A Head-Shrinker Studies The Zombie Brain

Psychiatrist Steven Schlozman recently expanded his practice from humans to the inhuman. Poring over his library of classic zombie films, he came up with neurobiological explanations for the behavior of the undead, such as lack of a frontal lobe and an overactive amygdala.

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(Soundbite of movie trailer)

Unidentified Man: Welcome to a night of total terror.

(Soundbite of screaming)

IRA FLATOW, host:

What would Halloween be without a scary zombie movie just like this classic one?

(Soundbite of movie trailer)

Unidentified Man: �Night of the Living Dead.� The dead who live on living flesh.

FLATOW: Whoa, �Night of the Living Dead.� That is the classic - that is the, I guess, the granddaddy of all horror movies for Halloween.

And for the rest of this hour, we're going to be talking about what drives those zombies' brains. What's going in their brains? Not the normal ones but the zombie brains which, as they show you in the movie, are very hungry for flesh, human flesh.

Well, my next guest has taken the necessary precautions in case there ever is an outbreak of zombies. He is studying the zombie literature and the movies to be able to understand what is going on in the brains of the undead, and see if there could be maybe a vaccine to protect us from those zombies, just in case. Dr. Steven Schlozman is a co-director of the Medical Student Education in Psychiatry at Harvard Med School as well as staff child psychiatrist at Mass General Hospital.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Schlozman.

Dr. STEVEN SCHLOZMAN (Harvard Medical School): Thanks very much. It's fun to talk to you.

FLATOW: It is fun. What made you study zombie brains or what - zombie motivation?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Good question. I was watching - I guess, a little bit over a year ago, �Night of the Living Dead� was on TV. And it was kind of on that list of movies that, you know, I had never seen and needed to see - watch. First of all, it was a totally compelling movie. I love that clip you just played. But I was kind of watching them and thinking there's something, you know, clearly not right about the way they're moving, talking, behaving, acting - they don't really talk, they moan a lot.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: And act. And then I started thinking about what must be going in their brains to make them act that way. And I wrote this fake paper about it.

FLATOW: And what did you discover or think what must be going on in there?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: I mean, the wonderful thing about writing a fake paper is that I don't, you know, I can make up all the references myself and things like that. So�

FLATOW: Right. You had some co-authors, right?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Right. They're - some were infected. Some were already deceased. Some were humanoids. It was all good fun. So with the caveat that they are fictional characters, I kind of decided that there wasn't much of a frontal lobe, which is the region of the brain that allows you to plan and do, you know, complex tasks and also to control impulsive acts, to stop you from doing things that if you had two or three more minutes you might not do it. I figured they didn't have much of that. They had a whole lot of amygdala going on, amygdala (unintelligible), which is the region of the limbic system that's responsible for very, very base emotions - usually rage, fear and maybe lust. And then there's an intermediary part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps to modulate communications between higher and lower brain. And I figured that probably wasn't working so good, because you figure in normal humans�

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: �if that lower brain gets too loud, the anterior cingulate cortex helps to modulate it so the frontal lobe can process it in time.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: But zombies don't process things that well.

FLATOW: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do we know why they're so hungry for human flesh at all? What's going on there?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: It's a great question. So we know - this is what has stymied me. We can say why they're hungry.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: So there is a region of the brain that's responsible for letting you know when your stomach's full. We ignore it all the time, you know, on Thanksgiving and things like that. But the ventromedial hypothalamus, which is a region of the brain that sits below the thalamus, basically receives signals from your stomach and from your GI tract that tells you that you've had enough and it's time to stop eating. And it turns out there are a group of infectious agents that usually exist in animals, sometimes jump to humans, but usually viral - viruses, Borna viruses, things like that, that make their way into the brain and cause you to ignore those (unintelligible) signals. You can also do that surgically. So in mice that have had the anterior ventromedial hypothalamus ablated surgically, they'll just eat and eat and eat and eat until they die, basically.

FLATOW: Hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Dr. Steven Schlozman about the psychiatry, I guess, the mind of a zombie. Do we - you know what's never explained? You know, George Romero, who's the father of the zombies here�

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Yep.

