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Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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26.10.10

Zombie neuroscience

So a lot of folks have been wondering what's going on with the zombie neuroscience thing. Let me explain.

I was first approached about working on a zombie neuroscience project over the summer. Matt Mogk runs the Zombie Research Society (ZRS), which is a website he started because he’s a zombie lover. And, as he said, "Zombie Research Society" sounds more cool than "Matt’s Zombie Blog".

So Matt had seen my TEDxBerkeley talk wherein I began by saying that one of the reasons that I was really motivated to get into science (in general) and neuroscience (specifically) were really geeky things: comics, video games, sci-fi, etc. So Matt was looking for someone who could talk brains and who loved zombies. He cold emailed me asking me if I was into zombie movies, and there you have it. My wife and I are huge zombie fans. We both read World War Z and The Walking Dead and have watched dozens of zombie flicks. We even mused about starting a searchable online zombie movie database.

Anyway, so Matt had already hooked up with Dr. Steven Schlozman from Harvard, who made a little splash when he gave a grand rounds presentation on the neurobiology of zombism. Matt was looking for more. So we talked about some fun projects we could do together. I was a bit skeptical at first and—since I was just starting out with my new post-doc—a bit too busy to tackle all of this myself. So I called up my colleague, friend, and fellow zombie enthusiast Dr. Timothy Verstynen to see if he wanted to collaborate on some fun zombie stuff. After explaining the project, he was totally on board.

So Matt put us on the ZRS advisory board and Tim and I started working on a fake paper about the zombie brain.

But why, you ask? Partly because it’s a great way to talk about some really complicated neuroscience stuff in a way that engages the public’s interest. If you start talking about the subtleties of how neuroimaging and lesion research shed light on how different brain regions interact to give rise to complex... zzzzZZZZZZzzz. Right? I mean, I care a lot about this stuff, but if you talk about how brain regions could interact to give rise to a ZOMBIE, suddenly normal people are interested, too.

We decided right from the start that all the neuro stuff we would talk about would be 100% true (except for the fact that there could be a zombie, of course).

We wanted to trick people into learning about neuroscience.

The other reason I wanted to do this was, well... for the lolz. The entire time I’m doing this I can poke fun at myself and my field. We have a tendency to narrowly describe some brain function, find some behavioral and neuroimaging correlation, and then act as though that explains the brain. Our work is way more complicated than that. So by using something as overly ridiculous as zombies and breaking down their symptoms and classifying their "disorder", I can make a little tongue-in-cheek commentary about my own field. I don't ever want to take myself too seriously.

That said, this has blown up pretty quickly. I was already interviewed by National Geographic for a special they did called "The Truth Behind Zombies".

Look at this. This is what I looked like when they filmed me. I happened to be in LA while the English NatGeo film crew was in town to film Max Brooks. I'm dressed for a wedding! Ridiculous. I never wear a button-down shirt.

Bradley Voytek neuroscientist NatGeo National Geographic The Truth Behind Zombies


And I haven't seen the show yet. I have no idea how it went. We'll see. I tried to explain why I'm doing this, but hell, for all I know I'm going to be edited down to saying, "PFC damage will make you a zombie."

I mean, that's my biggest concern about all of this. I care a lot about my research, and I care personally about the patients with whom I work. I don't want anything I'm doing to be seen as making light of them when what I'm really trying to do is poke fun of myself and my fellow neuroscientists, have fun while doing it, and maybe get people to accidentally enjoy science along the way.

And finally, honestly, the inner geek in me is stupid excited that a) anyone cares about the information I've worked for so long to obtain and that b) I get to meet friggin' George Romero, the father of zombie movies!, Bruce freakin' Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, Chuck Palahniuk, and Max Brooks. Just being referenced on the same page as them is awesome! I'm not star-struck; I'm geek-struck.