BRRRAAAAINS!!! Steven Schlozman, M.D. isn’t a zombie but he is hungry for brains – zombie brains! An Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Schlozman never dreamed his career would lead to exploring zombie physiology. As luck would have it, a local movie theatre asked Schlozman to give a lecture after a film, leaving the decision of what film up to him. He chose Night of the Living Dead and the rest is history! Recently, The Exchange caught up with Schlozman to ask a few questions about zombie science, his recently published book (The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse), and why zombies are so fascinating.
Tell us about your background. What sparked your interest in medicine and psychiatry?
I grew up in suburban Kansas City - I could throw a rock to Missouri from my house, but I lived on the Kansas side. My dad is a retired pulmonologist (lung doctor) and my mom is a teacher. In fact, my mother earned her PhD in education two days after I earned my M.D. I think this matters, because I have teaching and science (or at least doctoring) in my blood. And teaching, it seems to me, is really a kind of story-telling...and I love stories.
So, after a pretty typical suburban upbringing in the heartland, I went to Stanford University and majored in English and Biology. I then taught high school English and science in Northern California and lived in San Francisco for a few years before heading to Dartmouth for medical school. I admired my dad's commitment to his work, and I admired his reliance on data in making decisions. Nevertheless, he always told me that "life is all about having incomplete data" so I went to medical school not really sure I'd like it but with a great deal of respect for physicians. I knew, though, that if I got through medical school, I'd be a psychiatrist. As I said, I love stories, and nothing could be more interesting than real stories about the human condition. If you combine that aspect of my work with the incredible explosion of what we know and what we're learning about psychiatric illness and brain dysfunction, I can't think of a field more suited for floating my boat.
I also did a fellowship in child psychiatry. I love kids, I love helping kids, and I love that by studying the pathophysiology of child brain syndromes, I can focus on how the developing brain expresses itself differently across the child and adolescent lifespan.
So, how does a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who specializes in training future psychiatrists, become a leading expert on zombie anatomy?
Luck! I adore horror movies and always have. I remember watching the Creature Features on the old UHF stations when I was growing up, and I think horror cinema, like all art when done well, offers savvy and unexpected social commentary. It can be hard to get a kid interested in the dangers of unchecked consumerism, but when I saw a bunch of zombies in Dawn of the Dead trying to get into a shopping mall I began to get the message.
It turns out there's an independent movie theater here in Boston called The Coolidge that features science-types giving lectures before relevant movies. For example, they'll have a physicist from MIT talk about the mechanics of Light Speed Travel before showing Star Trek movies. When I was lucky enough to be asked to do a talk for them, I suggested a zombie movie. I had just watched Night of the Living Dead again and I realized that it doesn't take much to get anyone who thinks about brain dysfunction to wonder what's wrong with those zombies. I wrote a fake medical paper in preparation for the lecture and coined the term Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome (ANSD) as the putative disease of zombies. A local newspaper did a video podcast that went viral on the internet, and the sci-fi web site io9 did a story. Things kind of snowballed from there. I was contacted by the good people at the Science & Entertainment Exchange to join other zombie experts at a screening of Survival of the Dead, I've become friends with George Romero and Max Brooks (two of the major creators of the modern zombie genre and of the current zombie excitement), and I started working with the Zombie Research Society. Grand Central Publishing then asked me to write a novel, and that brought about even more serious research. Now there's talk of a movie, video game interest, and all sorts of fun meetings to attend. Wonderfully, my colleagues have really been nothing but entirely supportive if a little bewildered.
Earlier this year, your book The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse hit bookstore shelves. What is it about zombies that fascinate you?
Everything really, because zombies are just shells. Their absence of all but the most primitive drives (eat, walk, presumably excrete) makes them perfect projection devices for all sorts of endeavors. I can show medical students clips of Night of the Living Dead and ask them what tests they'd order and why if a zombie were brought to the Emergency Room. I can wonder about the neurobiology of empathy - what's it like, for example, to have something so horrible not really care about you but still want to kill you? This allows me to invoke cool ideas like mirror neuron theories, to wonder with folks why a seemingly person-less car that cuts you off on the freeway is more enraging when you don't see the face of the driver. I love that zombie movies aren't really about zombies - they're about humans and the human spirit. When does it stop feeling human to wantonly kill things? Almost every zombie movie features the emotional toll on the humans as the humans are increasingly forced to abandon their humanity - to act more like zombies - in order to stay alive. And I love the mixture of humor and gore. That allows us to tolerate and poke fun at ourselves. We feel like zombies all the time. Try waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles for your license. You'll want to eat someone too.
In TV and film, why is the zombie apocalypse depicted as a virus or bacteria? Why not a fungi?
Funny - I got an e-mail today with that exact question! You might know about the fungus in the Thai rainforest that invades a particular ant species' brain and then eventually kills the poor thing by bursting through its exoskeleton skull? While the ant is infected, it doesn't become cannibalistic, but it sure hobbles a good deal.
Before writing my book, I got to ask all sorts of fun questions to my Infectious Disease specialist friends here at the hospital where I work. Everyone suggested a viral etiology, and some suggested prions. Biologically, infective viruses and bacteria are easier and more efficient organisms to catch and spread. For prions to get efficiently spread, they'd have to be in the air, and as of now that's only been done in labs in limited settings (thank goodness!). Fungi are multi-cellular, and that increased complexity makes them more vulnerable to our immune system. This is probably why we don't see other non-fungal multi-cellular organisms (some parasites, for example) as putative zombie agents.
How and why did you get involved with the Science & Entertainment Exchange? What do you think of the program?
I mentioned above that the Science & Entertainment Exchange contacted me after io9 wrote a piece about me. That was in 2009, and being involved with this organization gets me all misty. I love movies! To get calls from writers and producers and asked about how to make a story plausible and fun is a dream and also feels like a genuine public service. That writers want their material to be believable is not surprising, but that an organization exists to facilitate this is fantastic. I also learn from the writers about plot and character development.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists - what message would you like to share with them?
I'd share two of my favorite quotations. In Howards End, EM Forster writes "Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted." What a beautiful sentiment! The successes of movies like Super 8 right now are based on the willingness to get excited about what's possible. It seems to me that both scientists and filmmakers have this in common. That leads me to another of my favorite literary references. When facing a skeptical Horatio, Hamlet proclaims that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy." Skepticism is never bad, but nihilistic skepticism becomes avoidance, and avoidance kills creativity and believability.
Anything you can share about your next project?
My next project is a novel, about 2/3 finished now, about three college kids who set out to find the summer camp monster they learned about around campfires of their youth. They're really finding themselves, but things don't always go well. They have to think carefully about who and what they are in order to survive the ordeal on their journey.
Read more Scientist Spotlight interviews here.