FLATOW: He never really explains how it spreads, does he?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: You know, he - he's a lovely man. Just one of the most fun things about this is, has been getting to meet him and know him. A very learned guy, incredibly well-read. He will steadfastly refuse to explain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: I mean, it's - there were little hints in his movies. In �Night of the Living Dead,� there's one hint that it was radiation, you know�

FLATOW: It used to be radiation all the time in the old movies.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Right. Sort of plague stuff. It tends to be, I think, whatever freaks us out the most at the current time. So right now, we're sort of fixated on, you know, plagues and things. So it's usually a plague that, you know, some kind of infectious agent that's caused the zombification process.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so - it's a viral sort of thing perhaps.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Yes. So folks will usually turn to virus in the same way that when, you know, your doctor doesn't quite know what it is but they know you got something, they say it's probably a virus.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: So they'll turn to virus. And virus kind of makes sense. There is this great moment at MGH when I was talking to other folks about this, talking with the ID docs, and said, hey, what do you think would work here? And his first thing was, Steve, get serious. We actually have patients to see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: But then the second thing was - you know, you'vegot to go with prions, which are the proteins - they're not even living - that cause things like spongiform changes in the brain. And then at like 1o'clock in the morning - that night, he emailed me and said, I've been thinking more about it. It's got to be more contagious than that. Can you work - do something with influenza? So�

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's what you want to get. Start spreading it around.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) the flu.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Right, right, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You actually came up with a scientific term, what's happening in zombies. What did you call them?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: So I decided to call it Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome. So ataxic, meaning you don't walk that well. And neurodegenerative means your brain stops working so you degenerate neurologically. Satiety is the sense that you're full and that's not working, so it's deficient.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: In the paper I wrote, it was originally called RAH, or Reptilian Aggression Hunger syndrome. And that is basically because if you look at a reptile's brain, it's mostly all - it's mostly amygdala. There's not much higher brain there.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: But then the International Classification of Disease in 11 - in 2012, which has hasn't happened yet, of course, decided to change it.

FLATOW: I getcha. Let's go to see what some of our listeners are thinking. Diana in Boston. Hi there.

DIANA (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: How are you doing?

DIANA: So I'm a medical student here, and I've had friends send me joke articles -and some serious things - for a number of years because I kind of have this irrational fear of zombies. I'm actually getting over it this year by dressing as one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIANA: And I discovered from a psychiatry basis what made me afraid of them. As a small child, we had a rabies epidemic where I was living - in Connecticut - and my mother described the features to me and kind of scared the daylights out of me, to avoid raccoons that I saw in the yard who are out when they shouldn't be out...

FLATOW: Uh-oh. Bad sign.

DIANA: �who were extremely aggressive, who couldn't be stopped by normal physical, you know, exertion, fighting, and who, if they bit me, I might become sick like them. It wasn't until studying rabies in one of my classes in my second year that I realized that those are the exact characteristics of zombies. And this fear that I had of zombies was just a remnant of�

FLATOW: Wow.

DIANA: �how my mom had scared me. Subsequently, when I told another friend who's a medical student in New York, she sent me articles about diseases, old case studies in the South, infectious agents that slowed the heartbeat to a point where - and off the top of my head, I can't remember what it was.

FLATOW: Wow.

DIANA: And it had fed the sort of zombie heritage, which I know has a long, Southern history to it, so�

FLATOW: You know a lot of about zombies, don't you?

DIANA: I know a little too much for a person who considers herself a scientist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: But it's kind of flooding; this is good. You're treating yourself. This is a good�

DIANA: Yes. Yes.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: This is a good thing.

DIANA: So this year, I'm going as one. I'm actually - I've got everything - the blood. I got professional prosthetic makeup and I'm�

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIANA: �you know, PTSD treating myself this year.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: I'm proud of you.

DIANA: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You not only talk the talk, but you walk the walk.

DIANA: With all the ataxic movements and everything.

FLATOW: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Happy Halloween, Diana.

DIANA: Happy Halloween.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. She really has covered the waterfront on that one.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: She has. You know, it's interesting - so rabies comes up an awful lot in the discussion. It doesn't quite fit for the pathophysiology because actually, rabies creates that kind of hydrophobia where people are afraid of drinking.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: And eating. They bite out of aggression, but they don't bite because they're hungry. So that was why I ended up ruling it out. But you got to consider it. I mean�

FLATOW: Yeah. That's a great diagnosis.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Andrew in Nebraska. Hi.

ANDREW (Caller): Hey. I was just wondering if the doctor could explain if there was some kind of difference, psychologically, between the slow zombies and the ones like the monstrous fast ones that are just terrifying off of "28 Days Later."

