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Zombies! An Effective Way to Sink Your Teeth into Brain Anatomy

Halloween is about a month away. How are you going to make science an integral part of Halloween? Our guest writer for this piece is Janet Philp. As the co-founder of Anatomy Nights, a UK-based science outreach program that brings anatomical dissections of animal organs into pubs so the public can learn about how the body works, Janet has an international reputation for excellence in science outreach. The program described below, although not part of Anatomy Nights, might be a useful template for those considering doing science outreach with a Halloween twist. If you are inspired by what Janet writes here, please let us know! We are thrilled to feature this work. –JMO

Last autumn I decided to meet two challenges head on. Could I defeat my own fear of the brain, while simultaneously engaging 18-25 year olds (a hard to reach audience) around brain anatomy?

People in this age group tend to feel invincible. They are not concerned with bike helmets, for example. And while you might engage a few of them with information on sports injuries, talking to them about how they might injure themselves can sound a bit preachy and off-putting. Thus, it was going to take something a bit more controversial to pique their interest. Enter the zombies. Pop culture meets science engagement.

The challenge was to ensure that this event stayed within the realm of science and not science fiction.  I didn’t want to discuss surviving zombie outbreaks (everyone already knows the answer to that is a number 6 hex nut on a length of rope). I didn’t want to pretend to put someone in a brain scanner (magnetic resonance imaging, MRI). What I wanted was to bring the actual science of neuroanatomy to this audience and use zombies to help me.

The inspiration came from the book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek, both established neuroscientists with large research groups. Before reading the book, I didn’t actually watch zombie films, probably the result of an over active imagination and spending too much time in anatomy labs. But these authors provided a suggested watching list, so I indulged.

The zombie neuroanatomy event is the best public engagement event I have participated in to date, and I’ve done a lot of these types of events. This event in particular was part of a local science festival, based at a local library, which I think helps set the scene for where all this zombie talk took place. I started the evening with a quick resume of what I would not be covering: I would not be talking about voodoo rituals (although I did go on to talk about the last reported case); I would not be talking about Cotard’s syndrome, although they were fascinated with the brain scans of Graham Harrison, which medical science cannot explain. Instead, my talk would center the traditional zombies of the George Romero films.

We started with a quick brain anatomy 101, looking at the lobes and their functions. We covered grey and white matter, the ventricle system, the limbic system, and of course there was the obligatory mention of Phineas Gage. We then took our new-found knowledge and started to apply it to zombies.

First step was to get everybody up and doing a zombie impression. Luckily, they all decided to display the characteristics I had covered in the rest of the presentation and we set off to look at these in more depth.

The slow lumbering gait typical of zombies in Romero films allowed us to explore coordination. Where had they seen a walk like that before? Alcoholic intoxication can produce a similar effect, as can cerebellar ataxia, a condition in which the cerebellum, a region of the brain responsible for coordinating muscle function, becomes injured. Internet videos of patients with varying degrees of walking difficulty were shown, and participants at the scicomm event concluded that the cerebellum was probably affected. The issue of fast zombies was raised and we talked about the speed at which brain damage occurs. For example, the faster a zombie reanimates; the less damage was done, and therefore, the more coordinated the zombie will be. This point, in particular, was tied into why it is important to get help to stroke victims quickly.

From there we moved to the moaning that is traditional for zombies. We looked at Wernicke’s area, a region of the brain important in language development, and examined Wernicke’s aphasia, a condition where the patient has difficulty understanding spoken and written language. Next, we covered Broca’s area, a part of the brain responsible for speech production, and we discussed Patient Tan, named such because that was supposedly the only respectful word he could say (whereas he could actually say quite a few rude words!). We followed up these discussions with the explanation that the reason we know so much about these areas of the brain is because they is not protected by a standard-issue military helmet. Given all that information which area did they think was more likely to be damaged in zombies?

From there, we moved on to the vacant stare that they had all displayed in their zombie impressions, and took a whistle stop tour of the work of Gordon Morgan Holmes and the mapping of the fields of vision, another area of the brain not covered by a standard issue military helmet. We looked at neglect, Balint’s syndrome, and Michael Posner’s work with people with parietal lobe damage who had trouble redirecting their attention. To demonstrate this, we watched Simons and Chabris’ (1999) famous selective attention video and they all failed to see the (spoiler alert!) gorilla walk across the screen. We looked at clips of zombies distracted by fireworks and wondered if they had parietal lobe damage.

We discussed the notion that zombies never seem to sleep, and then examined similar circumstances in victims of the lethargic encephalitis outbreak that killed millions of people beginning in 1916 through the 1930s.  We looked at the fact that memories are coded while you sleep, so maybe if you don’t sleep you don’t get any memories coded and you end up going back to places that are familiar to you. Does that explain why we always see lots of zombies in shopping malls?

The number one way to die in a zombie film appears to be thinking that the zombie will recognize you, and leave you be. So, we looked at Capgras delusion and the work of Joachim Bodamer and his work with two patients who had difficulty recognizing faces – prospagnosia, and the fact this seems to relate to the temporal lobe of the brain. Why zombies don’t attack each other led us to look at pheromones and the possible role of oxytocin in forming close bonds while also establishing an ‘us and them’ culture.

Our night finished with a look at why zombies are always hungry and the role of ghrelin and leptin hormones in appetite control, and then the production of a slide of a brain scan of a zombie. This was supplied by the Zombie Research Society and showed damage to the cerebellum, Broca’s area, the parietal lobe, the fusiform gyrus and demonstrated the overall complexity of the brain.

The event lasted just over the hour and included a lot of discussion, clips from films and debate as to which areas could be involved in explaining zombie symptoms. I was approached at the end of the event by the parents of one of the younger members of the audience. They had brought him along but had sat at the edge of the group because he suffered from ADHD and they didn’t know if he would pay attention for the whole talk. He had asked some of the most insightful questions and they were amazed at his contribution to the discussions. They were going to attend more events in the science festival, a very positive result.

Although talking about zombies was not welcomed by some of the more serious scientists, I would certainly advocate it as an excellent engagement tool. I think it demonstrates that you need to go to where the audience is and engage them on their terms. Once they have started wondering about what is going on inside the brain, then you can pull in more science. But unless you get that first point of engagement, you will never get the chance to expand.

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

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About the Author
  • Janet Philp

    Janet has taken the last five years achieving anatomy qualifications so that she can explain how the body works to the non-medical community. She is based in Edinburgh, and runs Anatomy Fundamentals (https://anatomyfundamentals.com/articles) to explore the belief that an understanding of anatomy makes things more fun.


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