and unapologetically goofy, this may be the book for you. The authors leave their readers with a nice foundation of neuro-knowledge, and new opportunities to say “Did you know that actually…” the next time they watch The Walking Dead with their friends. And maybe if the zombie apocalypse happens someday, reading this book will be the answer to curing CDHD and saving the world. That is, if you can outrun the insatiable zombies.

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
By Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek
Published by Princeton University Press
$19.95
272 pages

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Written and Illustrated by Paige Nicklas
Edited by Justin McMahon, Rachel Gilfarb, and Lauren Wagner

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art of zombies dreaming of sheep

 

Author

  • Paige Nicklas

    Paige is a PhD student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, studying neuroscience. She has a BS in Psychology and an MS in Neuroscience, and is interested in researching the blend of these two disciplines. Her current research investigates cognitive-motor interactions in typically and neurodivergently developing children and young adults, exploring the impact of movement on cognitive performance in early life. Outside of the lab, she is passionate about expanding science education and communication for all, and encouraging public engagement with science. In her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing, and caring for her many houseplants.

Paige Nicklas

Paige is a PhD student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, studying neuroscience. She has a BS in Psychology and an MS in Neuroscience, and is interested in researching the blend of these two disciplines. Her current research investigates cognitive-motor interactions in typically and neurodivergently developing children and young adults, exploring the impact of movement on cognitive performance in early life. Outside of the lab, she is passionate about expanding science education and communication for all, and encouraging public engagement with science. In her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing, and caring for her many houseplants.