Monday, 2 April 2012

Build your very own zombie

(Note: this post is about zombies, which do not exist but can be scary. Older kids only, please)

            The world seems to be sending me a message.
            First, I watched the entire second season of AMC’s The Walking Dead in the space of four days.
            Next, I was hanging out in my favorite coffee shop in Vancouver, ran into a friend there, and ended up getting into a spirited discussion about zombies. Specifically, what bits of a brain need to be functional for a zombie to exist?
            Then, when I linked my “Parts of the Brain” post to my Facebook page, it started up another conversation about…what else? Zombies.
            Fine! I’ll write a post about zombies!
I love this movie
            Zombies and I go way back. As hipsters would say, “I liked zombies before they were cool.” I remember the days when my lab mates and I would sit around at lunch and argue over which was scarier: a vampire apocalypse or a zombie apocalypse. The basic argument came down to the ability of vampires to form intelligent plans versus the power of stupid people in large groups. But which is truly the more frightening option: the sparkly, love-sick vampires from Twilight, or the brain-munching, intestine-gobbling, world-destroying hordes from George A. Romero’s Living Dead movies? I rest my case. And I still think a bunch of zombies running rampant in a shopping mall is one of the coolest set-ups for a movie, ever.
            Alright, so if we’re going to make a zombie, what do we need?
            According to Dr. Wade Davis, we need tetrodotoxin, which is a toxin that comes from pufferfish. We also need drug that causes hallucinations, like the plant datura. Dr. Davis wrote a book called The Serpent and the Rainbow, in which he told the story of Hatian voodoo bokors, or shamans. The bokors would give someone these drugs, and the person would appear to die, then reawaken as a zombie. They would have muscle control and be able to follow orders, but have no ability to plan or make decisions or interact socially. It was believed that these people had come back from the dead. The Serpent and the Rainbow probably contributed to the zombie myth as we know it. Pop culture later added the brain eating and it being contagious through bites.
            Most scientists think Dr. Davis was wrong. It’s unlikely that someone could actually make a zombie using these drugs, or keep them in the drug-induced zombie trance for years, as Dr. Davis claimed was possible. But the zombie myth lives on, even though the story that helped spawned it is now dead. It’s quite fitting, really.
            Still, let’s pretend you can make a zombie. What bits of the brain do you need? (See this post for a review of the parts of the brain.)
            Clearly, you need a functional spinal cord, because zombies can walk. Your spinal cord contains a central pattern generator, which controls the basic walking pattern. This means you don’t have to think about walking. Until you trip. Then you’ll start paying attention. The point, though, is that you don’t need a brain to be able to walk.
            Your zombie’s also going to need a hypothalamus, because it’s HUNGRY. If it has a hypothalamus, it will also be capable of feeling cold and heat and thirst. Try burning or freezing your zombie foes, or separating them from delicious water.
Your zombie won't be needing most of this.
            Apparently zombies can see, so let’s give our zombie an occipital lobe. They can also smell and hear, so let’s add in the olfactory bulb and the hearing centers of the temporal lobe, but not the language or memory centers. Zombies can’t talk and they don’t remember their loved ones. Our zombie doesn’t get a limbic system either, as it apparently cannot feel fear and, as I just pointed out, it has no memory.
            Our zombie will not need a frontal lobe, and probably not a parietal lobe either. We’ll give it a cerebellum, so it can move its arms and claw at you. Since it doesn’t have a functioning heart, blood won’t be flowing to the brain. This means that a head wound, that classic destroyer of all things zombie, might not work. A head injury might not destroy the necessary brain centers, and the zombie can’t bleed to death. Even fully healthy humans survive head injuries on a pretty regular basis, so why should a head injury take out an already-dead zombie? (Note that the key word here is survive. Head injuries = not fun.)
            Which raises the question of how you actually go about killing a zombie…I guess you’d need very, very good aim, so you can shoot the right sections, like the hypothalamus. (I should point out that my experience with guns is zero. Pretty much limited to what movies told me, which isn't exactly reliable.) Or you could go the smashy-smash route and completely destroy everything from the neck up.
            It’s 1:05 am and my imagination is going haywire. This whole post is more for fun then actual correctness. What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? What parts of the brain do you think the modern, discerning zombie needs? What’s your preferred method of zombie destruction?
            Also, before you say it, I’m aware that I’ve thought about this way too much.


  1. See? This would count as a B for Build... in the a-to-z challenge :)

    1. And "Parts of the Brain" could be A for Anatomy...