Can Zombies Be Spiritual?

Today I ran across a book at Barnes & Noble that caused me to connect a few dots and pose a question to myself which I'd like to share with my readers. Please follow along as I draw the dots and put them together.

As I looked at the various tables of books in the front of the store for new material one caught my eye. It was titled The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience (Dutton-Penguin Group, 2010) by Dr. Kevin Nelson. Nelson is Professor in the Department of Neurology, University of Kentucky Assignments. Since the intersection of neuroscience and religion are of interest to me the book was intriguing. To understand what Dr. Nelson argues in the book, consider its synopsis:

The world's leading neurologist on out-of-body and near-death experiences shows that spirituality is as much a part of our basic biological makeup as our sex drive or survival instinct.

If Buddha had been in an MRI machine and not under the Bodhi tree when he attained enlightenment, what would we have seen on the monitor?

Dr. Kevin Nelson offers an answer to that question that is beyond what any scientist has previously encountered on the borderlands of consciousness. In his cutting-edge research, Nelson has discovered that spiritual experiences take place in one of the most primitive areas of the brain. In this eloquent, inspired, and reverent book, he relates the moving stories of patients and research subjects, brain scan analysis, evolutionary biology, and beautiful examples of transcendence from literature to reveal the machinery in our heads that enables us to perceive miracles-whether you are an atheist, Buddhist, or the most devout Catholic. The patients and people Nelson discuss have had an extremely diverse set of spiritual experiences, from arguing with the devil sitting at the foot of their hospital bed to seeing the universe synchronize around the bouncing of the ball in a pinball machine. However, the bizarre experiences don't make the people seem like freaks; they seem strangely very much like us, in surprising ways. Ultimately Nelson makes clear that spiritual experiences are not the exception in human life, but rather an inescapable and precious part of every one of us.

Rather than engaging in materialist reductionism that sees all spiritual experiences as limited to internal brain experiences with no possible connection to transcendence, Dr. Nelson allows for the possibility that spiritual experiences connected to the hard-wiring of our brain are real and significant. This is the first dot in my thinking.

Next, recall that a basic part of zombie narratives is the idea that something, whether radiation, a contagion, or some unknown element, somehow reanimates the dead by activating the most basic parts of the brain, bringing the dead back to a state of "undeadness." In this reanimated formĀ  the zombie acts through sheer instinct due to the more primitive functions of the brain being activated rather than those parts which produce higher brain functions. So the various expressions of the zombie narrative rely upon basic brain reactivation as an essential element of the zombie icon. This is the second dot.

Third, I've written previously on the connection between neuroscience and theology, and have connected this to aspects of popular culture, specifically zombie theology. Of course, I'm not the first or only one to connect zombies and theology or other religious considerations, but the two have come together previously. This is the next dot.

Bringing these together as we connect the dots, I wonder that if in the zombie narrative something activates parts of the brain, and if, as Dr. Nelson argues, "spiritual experiences take place in one of the most primitive areas of the brain," and "spirituality is as much a part of our basic biological makeup as our sex drive or survival instinct," then would it be possible for zombies to be spiritual? We have seen a development in zombie mythology that includes a crude social order as in Land of the Dead and I Am Legend, (although in the latter they are not technically zombies as defined in Romero's universe), as well as romance in Fido and Zombie Honeymoon (and the forthcoming Warm Bodies). Will we ever see filmmakers build on this and explore zombie spirituality? It's probably a long shot. But until such time, the Hare Krishna zombie in Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) may be as close as we get.

Related posts:

"Matt Cardin: Spirituality in Romero's Living Dead Films"

"Sleep Paralysis, Neurotheology, and Spirits"

Comment Pages

There are 6 Comments to "Can Zombies Be Spiritual?"

  • CRwM says:

    Just add another, perhaps unconnected, dot to the picture: What shape would zombie spirituality take given that the question of an afterlife is central to pure strain human spirituality and zombies, presumably, know what happens after death?

  • That is an interesting question. It would have to incorporate some kind of embodied aspect rather than a spiritual or immaterial afterlife. Beyond that, we'll have to speculate.

  • Lee says:

    Given that this line of thought is entirely speculative, we have no basis for anything but conjecture.

  • CRwM says:

    Of course this has to speculative - as we can assume zombies, in the post-Romero re-animated dead sense of the term, are fake - but I think we can dig into exactly what Dr. Nelson means and, given the ground rules we generally understand to be zombie convention, see what shakes out.

    One of the problems is how general the summary copy is above. Digging into the book and other articles by Dr. Nelson, we can see what "primal" components he's talking about.

    At least one variety of religious experience (like James, whom Nelson quotes extensively, Nelson believes that there is a whole cluster of distinct religious experience, each with its own neurological mechanisms), the "root and center" feelig of being absorbed into a greater, cosmic oneness, requires a fully functioning limbic system that can flood out a wave of serotonin-2a. Nelson says this flood phenomenon occurs when we have a root and center religious experience, but this system is also, primarily the mechanism of our fear response. Since zombies don't seem to exhibit fear - which makes sense given that they don't have a self-preservation impulse, which further makes sense given they cannot reproduce and therefore lack any reason to care how they're treated - it seems like we can assume they have impaired limbic responses.

  • admin says:

    Curt, you are correct about Nelson's connection between these primal experiences and limbic system. While this would cause problems for spiritual experiences in the Romero tradition of zombies, some of the evolution in the zombie in certain comedies, and even in Romero's Land of the Dead, indicates a development that may include an active limbic system. Perhaps a future filmmaker will pick up on this zombie evolution to move beyond language, romance, and the development of social order to include spiritual exploration. At any rate, the question surrounding zombies, neuroscience, and spirituality by way of zombies as an object of self-reflection raises challenges for believers and skeptics alike.

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