Monday, 20 October 2014

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? - Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek ***

When I first opened this book I was a little unsure. My idea of a great horror film is the 1945 classic Dead of Night, which is not just genuinely spooky and unsettling but is surely the only horror film ever to inspire a major cosmological theory (the steady state theory). There is no gore in the movie, and as far as I'm concerned that makes it a much better film than any zombie tripe. I don't want to see blood and guts, thank you. The only zombie movie I've ever seen was Sean of the Dead, and though, like all Simon Pegg's output, it's entertaining, frankly the violent bits make me feel sick. 

I don't understand the appeal of zombies per se. So given that, the authors' idea that they can make biology more appealing by using zombies as the way of explaining the interactions between the brain and the body isn't really my cup of tea. It's not even the first biology-via-zombies book I've come across, following on from (though not acknowledging) Dr Austin's Zombie Science 1Z. But having said all that, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep isn't half bad.

What the book does is to take us through many of the brain's significant systems, showing how they deal with various aspects of keeping us going, from movement to memory. The context in which this is done is to look at the ways in which zombies appear to have problems with various aspects of their brains, which could produce, for instance, their shuffling gait, or their usual inability to vocalise beyond a grunts and groans. However, Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek do this in such a way that around three quarters of what we read is actually about normal brains, so providing the 'real' educative part of the book, leaving a fragment dealing with zombies to keep the title afloat. This is helped by the way that a lot we have found out about brain function is through patients who have various problems with and damage of the brain - making parallels with the zombie condition easier.

Although bits of it were fascinating, I couldn't help reflect on the great physicist, Richard Feynman and his experience while taking biology as a side course while at university. Feynman had to do a presentation on the nervous system of the cat, and started off displaying a 'map' of the cat, giving names to various parts. He was told he didn't need to bother, because they had to learn the names. Feynman mused that this must be why it took three years to get a biology degree - because they had to spend so much time learning labels. And when it comes down to it, an awful lot of the content here is telling us the labels for various bits of the brain and nervous system that don't really matter to us. But when we get a feel for the remarkable complexity and sometimes counterintuitive operation of the brain, we can see beyond this - even if it is often to discover the shuffling approach of a brain-eating zombie.

Overall, then, I was never going to be totally thrilled by the book, but I was pleasantly surprised on a number of occasions. It won't persuade me to start watching zombie films, though.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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