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Are Zombies Amenable to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? How About Vampires?

October 15th, 2012 by David Kronemyer · 10 Comments

Zombies are philosophically interesting (Kirk, 2011) because they sharply highlight the mind-body problem initially posed by René Descartes (1641/1933) in that they have bodies but no minds to speak of. They also are cause for concern. In September 2012 the Homeland Security Department issued a zombie alert (reported at Caldwell, 2012). This followed warnings of a zombie apocalypse issued in May 2011 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (reported at Greene, 2011), later retracted (Campell, 2012). In 2009 Munzi, Hudea, Imad and Smith hypothesized five different scenarios following zombie invasion, pessimistically concluding the likelihood of humans surviving a sustained zombie attack were low absent frequent, aggressive counter-attacks. Useful tips for surviving a zombie attack are set forth in the 2003 book by Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.

In order to be effective as a therapeutic technology, CBT requires the client not only to have an active mental life but also to be able to introspect, that is, discern essential functions of its activity and operations (Beck, 2011). The first step in assessing whether zombies are amenable to CBT therefore is to identify the scope and limitations of their cognitive capacities. While reports differ in various respects, all agree they have diminished executive control. Thus, for example, they typically can be seen wandering aimlessly about, seemingly without purpose, except when they become behaviorally activated by the sight (or smell) of human flesh. Due to possible contamination it would be difficult to dissect a zombie brain safely. However from a neuroanatomical standpoint, it seems likely the zombie lacks a prefrontal cortex. It does, however, most likely retain a hypothalamus, which controls expression of aggression and impulsivity. The hypothalamus closely links with the amygdala, part of the limbic system. And it also seems likely zombies have remnants of a sympathetic nervous system, responsible (among other things) for the so-called “fight or flight response.” Minimal as they are, the zombie’s cognitive resources are sufficiently complex to enable them to maneuver in space. A recent study (Reid, Latty, Dussutour & Beekman, 2012) concluded slime mold is capable of using cues derived from its external environment as a kind of spatial memory. Surely if slime mold (hardly an example of functional sentience) can do so, zombies can too, no matter how impaired their cognitive assets.

Neurochemically it seems likely zombies have a low level of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In a 2012 paper Passamonti and Crockett et al. established this positively correlated with increased aggression. Another paper presented at the Society of Nuclear Medicine’s 2012 annual meeting established a similar relationship for the neurotransmitter dopamine. In their 2012 paper “Genetics of Aggression” Anholt and Mackay summarized research showing that high levels of norepinephrine and GABA also influence aggression. At the least, then, zombies would require sufficient neurological structure in order to manufacture and distribute these neurotransmitters.

Since zombies lack insight or the capability to develop insight any form of cognitive therapy is unlikely to be successful. It does not preclude, however, a purely behavioral alternative. Ivan Pavlov (1927/1960) was responsible for the first experiments involving what has come to be known as “classical conditioning.” He observed that, when presented with meat, a dog’s natural inclination is to salivate. The meat is the “unconditioned stimulus” and salivation the “unconditioned response.” The ingenuity of his experiment was that he then paired presentation of the meat with a neutral stimulus such as ringing a bell. After several trials the dog associated the ringing of the bell with the presence of meat and it no longer even was necessary to present the meat in order to get the dog to salivate. The bell became a “conditioned stimulus” and salivation was transformed into a “conditioned response.” Based on similar behavioral observations it seems likely zombies would be amenable to classical conditioning. Once successfully conditioned to respond to a paired conditioned stimulus such as ringing a bell, the zombie might be distracted from pursuing humans for a sufficiently lengthy period of time to enable them to escape. Psychologically, zombies are much like Pavlov’s dogs. It is ironic they crave more human brains but have no use for them once consumed.

The situation is somewhat different for vampires. Although vampires feed on humans, research clearly establishes they are able to control their blood intake without necessarily killing their prey. Building on their earlier research, in 1992, Hartl, Mehlmann and Novak modeled the “dynamic intertemporal confrontation” between vampires and humans, concluding that optimal vampire feeding behavior required a “cyclical blood-sucking strategy.” Sejdinovic (2008) observed that absent such a resource management strategy, the supply of humans quickly would be depleted, leading to vampire extinction. Vampires do not share the neurological deficits of zombies. It is highly likely they would be candidates not only for CBT but also psychodynamic psychotherapy.*

*For speculation on the dynamics of zombie versus vampire confrontation, see Scientist (2009).


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