Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

There's a Brain in the Patella at Zombie Summer Camp

And other stories to get your ready for Comic-Con


So, just before I arrived in San Diego for Comic-Con, I had the pleasure of watching a big strong kid from the lovely and heat soaked Heartland tear apart what I thought was a kneecap or something but turned out to be a sheep’s skull.

Wouldn’t you know it? At first I thought there was a brain inside the patella.  Judging from this kid’s excitement, I’m guessing a scientist was born that day. 

This all went down in Kirksville, MO, at Truman State University, at the first ever zombie-themed overnight camp. And it’s more high-browed than you think.

This camp illustrates, by the way, why it turns out that if you just let kids “horse around”, they’ll learn a hell of lot more than if you direct their every step. I’m not endorsing a kind of pedagogic anarchy.  By “horsing around”, I mean something closer to “slightly directive play”….or “gently guided screwing up”…or maybe “a focused willingness to safely ignore the rules.”  Think of the apes in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without the violence.  This kid did not raise his freshly torn sheep skull into the air and use it to alarmingly crush more bone.  Instead, he looked up with a pleasant sort of gasp and exclaimed, “Hey, there’s a little brain in here.”

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Quick to recover from my anatomic faux pas (it just didn’t look like a skull at all; I woulda put money on it being the patella), I promptly smiled and complimented him on both his strength and his observational skills. 

“Cut through the tissue on top,” I said, still trying to figure out how a brain got into a knee-bone.  “That tissue is called the Dura mater.”

“What’s that mean,” he asked.  “What does ‘Dura mater’ mean?”

“Tough mother,” I responded.  This one I knew.  The kids laughed and gently scooped the little brain loose from its cavern.  Lucky for them (and me and my ego), I can work with a brain when it’s all by itself.  A sheep’s brain, as I have said before in this blog, is an awful lot like a human brain.  I just wasn’t used to seeing it in the unmarked skull of a sheep.

Now, some readers might say “gross” or “this is barbaric,” but it turns out that “gross” and “barbaric” at summer camp are all about context.  In a lab setting, with a bunch of smart kids, all with blue surgical gloves in place, and all who are for the first time staring at the marvelous worm-like sculpture of gray and white matter that makes up an actual brain, this didn’t seem a gross at all.  This seemed exciting, full of discovery.  I could practically hear the kids’ brains growing.

And here’s where it gets really cool.

They’d had a session earlier in the day about what makes things scary.  A different instructor versed in literature and story-telling lead a fantastic discussion about how certain fundamental aspects of ill-placed organic material are filled with repulsion and fear.  When the insides come outside, we get grossed out.  And when the insides come outside in a horror movie, usually it is not without some help from the horror.

So the kids were first of all ready to call these sheep brains “cool” and not gross.  But more important, they were ready to explain why the very same scenario in a good scary story is effective, frightening, and serves to moves the plot forward at a heart-pounding clip.

Most importantly, they were all smiling.  Maybe a writer or two was born that day as well.

What’s my point?  Just to marvel, I guess, that the bizarre and enduring popularity of the zombie genre can yield make such wonder.  I don’t think this is unique to zombies, but these kids had chosen their passion.  Other kids might get to the same place by watching Star Trek, or reading Incarceron.  The point is to let them chase their passions.  Kids are wired to learn.

Tonight I will speak on a panel at comic-con with my zombie-loving pals.  I’m sort of small time zombie fame compared to my fellow panelists, but still…

I got to watch an excited kid tear apart a kneecap and find inside that kneecap a hidden brain.  That’s the best warm-up I’ve had yet for the pageantry of comic-con. 

 Steven Schlozman is the Author of The Zombie Autopsies, currently being adapted for film by George Romero.

 

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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