Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Zombies - Fast Vs. Slow

Good day Zombiology Students and thanks for stopping by the ZomBlog.

The release of the Zombie epic ‘World War Z’ has reignited the debate on whether the undead would move with the shambling strength of a Glaswegian on a Friday night, or strafe the apocalyptic landscape like a decomposing Usain Bolt.

It's still preferable to a budget airline
In today’s ZomBlog I’m not going to explore the issue from the ‘what makes a good film’ perspective, but rather examine what science can contribute to the debate.

Let’s begin by exploring how a disease, like Zombieism, could create the staggering, slow moving monster we encounter in so many undead incarnations.

There are two main areas of the human brain that control movement and coordination. These are the cerebellum and basal ganglia.

The cerebellum essentially tunes and refines our movements. Imagine you are learning to balance on a board placed on a ball. You'll likely tip forward or backward, and have to lean to adjust your body to correct your balance. As you perform and repeat this action your cerebellum is learning, and with enough practice you will be able to get your balance quickly.

This elephant's cerebellum has mad skillz
If this area is affected by a disorder you will have a wider stance as you attempt to balance. When you try to walk you could easily fall and when trying to perform an action, such as touching your nose with your finger, you will often miss.
The basal ganglia are responsible for selecting a particular movement, or a series of movements. When you decide to give someone a 'high five' the basal ganglia prevent you from wiggling your leg at the same time you raise your hand.
If the basal ganglia are damaged you may become slow to begin making movement. For example if I throw a ball to you, it will have bounced off your face before you even begin raising your hand and once the movement has started you will be slow in carrying it out.

You know when you've be basal ganglia-ed
Therefore we can conclude that if the Zombieism disease is damaging or impairing the aforementioned areas of the the brain it will produce in humans an unsteady and slow Zombie-like walk.  

How then could a disease evoke the opposite effect, giving us unrelenting, fast moving Zombies?

When we face a dangerous situation, inside our brain, the hypothalamus activates, sending a chemical signal to the adrenal glands which are next to your kidneys. These glands produce adrenalin, which is to the human body what spinach is to Popeye. Fuelled by adrenalin our blood flows more easily to our muscles, bringing more oxygen with it, ultimately letting them work at heightened levels. This gives us the ability to perform actions, like running fast, slightly better than we normally would. Rather than gaining a new ability, it simply expands on what we already have. But these fits of speed are short lived as within a few minutes the body begins to return to a more normal state.

But what if we continued in this state, would that give us the unrelenting abilities of the fast Zombie? Not for long, as we’d enter a state of exhaustion, damaging our immune systems and increasing our chance of having a heart attack. Simply put, the body would run out of steam.

So in reality would a disease that causes Zombieism be more likely to give us a fast or slow Zombie? The answer, for now, has to be - slow.

My personal thoughts on the debate summed up by a meme
Disease itself means, ‘a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body’. A disease makes us worse than we are normally, it doesn’t improve us. I for one am particularly bad at running so it is unlikely that contracting a massively debilitating disease like Zombieism would suddenly give me Olympic level speed. Although if Usain Bolt contracted Zombieism I would be a little bit worried.

First I break a world record - then I eat your face
Of course, we’re dealing with Zombies from the perspective of science. In the fictional worlds of Zombie films, TV shows, games and books it may well be something ‘supernatural’  that gives them these amazing abilities. Couple that with the wonderful ways diseases are changing in our world and perhaps one day science will give us those terrifying fast moving ghouls.

If you have a question about the undead please get in touch with me in the comments section below, and don’t forget to visit our Book of Faces ( I’m ready, waiting, and willing to answer your questions right here on the ZomBlog.

Take care out there,

Doctor Austin

Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.

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