My goodness are zombies popular!
World War Z is still cleaning up at the box office and there are zombie cookbooks and zombie walks and zombie dentists and pretty much anything else you can think of with the term zombie in front of it.
So, what's a nice Jewish doctor doing messing around with this genre?
Well, more than you'd expect...
The zombies of modern cinema are uniquely scientific and medical characters. They have symptoms that map uncomfortably well onto sound biological explanations. They are portrayed as febrile and tachycardic. (i.e. they have fevers and their hearts beat fast) They suffer rapid respiratory rates and an inability to properly ambulate. They are, in fact, in a state of delirium. More simply put -- they are very, very sick.
The zombie movie therefore offers an ideal opportunity to explore the depiction of pathophysiology in popular culture. This must have some appeal; no one can deny the popularity of zombie stories currently, and increasingly medical explanations make up a key part of the storytelling.
If we think of the movie zombie as an infected and impaired individual, we can muster a fun albeit morbid pathophysiological exercise. With tongue firmly in cheek, we might wonder about the hypothalamus of the infected human who is now suffering as a zombie on screen. Perhaps the satiety sensing property of that particular brain region is dysfunctional? From that conjecture, we can work backwards to wonder what contagions might be involved. (Adeno virsues are pretty good choices for this exercise.) We could go on to look at other brain regions -- the frontal lobe, the cerebellum, the amygdala -- and implicate dysfunction in each of these regions to create our zombie.
In fact, through the assistance of the National Academy of Science's Science and Entertainment Exchange, and along with the sponsorship of Texas Instruments and neuroscientist-actor, Mayim Bialik, I recently helped to create a curriculum for high school students using these very issues. The program is part of a larger initiative called Stem Behind Hollywood. The attempt is to get kids interested in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- using popular Hollywood themes. The program plans to call upon other "experts" to discuss cool stuff like super heroes, forensics and space. (In space, it turns out, no one can hear you scream. There's no sound in space...). I got to do the zombie stuff, though, and for that I am grateful.
By the way, it is absolutely true that Blossom is a neuroscientist. Dr. Bialik holds a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. She in fact studied the very region of the brain that tells you that you've eaten enough (the ventromedial hypothalamus). This made her a perfect companion for discussing zombie-brains. (Have you ever seen a movie where a zombie takes a post-prandial nap?) She is, additionally, charming and funny and smart as hell and we had a wonderful time translating the ample science we could glean from the zombies themselves into real science and epidemiology at the high school level. We even got to beta test the exercise with a bunch of very cool students, and, as happens when teaching goes well, the students taught us as much as we taught them.
There's a reason the CDC's website crashed when they ran their now famous zombie preparedness post. Zombies just lend themselves to many real life scenarios. Mayim and I sat down with some wonderful high school teachers and realized we could map out epidemiological projections for zombie outbreaks with the same exponential curves as you'd see with scarier bugs that actually exist. In my experience, kids will listen more if you aren't scaring the poop out of them with real bugs like Ebola. Talk about zombies and they smile and pay attention. (It is, of course, the subject of a different post to discuss why we smile in the first place when we talk about zombies...) But, if I talk about Ebola, even I can't properly focus at first.
So, no offense is intended here. Zombies are of course not real. I don't think of myself as a zombie doctor. I am friends with all sorts of zombie genre writers, including George Romero himself, and we all know that zombies don't exist.
But the science? It doesn't get more real.
And who said that learning couldn't be fun?