Rick wakes up in a hospital, recovering from a wound. It’s quiet. He stumbles out to the hallway and sees a mess, but no nurses. He spots a dead woman on the floor, gutted. Blood spatters the walls. Outside, Rick sees rotting corpses wrapped in sheets. Army helicopters sit empty on hospital grounds. The top half of a decomposing female who couldn’t possibly be alive crawls toward him.

The world has changed. It’s simultaneously familiar and alien. Rick sees the same buildings that were there before his coma, but now nothing makes sense. He rushes home to his wife and son, only to find no one there. Outside, he sees a man walking on the street. There’s hope – someone who can explain this craziness. He raises a hand to wave, but another man runs up and shoots that person in the head.

This was the opening episode of The Walking Dead, Season One, and it sets the continuing tone: a tenuous balance between the need for meaning and the fear of what we’ll learn. In this strange new world, all kinds of people, once just like us, are now zombies, while others have opted for suicide, flight, or paralysis until they are overrun.

We see from the confused point of view of people like Rick. We don’t know why this has happened or how widespread the “epidemic” is. There are new rules, but we don’t know what they are. Like the random groups of survivors who create uneasy bonds, our ability to comprehend is limited to encounters in the moment. The government appears to be gone. Communications are down. The CDC can’t help. What’s happening? How do we restore our world?

As long as we keep asking, we’ll keep watching. That’s how this type of story works: it taps into our neurological drive for meaning. The Walking Dead wants our brain as much as the zombies do, but for a different purpose.

I was introduced to the show through a “sink or swim” marathon. Despite my abhorrence of zombie stories, I kept watching. I even wrote a blog about it, posted here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shadow-boxing/201207/the-walking-dread

Soon I had several friends hooked, and as we approach the opening of the second half of the third season this weekend, we’re planning a “Soup and Bread and Dead” party.

So why do we keep tuning in? Because this show exploits our brain circuits. After reading Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story, which describes how stories trigger basic neurological mechanisms, I see an application.

Let me simplify. An implicit momentum must be part of a story in order to make us pay attention. This involves four steps, all of which are neurologically attuned: meaning-making, identification, anticipation, and expectation. 

Step 1. Making meaning: Despite the chaos, Rick has a mission he can understand, to find his wife and son. No matter how his world had dissolved, this imperative keeps his mind focused. The brain hunts for meaningful patterns so it can predict what lies ahead. Prediction offers control and a sense of safety.

Step 2. Identification: As we watch characters struggle with this dramatic upheaval of their world, it fires up “mirror neurons,” which help us to feel what they’re feeling.

During the 1990s, Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma in Italy, had placed electrodes in monkey brains to study cells that fired up during hand and mouth movements. One day, a graduate student in Rizzolatti’s lab lifted an ice cream cone. He noticed a monkey watching him. Its brain showed activity even when it didn’t move. So, the researchers looked closer.

Rizzolatti discovered that the same brain cells fired when the monkey was watching an activity as when it performed the activity. He called these cells “mirror neurons.” By this, he meant that certain brain cells start processing sensory information when a monkey perceives an action that it can perform. We appear to possess mirror neurons as well.

So, when Rick watches people-turned-zombies growl and snap at him, our brains create a mental simulation so we can emotionally hook in: we experience his confusion, fear, and horror almost as if we were there. As Cron puts it, the brain casts us as protagonists. We want to know what’s going on, too. And at times we want to flee.

Step 3. Anticipation: That lovely dopamine in our brains that rewards us is especially strong during moments of vigilance and anticipation. It signals that something lies around the corner. Hopefully, it’s safety, but it might just be a swarm of biters. The Walking Dead constantly unfolds in unexpected ways, so dopamine feeds our brain to keep us alert.

At the same time, we’re always looking for the payoff: how is this situation going to get resolved?

Step 4. Expectation: We expect an end to the story, a resolution. We seek the meaning of it all. That’s the payoff.

Well, here’s the thing. So far, there’s been only a set-up, no payoff. We’re in this world with these zombies. Sure, there are small payoffs, like arriving at safe places (supposedly) or watching an annoying character become zombie lunch, but ultimately we still don’t know what happened, how it happened, or what will happen. We want to know, but we’re also not entirely sure we want to know. So, we keep looking but we’re glad for diversions along the way.

Smart storytellers stretch out the suspense between the set-up and payoff as long as possible.

So, while this set-up maintains the right tension, we’ll keep watching.

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