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Zombie fad seen as entry point to serious bioethics discussions

Oct. 31, 2012
Courtesy of Carol Clark/Emory University
and World Science staff

Neu­ro­sci­ent­ist Ka­ren Rom­melfanger’s hus­band got her hooked on a TV se­ries about zom­bies, “The Walk­ing Dead.” She had re­sisted, but fi­nally suc­cumbed dur­ing an ep­i­sode on zom­bie neuro­bi­ol­o­gy set at the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

“He called out to me, ‘Y­ou’ve got to see this,’” said Rom­mel­fanger, who di­rects the Neu­roeth­ics Pro­gram at Em­o­ry Uni­vers­ity’s Cen­ter for Eth­ics in Geor­gia. Fic­tion­al sci­ent­ists on­screen were gath­ered around a glo­ri­fied brain scan­ner, dis­cussing the “y­ou” part of a brain, where thoughts re­side, and wheth­er that part was gone.

Har­vard psy­chi­a­trist Steve Schloz­man will be among the pan­elists at the Em­o­ry con­fer­ence. In this whim­sical vid­e­o, he de­scribes what a zom­bie brain au­top­sy might look in terms of mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge.


“This is ex­actly the kinds of ques­tions we talk about in neu­roethics,” Rom­mel­fanger said. “Is the brain the seat of per­son­hood? What does ‘brain dead’ really mean?”

It was­n’t long be­fore the Cen­ter for Eth­ics coined the term “zom­beth­ics” and cre­at­ed a pub­lic fo­rum to dis­cuss the is­sue. That zom­bies don’t ex­ist is be­sides the point. “Walk­ing with the Dead: An Eth­ics Sym­po­si­um for the Liv­ing” is the brain­child of Rom­mel­fanger and Cory La­brecque, a schol­ar of bioeth­ics and re­li­gious thought at the cen­ter.

The TV se­ries on AMC, filmed in and around the uni­vers­ity’s home town of At­lan­ta, has turned zom­bies in­to vis­cer­al sym­bols of all sorts of modern-day fears. “The show is full of eth­ics ques­tions dressed up in zom­bie suits,” said La­brecque, who wrote his dis­serta­t­ion on rad­i­cal life ex­ten­sion and teaches cours­es on per­son­hood the­o­ry and re­li­gion and med­i­cine.

Zom­bies tou­ch on fears be­yond death, such as slowly dis­ap­pear­ing to Alzheimer’s, or wast­ing away in a co­ma. “We are not equat­ing real-life pa­tients with zom­bies, we’re us­ing zom­bies as an en­try point to start a con­versa­t­ion about really dif­fi­cult sub­jects,” La­brecque said.

The con­fer­ence pan­elists in­clude psy­chi­a­trists, phi­loso­phers, re­li­gious schol­ars, physi­cians, Cen­ters for Di­sease Con­trol of­fi­cials, his­to­ri­ans, ethi­cists and neu­ro­sci­ent­ists. They will grap­ple with ques­tions like: When is a hu­man be­ing no long­er a per­son? What is free will? What does end-of-life care look like for those for whom bi­o­log­i­cal death is not the end? How should health­care re­sources be al­lo­cat­ed when pan­demics hit? 

And, fi­nally, what’s be­hind the pub­lic ob­ses­sion with a gory se­ries on zom­bies? “Some schol­ars have sug­gested that it’s mas­sive group ther­a­py,” Rom­mel­fanger said. “Zom­bies are a way to ex­pe­ri­ence fears of death, de­genera­t­ion and oth­er scary things in ways that you can man­age.”


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Neuroscientist Karen Rommelfanger’s husband got her hooked on a TV series about zombies, “The Walking Dead.” She had resisted, but finally succumbed during an episode on zombie neurobiology set at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “He called out to me, ‘You’ve got to see this,’” said Rommelfanger, who directs the Neuroethics Program at Emory University’s Center for Ethics in Georgia. Fictional scientists onscreen were gathered around a glorified brain scanner, discussing the “you” part of a brain, where thoughts reside, and whether that part was gone. “This is exactly the kinds of questions we talk about in neuroethics,” Rommelfanger said. “Is the brain the seat of personhood? What does ‘brain dead’ really mean?” It wasn’t long before the Center for Ethics coined the term “zombethics” and created a public forum to discuss the issue. That zombies don’t exist is besides the point. “Walking with the Dead: An Ethics Symposium for the Living” is the brainchild of Rommelfanger and Cory Labrecque, a scholar of bioethics and religious thought at the center. (All the reserved seats for the Oct. 31 event are filled, though people can still participate in a campus “Zombie Walk.”) The TV series on AMC, filmed in and around the university’s home town of Atlanta, has turned zombies into visceral symbols of all sorts of modern-day fears. “The show is full of ethics questions dressed up in zombie suits,” said Labrecque, who wrote his dissertation on radical life extension and teaches courses on personhood theory and religion and medicine. Zombies touch on fears beyond death, such as slowly disappearing to Alzheimer’s, or wasting away in a coma. “We are not equating real-life patients with zombies, we’re using zombies as an entry point to start a conversation about really difficult subjects,” Labrecque said. The conference panelists include psychiatrists, philosophers, religious scholars, physicians, CDC officials, historians, ethicists and neuroscientists. They will grapple with questions like: When is a human being no longer a person? What is free will? What does end-of-life care look like for those for whom biological death is not the end? How should healthcare resources be allocated when pandemics hit? And, finally, what’s behind the public obsession with a gory series on zombies? “Some scholars have suggested that it’s massive group therapy,” Rommelfanger said. “Zombies are a way to experience fears of death, degeneration and other scary things in ways that you can manage.”