Interview with a Zombie: Dr. Bradley Voytek and the Neuroscience of Everyone’s Favorite Monster
‘Tis the season to be spooky – here’s a bonus NeuWrite post in the spirit of the holiday!
At last spring’s UCSD Neuroscience Program Retreat, we had the pleasure of hearing new faculty member, Dr. Bradley Voytek, give a talk about Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder (CDHD). If the medical term sounds unfamiliar, maybe you know it by another name – zombieism! Maya previously wrote a great review of Dr. Voytek’s fantastic zombie book, “Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?”. With Halloween fast approaching, I decided to revisit the subject with the man himself, on camera, while dressed up as a zombie, for my YouTube channel Neuro Transmissions. During our interview we talked about his research, his interest in zombies, science outreach, and how all of those things intersect.
When he’s not researching zombies, Dr. Voytek studies the role that neural oscillations play in computation and communication. In his own words, his research focuses on “the way the brain talks to itself. How do different brain regions coordinate the way they communicate? [Imagine] people having a conversation in a restaurant but the restaurant is one cubic mile, and somehow everybody has to have a conversation at the same time, and that’s kind of the scale of the problem we’re working with.”
The path that brought Brad to UCSD is one that I think many students of neuroscience can relate to. Starting out in undergraduate as a physics major, he found that it didn’t catch his interest as much as he had hoped. Around the same time, the grandfather he grew up with was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He found himfself drawn to physics because of big questions about the universe, but watching his grandfather’s decline made him realize that the brain was the reason we could ask those big questions in the first place – and so much could go so wrong. After taking a psychology class on a whim, he began to cobble together his own neuroscience major with available psych, computer science, and a few neuroscience courses.
So where did the zombies come in? It began with regular horror movie nights with friends in graduate school. Typical of graduate students, watching the movies turned into speculation and arguing about the science behind them. As Halloween approached, Brad and his good friend Tim Verstynen decided to use their respective blogs for a series of posts breaking down the possible underlying mechanisms of zombieism. Their posts drew some media attention, and one day out of the blue, Dr. Voytek received a phone call from Matt Mogk, who runs the Zombie Research Society, about posting a series for his website. Things began to snowball as Drs. Voytek and Verstynen published more posts and more media outlets took note, and finally the Princeton University Press pitched the idea of assembling their “research” into a book, which eventually resulted in the final product: “Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?”
In the book, and in his talks on the subject, Brad emphasizes the “gallows humor” behind the book. In many ways, the book is a story about the history of neuroscience. Until recently, most of what we knew about the human brain came from observing what happened when something went wrong – usually as a result of a serious injury. Phineas Gage is a classic example. Drs. Voytek and Verstynen take these same principles to the observation of zombie traits. Their slow, shuffling gait could be clinically described as ataxia, connected to dysfunction in the cerebellum. Their lack of language and moaning could be considered aphasia, which may indicate damage to Broca’s area in the brain. In this way, they have some fun while teaching the reader something about the brain. Even their “zombie diagnosis”, CDHD, is tongue-in-cheek – it pokes fun at the diagnostic standards for psychological disorders. Often the biological basis for a given disorder isn’t clear (for example, ADHD), but diagnosis is based on the observation of certain behavioral traits. Why not extend that concept to zombieism?
I asked Brad about the relationship between his zombie talks and his work in science outreach. His primary motivation, he said, is that science is an incredible job. Essentially, we pay a whole group of people to sit around and think about how the universe works, and that’s amazing. Personally, he didn’t come from a well-off background. The fact that he did well in school and now can be a scientist, in a beautiful city, working with smart people, is truly amazing to him. He wanted to be able to share that side of things with people, and give something back to the world. More than that, being a scientist who talks about zombies demonstrates that scientists are people, too, with lives outside of the lab. Plus, using zombies to demonstrate scientific concepts helps kids engage with science. For Brad, watching the Matrix as an undergraduate got him to think about the power of the brain. In the classroom, kids get bored and check out when scientists get too jargony, because it means nothing to them. By encouraging them to think about the contrasts between fast vs. slow zombies and facilitating conversations about cerebellar vs. basal gangliar movement, students start to connect the ideas to their own observations from movies and they start asking questions. Zombies gives them a familiar context to start with, so kids truly engage in the conversation.
After talking with Brad, it’s clear to me that despite being a professor and a faculty member, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. At the same time, he’s extremely smart and enthusiastic about his research. These two traits combine to make him a relatable, friendly, funny person who’s doing a great job taking science from the lab bench to the public arena.
If you check out the video below, you’ll see just how much fun Dr. Voytek has had with zombies – and how much thought and consideration he’s put into the neuroscience behind them. More about this project can be found on TED-Ed, Wired, and New York Magazine (among other sources). During our conversation, I asked if he had any other outreach projects in the works. He hinted that now that they’ve covered the history of neuroscience with zombies, he’s thinking about turning to the future, discussing the implications of sci-fi and how our current technologies such as brain/computer interfaces and telekinetic abilities are inching us closer to a new, exciting world of neuroscience. With that in mind, I suggest you keep your eyes peeled and watch for more great projects from him.
And beyond that, you can watch for him this coming Halloween. He’ll be going as another famous monster: Sully, with his wife and two children dressed as other Monsters Inc characters.
Happy Halloween, readers!
Alie Caldwell is a third-year student in the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate Program. She works under Dr. Nicola Allen studying the roles of astrocyte-secreted factors in synapse formation. She creates educational neuroscience YouTube videos on her channel Neuro Transmissions and can be found on Twitter at @alie_astrocyte.