Braaaains! Including the mediation of subcortical fear by the anterior cingulate gyrus! On Monday night, Science on the Screen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre will sponsor a showing of the classic zombie film "Night of the Living Dead," preceded by a talk by Dr. Steven Schlozman -- zombie enthusiast and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
George Romero, the man behind "Night of the Living Dead," may not be a neuroscientist, but he and the zombie-auteurs who followed him have an uncanny understanding of the brain works, according to Schlozman. The first part is fairly intuitive. Zombies are humans whose own brains have regressed to the level of a crocodile's, the filters between primal urges and action entirely erased. (See flesh, eat flesh.) In contrast, the protagonists in zombie films, the survivors, retain the brain functions that tamp down primal reactions before passing them on to the higher cortical regions. They think before they act -- at first.
And that's the crux of one of Schlozman's arguments: The story changes as the situation grows grimmer. Here, the professor draws on "mirror neuron" theory, which holds that humans are hard-wired to reflect the psychological states of the people around them. (Show a test subject a short film of a face displaying disgust, or pleasure, and regions of the brain associated with those feelings activate in the subject.)
Unable to relate to the hordes of undead, the survivors in zombie films enter a spiral of despair, feeding off the panic and hopelessness of the uninfected people around them. At the bottom of the spiral comes a crucial psychological moment, Schlozman tells Brainiac, one that you'll find in most zombie flicks:
The protagonists rush out of whatever symbolic structure they happen to be walled up in (churches, malls, etc) and rather than letting the Zombies simply devour them, they try to kill as many Zombies as they can even though they know it's useless! They fully expect to die.
Since not even Romero has a bleak enough vision to annihilate all of his characters*, the psychological bottoming-out is followed by a shameful reawakening.
Schlozman will present the fully-fleshed-out version of his zombie spiel at 7 p.m., at the independent Brookline theater.
* A commenter disputes this point. I defer to him -- the generalization about Romero was mine, not Schlozman's. Still, Schlozman sees this as a standard trope in the genre. (The comment in question contains a spoiler, so beware.)
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.