UC San Diego has made a killer hire — zombie expert Bradley Voytek.
Voytek, an award winning neuroscientist and an esteemed member of the ZRS’s Advisory Board, explains why Americans are so enamored with the undead, explains his view on the brains of zombies, and how science might be able to explain them!
Voytek is a young, award-winning neuroscientist who explores how and why disease can afflict the human brain. But he is better known for his tongue-in-cheek explanations of why the living dead are so lively. He’s capitalized on the public’s fascination with zombies by appearing as an expert on the undead at Comic-Con, and he co-produced a TedEd web video that’s gotten more than 185,000 views. Walking corpses are so popular the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used a fictitious zombie apocalypse to teach people how to respond during a real disaster, such as an earthquake or hurricane.
“I spend a lot of effort coming up with simple analogies and the zombie thing just seems to work,” says the 33-year-old Voytek, who has a cowlick in his hair and soul patch on his chin. “The zombie hook gets kids interested in the brain and draws in people who may not normally care about science.”
Voytek has arrived at the University of California San Diego as AMC is enjoying huge ratings and critical success with season four of “The Walking Dead,” a TV series about a post-apocalyptic world filled with ravenous zombies. But his hiring wasn’t a bid for populism by the campus. He was recruited to the university’s Department of Cognitive Science, the first department of its kind in the world, and one of the pickiest when it comes to recruiting faculty.
U-T San Diego spoke to Voytek Tuesday about his dual roles as a researcher and populist educator. The interview was edited for continuity.
Q: Why are Americans so fascinated by zombies?
A: I can’t really speak for everyone, but I think part of the reason has to be the fact that zombies are a really good blank slate for any kind of social ill. Initially, when it first started in the (60)s, it was about race issues with the first “Night of the Living Dead.” By the 70s it was about class issues and the separation of culture within the United States. In the 80s it was about nuclear war and nuclear fallout. In the 90s it was about genetic manipulation and viruses and viral outbreaks. And now it’s about the “One Percenter Movement,” and class is resurging as a major issue in American politics. It’s a really good blank slate for any concern that the public has.
Q: How do you use the mythology of zombies to explain the brain to the public?
A: We like to use what we call forensic neuroscience. We pretend like a zombie walked into the hospital as though it was a real person, a real patient. Something had gone wrong with them biologically. We could say, “What would be wrong with them to make them act the way they do?” I think that the stereotypical behavior that everybody associates with zombies would be the very slow, lumbering movements, the inability to speak, the groaning, and maybe just saying brains, something like that. And we can say, OK, given these kinds of behaviors what would have to be going on in their brains to make them behave like this? This is something we use to teach people how the brain works.
Q: How and why did you get interested in zombies?
A: I grew up as a science fiction and comic book and horror movie fan. I’ve been going to Comic-Con here in San Diego every year for about 15 years now, and off-and-on since I was about 12. So over 20 years. When you’re a teenager watching these things run around is just a fun, scary little thrill. My collaborator — Tim Verstynen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon — and I started using that to teach neuroscience to people who wouldn’t necessarily engage in the science.
Q: Could you imagine any circumstance, scientifically, in which a corpse could be reanimated?
A: (Laughs) No. We get that a lot.
Q: Do you meet people who believe in zombies?
A: Having gone to Comic-Con and having spoken on a couple of panels, yes, there are people who think that there really could be something like a zombie. Part of my job is to explain the real science about why there couldn’t be.
Q: This whole thing about the brain runs really deep with you. I understand that your grandfather had Parkinson’s disease —
A: I grew up in San Diego with my grandfather who worked at General Dynamics for his entire adult life, pretty much. He got Parkinson’s disease. He was prescribed a drug to help out and didn’t have the best reaction. He went from being this brilliant engineer that I used to talk with about science and physics when I was in high school to waking up, pretty much, every night with night terrors. Watching him decline very quickly is what caused me to decide to switch from being a physics major in college to studying the brain — not to figure out how to cure Parkinson’s disease necessarily, but to understand how that could happen to somebody, how could their entire person-hood decline so quickly.