There Are no Zombie Contagions

The neurobiology of popular culture

Posted Jul 06, 2012

Over the last month, some horrific acts of violence made all sorts of news.  Incredibly, folks believed that the most parsimonious explanation for making sense of these occurrences was the outbreak of a zombie contagion.  Some even postulated that the zombie apocalypse was upon us, and the CDC reportedly made reference to the novel that I wrote: 

‘ “CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms,” David Daigle, a spokesman for the CDC told The Huffington Post. He dismissed the possibility of Dr. Steven C. Schlozman's fictional disease Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency as the culprit.’

What fascinates me, especially as a psychiatrist and a fan of popular culture, is how the idea of a zombie infection could have garnered such traction so quickly and with such little resistance.

What is the neurobiology of mass belief?  How do we understand our own brains as we glom onto potentially outlandish ideas in the service of creating cohesive explanations for bizarre occurrences? Ever since learning about Bigfoot, Area 51, and the Amityville Horror, I’ve wondered about these issues.  To rephrase my question, would I be less or more likely to believe in each of these stories were it not for others believing in them as well?  Don't those others respresent the "pop" in "pop culture?"

Go back about 35 years.  When I was 11 years old, I was riveted by Bigfoot.  Leonard Nimoy hosted the famous Bigfoot episode on the television program In Search Of. I was both genuinely frightened and excited.  How cool would it be if my own back yard harbored a yet to be characterized species!

But what, at the level of the social brain, contributed to the capacity for hundreds of thousands of Americans to feel the same way?  If Americans weren’t at least somewhat prepared to believe in Bigfoot, then there would have been no market value for that episode of In Search Of.  Presumably, the same argument holds for the CDC’s willingness to issue the disclaimer about the zombie contagion last month.  What, biologically, is going on?

If you peruse the science and neurobiology of mass belief, some very consistent features emerge.  In fact, we now can explain, literally at the level of the neuron itself, the compelling allure of Popular Culture. With Comic-Con just around the corner, this seems a fine time to review the social biology of the brain with regard to large groups sharing collective narratives.  It also allows us to ponder how we move these narratives from the comfortable realm of fiction to the murky waters of intense belief.

Here’s the science: We’re primed to riff off of each other’s emotions.  That’s what the notion of mirror neurons tells us.  We feel what others feel when they feel whatever it is that they’re feeling, and our inhibitions towards experiencing too viscerally what others feel (in order to prevent what would essentially be a kind of psychotic merger of self and other) are diminished as a function of the extent to which we, as a culture, are stressed by external events.  This has been found in settings as varied as Bhutanese Refugee Camps, Tetanus Vaccination Clinics, and among those who cling to the notion that President Obama lied about the nation of his birth.

In all of these cases, the brain looks for other brains that share common values and core beliefs.  These core beliefs are then reinforced through the reverberations that mirror neurons create.

Now, here’s the rub: mirror neurons are driven as much or even more by emotional valence than they are by cognitive reasoning.  In other words, we resonate with each more powerfully with our emotions than we do with our logic.  Anyone who’s ever been in love understands this process.

So, let’s bring it back to zombies.

Horrible events happen.  Zombies represent a cohesive albeit false and outlandish explanation for some of these events. If we are left to ponder these events by ourselves, with nobody else’s neurons to egg us on, then we are more likely to engage our prefrontal and frontal cortices to reasonably assess the facts.  We are less likely to invoke zombies as a viable explanation.

But add one person, then another, and yet another, all of whom have powerful emotional associations to the events under examination, and the mirror neurons of the group become efficiently engaged.  We resist our higher brains’ desire to examine the evidence because it matters more to us to belong to a unique group then to eschew something that would otherwise seem silly. 

We believe in order to belong.

To put this in popular culture terms, we have a lot more Kirk in us than Spock.  That’s why Spock saved the day so often on Star Trek.

So, if you go to comic-con, do yourself a favor. 

Have fun.  Wear a costume.  Revel in the marvelous comraderie. I’ll be there and I am totally psyched.

But when you think about the real world, don’t forget to actively and independently ponder the facts. Otherwise, your own brain will betray you. You could feel pretty darn silly once the dust of hysteria settles.

Steven Schlozman will be speaking at Comic-Con next week as part of the Zombie Research Society.  His novel, the Zombie Autopsies, is available here.