NeuWrite Reads: Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek
If you’ve come to our website via Google, there’s a good chance it’s because you wanted to know about zombies. The search term that brings the most people to our site by far is “are zombies real?”. Ashley’s post is an awesome primer on real-life zombies, but for those of you who want to go a little deeper into the mind of zombie, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep might be the book for you.
Written by two neuroscience professors (Dr. Verstynen works at Carnegie Mellon while Dr. Voytek is right here at UCSD), Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep takes zombies as a model system to understand how the brain works in uninfected humans. By breaking down the cognitive, motor and sensory deficits that zombies have been shown to exhibit in various movies, books and TV shows, Drs. Verstynen and Voytek put together a full profile of what happens to those suffering from what they call “Consciousness Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” or CDHD.
Basically, they’re using zombies to teach you about the brain.
It may sound a bit silly at first, but having finished the book, I’m convinced that zombies make for a truly excellent model system. There is almost no part of the brain left untouched by whatever causes zombism- everything from sight to smell to motor control to consciousness itself is compromised. And of course, to understand what goes wrong when you become a zombie, you need to first understand how the brain functions in someone who doesn’t crave the flesh of the living.
The book begins with a brief overview of what a zombie is and the basic anatomy of the brain, followed by a tour through the “symptoms” of “zombism” and what parts and systems of the brain might be disrupted to generate these symptoms. Woven throughout the book are various zombie-attack scenarios and illustrations of the zombie brain that serve to clarify or explain the function of the healthy non-zombie brain. And of course, there are many, MANY references to classic zombie films.
To be frank, this book will be significantly more enjoyable if you already have considerable familiarity with the zombie film genre. While the authors take care to explain the scenes from the movies they reference, much is lost if you’ve never seen the movie they’re explaining. And the authors’ love for the genre really does shine through in every page. You can feel their delight in taking on the slow vs. fast zombie debate, in their consideration of whether zombies suffer from severe Cotard’s syndrome, in the many hilarious and snarky footnotes. These are scientists who love their work and their hobby, and have found a way to combine the two.
Not every part of the book is entirely successful. At some points the zombie motif made things possibly more confusing than necessary. For example, while I appreciate the attempt to use a zombie invasion to explain how neurons communicate via action potentials, it took me a few re-reads to completely grasp the metaphor. The conversational style works the vast majority of the time, but there were a few points where the abrupt switch from a slightly more formal explanation to a joking comment was quite jarring. And while obviously the science aspect of the book is excellent, I did have a few issues with some of the simplifications presented, particularly in the chapter on memory.
So who should read this book? Obviously this would make an excellent edition to any zombie fan’s library. I believe it would only enhance their enjoyment of zombie movies, giving additional texture to your standard monster flick. I can also see it serving as a great introduction to neuroscience, especially for kids and teenagers who would appreciate the humor and anecdotes that are peppered throughout. It may be a bit too introductory for your standard neuroscientist, but I’ll admit to learning a few new things (who knew that sea squirts could be interesting?).
Neil Gaiman sponsors All Hallow’s Read every year, encouraging people to share scary books with friends and family to inspire them to read more. While most of those books are fiction, I think that Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep fits perfectly into this initiative. Read it, share it, and survive the coming zombie apocalypse.
Now I’m off to re-read World War Z for the fifth time. Happy Halloween!
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