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Can zombies exist? Yes and no; neuroscience explains

This is what science has to say regarding the possible existence of zombies in real life.

No matter how technologically advanced we are, humanity is always wondering about beings and ideas we cannot see. The key question surrounding the monsters and supernatural creatures that have populated the grimmest collective fantasy is: do they really exist? It depends on what we mean by “exist.”

Zombies have intrigued us as a species for many years now, and with the rise of movie and lore about these creatures, the fear of losing our will or consciousness, have made these monsters one of the most frightening ones. But can zombies exist in real life? Could it be the next big threat to humanity in the future? This is what science has to say about it.

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The cultural origin of zombies

The origin of the zombie dates back to 1929 when William Buehler Seabrook published The Magic Island, a travelogue in Haiti that inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, which in turn popularized the word “zombie.” It has since been said that zombies in Haiti are much more than a myth. But in reality, the zombie was a sort of fantastic invention, born out of the impact on Buehler Seabrook of voodoo practices (replete with rituals involving mind-body splits).

From then on, voodoo was seen as an evil practice that evokes the profane and heretic, or as if it were actually related to zombie practices. But the reality is that voodoo is a religion that emerged from West Africa, later moving to Haiti, where beliefs in spirits are so strong that, in fact, voodoo means spirit.

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What several legends and myths (which have even invaded culture in modern times) claim to be Haitian “zombies” are nothing more than the practices within voodoo rites, which include the reanimation of bodies. The priests, or “bokor” of voodoo, can “separate” the essences of a person and handle them, but not for purposes of punishment or revenge, as has been popularized from zombie movies, the famous “voodoo doll” or cyber myths.

It happens that these priests use what an anthropologist named Wade Davis called “zombie powder,” based on a very potent toxin called tetrodotoxin, derived from the puffer fish. With this, according to Davis, the rites of death and reanimation of the bodies are performed, something that, however, is more related to possessions, spiritual covenants, and petitions, and not to what we understand and that Davis himself also called “zombification.”

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But, beyond the fiction of a novel or the cinema, the myth of the zombie grew because of an article in the Haitian Penal Code that prohibited these rites, and specifically prohibited the practice of “prolonged lethargy.” The law did not speak of “zombification,” as has been made known in many portals. It is an article as old as the French colony in Haiti which, as we well know in America, comes from total ignorance of the native practices that terrified the people of the West.

What neuroscience has to say about zombies?

Zombies in fiction are created in many ways, but it is always a hypothetical infection that is transmitted by bite (blood-borne pathogens). This also happens in nature, with the toxins of various insects such as the Ampulex wasp, which “kidnaps the will” of insects such as cockroaches, for reproductive purposes, and leaves them in a strange state of lethargy. This occurs with an almost surgical technique, as the wasp injects its venom into a key point to deprive it of its movements and neurological system, and then take control of it.

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So some zombie fiction is real in nature. What cannot happen is for a virus or bacteria to provoke behavior like that of these monsters while in a state of unconsciousness as if the bodies no longer have souls.

In humans, no infection or brain damage could cause this behavior, according to neurologist Bradley Voytek, of the University of California, who has studied which areas of the brain would be active or inactive in a zombie. One of them is the cerebellum, which makes us coordinate our movements and which does not work very well in zombies (that is why they cannot open doors, as in the Resident Evil video game).

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The neurologist also found that in a zombie the frontal lobes would not function well and that its condition would be similar to that of patients with the rare disease called Wernicke’s aphasia, which damages many connections between the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain.

So zombies do not exist. But some of their characteristics are real, such as infections, brain lesions, or even those states of unconsciousness practiced in the voodoo religion that leave people in lethargy that would seem “zombified.”

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Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera

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