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: That is like the - you know, when I started doing this, that's like the question. So my first answer is always, it's like talking about the DH in baseball. You know, like, whether you think the DH is a good thing or not, you really love baseball. So everybody who asks me this question, they all love zombies no matter what.

What I would say is that - like the zombies in "28 Days Later" aren't really zombies because they're not really dead. They're infected with the Rage virus. They're not like the walking dead. Neurobiologically speaking, they got to be different. They got to have better cerebellar function than do the Romero-type zombies because they move too fluidly. And they also kind of use pack behavior, hunting behavior, which suggests higher cortical involvement than you would see in Romero's zombies, which literally stumble around and kind of get stuck at windows and can't figure out how to open them.

So if you were going to write something different about the "28 Days Later" type zombies - or for that matter, the remake of "Dawn of the Dead," have running zombies, which was like this big change from the previous, '78 "Dawn of the Dead," you have to sort of design their brains a little bit differently so that they could communicate with each other, and so that they can run more fluidly and sort of do pursuit activities.

FLATOW: Makes - sense to me. Thanks, Andrew.

ANDREW: Thanks.

FLATOW: Yeah. I hope you got the analysis you were looking for there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about zombies this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Dr. Steven Schlozman about zombies.

A lot of people want to ask, so let's see if we can get another question or two in here. Darryl in Austin. Hi, Darryl.

DARRYL (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

DARRYL: My brother-in-law exhibits all the symptoms of a zombie, and all he eats is Big Macs and Twinkies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: And here we have yet another theory for the rapid dissemination of this horrible disease.

FLATOW: The couch potato zombie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thanks, Darryl.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: The question is whether he - whether he will turn from Big Macs and Twinkies to human, walking flesh, because then we have a problem.

FLATOW: You know, you've touched on something before that I didn't realize. The description of zombies is that they're not just eating human flesh, but they're angry, right?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: So there's rage.

FLATOW: There's rage, right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: And that's actually one of the most interesting things about the -sort of concept of zombies. They appear rageful. I mean, they look like they really would like to tear you from limb to limb. That's all based in the amygdala of the brain. What's interesting, though, is if all you are is amygdala, it's not really rage because rage, as we conceptualize it, is the sort of feeling of wanting to attack and then the cognitive understanding of why you want to attack.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: And if you don't have a higher brain, you can't really understand why you want to fight. That's why in all the zombie movies, it's actually the humans are their worst enemies. It's pretty easy to outrun a Romero zombie than - stumble around and can't really catch you. So the humans just get bored and turn on each other.

FLATOW: That's always what happens in �The Twilight Zone." Let's go to Stan in St. Bernard, Ohio. Hi, Stan.

STAN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

STAN: I actually had a theory that - why zombies attack living humans because I had learned in a health class that pregnant women - the food they need, that they think they need the weird cravings - are for some chemical that their body needs for the baby. And so if you're a zombie and you're dead, you're craving and needing living things like living cells.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: That's really�

STAN: That makes sense, that that's why they always go after, you know�

FLATOW: Living things.

STAN: �eating humans, or living.

FLATOW: Interesting. What do you say, Mark?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: It's a cool concept. So I would say - first of all, I mean, you know, we're making all this up so it can be whatever we want. But from the scientific perspective, that's certainly viable and that's - you can read about that thing, that particular phenomena with syndromes other than pregnancy as well. There's also a kind of existential explanation that Romero and others will throw around, that they're sort of craving a life force. There's this kind of law, you know, it's no fun being the living dead.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: You sort of crave things that are alive in an attempt to sort of regain this.

FLATOW: Steve, where do you go next with your research?

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Well, I have a book, believe it or not, which is just totally funny, since most of my research is on things like adolescent depression and stigma in mental health. But I have a novel coming out that amazingly features a short, bald, Jewish guy who looks not unlike me, who tries to save the world from the zombie apocalypse. I'm hoping Hugh Jackman will play me in the movie if it ever gets optioned. But�

FLATOW: I see. He'll look just like you�

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Right. Exactly. There's a lot - we're both carbon-based life forms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So the book's in the process, and we'll wait for it to happen.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Yes. Exactly.

FLATOW: All right. And we'll wish you a Happy Halloween.

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: Thank you. You too.

FLATOW: And thanks for taking time to be with us and having a lot of fun about zombies. Steve�

Dr. SCHLOZMAN: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. He is a doctor, an MD. Dr. Steven Schlozman, who is a co-director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry at Harvard Med School, as well as staff child psychiatrist, as he talked about, at Mass General Hospital.

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