Zombies ate my brains, and I remembered every second of it!

Let’s go back: everyone and their mothers were dancing to the MacArena, the Fugees dropped their rendition of “Killing me softly”, but, most importantly, Resident Evil for the Sony Playstation hit the shelves.

I was only 8 at the time, but I managed to get my hands on a copy of this game intended for 17+ “adults”. After returning from Toys ‘R Us, I vividly remember running downstairs, ripping off the plastic, and futzing around with those plastic stickers that line the CD case for about 10 mins.

For no good reason (or maybe for a great reason), my adrenaline pumped and my heart was pounded as I popped the zombie labeled CD into my PS.

With the lights off and the game on, I felt an eerie, unsettling feeling come over me. As I cautiously navigated through the abandoned Victorian mansion, I stumbled upon my first zombie (Here’s the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fe6srxp1-9I).

The sound of ripping flesh combined with slow-motion turn of the Zombie dripping with blood made me jump and bolt upstairs; a flight, not fight, response. Although happy that my sympathetic nervous system was working properly, I reluctantly went back down to study and defeat these uncanny monsters.

Why did I give you a long and winding (possibly boring) introduction to my post?

Because my professor sent around a study on survival processing memory advantages that utilized a zombie infestation scenario!

Though inaptly, or aptly titled, this study performed by Soderstrom and McCabe (2011) highlights and touches upon an interesting effect of evolution, or maybe not, on memory processes.

Central to this experiment, many investigators are trying to connect the theory of evolution to the development of our highly complex memory system.  Recent studies have shed light on an ancestral environment hypothesis (Weinstein et al., 2008), where ancestral survival processes (i.e.,  finding food and avoiding predators), and not modern survival processes (i.e., avoiding attackers in a city), enhances memory (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2010). However, Soderstrom and McCabe (2011) found evidence that says otherwise…

In their study, Soderstrom and McCabe had participants rate words based on their relevance to one of five scenarios. At the end of the experiment, participants were then asked to recall all of the words they had previously rated. The number of correctly recalled words were used as a measure of memory performance.

For each scenario, participants were asked to imagine themselves stranded in either a grassland or city, without any survival materials. Participants were also told that they would have to protect themselves against zombies or predators. For each survival situation, participants were asked to rate how relevant each word would be to that given scenario. The fifth scenario was the control condition, where participants were asked to make pleasantness judgments about each word.

The experimenters reported that subjects were reliably recalling more words when the survival scenario involved zombies, but not predators, and for both environments. Such a finding contrasts the ancestral environment hypothesis, but why? (Also, is this a great way to tap into survival memory-related processes, probably not. But it’s still a damn cool study!)

Why should zombies, a fictitious monster, enhance memory? Why is it that the context of a zombie attack elicits more fear than something that is more plausible, like getting mauled by a pack of lions or bears? For a quick explanation of these findings, I point my finger to movies, video games, and pop-culture obsessions, and the fact that most people these days do NOT encounter predators on a frequent basis (but when do we ever encounter zombies?).

There’s a myriad of possible explanations for these findings and feelings about zombie attacks. One idea that comes to mind is that zombies are an uncanny counterpoint to our living human selves. That they too, possess a need to feed and a need to survive, as well as the capability to adapt and manipulate their surroundings. Another is that the idea of a zombie apocalypse is not too far from being impossible. Consider this thought experiment, as new medicines and drugs constantly being manufactured and tested everyday, could it be possible that one mutates our genetic makeup that results in the the living dead? Or what about the mutation of different diseases that also results in a similar fate. In Zombieland, the rise of zombies was attributed to a mutated strain of mad cow’s disease (spongiform encephalitis). Does this situation hit too close to home?

To the readers, I encourage you to post your theories on why zombies and a zombie infestation is so damn frightening.

On a side note, there have been a bunch of 5k runs inspired by our brain-loving friends. Check it out at http://runforyourlives.com/. If you’re in the Nashville area, check this one out at http://zombiebuffet5k.com/.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!


Nairne, J.S., & Pandeirada, J.N.S. (2010). Adaptive memory: Ancestral priorities and the mnemonic value of survival processing. Cognitive Psychology, 61, 1-22.

Soderstom, N.C, & McCabe, D.P. (2011). Are survival processing memory advantages based on ancestral priorities? Psychon. Bull. Rev., 18, 564-569.

Weinstein, Y., Bugg, J.M., & Roediger, H.L., III. (2008). Can the survival recall advantage be explained by basic memory processes? Memory & Cognition, 36, 913-919.



  1. Anna · October 10, 2011

    I love that you have a reference section for your blog post. Every blog should have them. 🙂 I find zombies frightening because they basically steal your soul and turn your loved ones against you. Also, because humans are at the top of the food chain, so to speak, the only things that really scare us are diseases, and becoming a zombie is like the worst kind of disease. Not only do you lose your “self” (and you become gross looking) you become an active threat to everyone else around you. I think the slow but persistent thing is also chilling.

  2. Peter J Stein · October 16, 2011

    Whatever cognitive processes helped to enhance the survival of our ancestors presumably involved trial and error behaviors over many thousands of years. Contemporary portrayals of zombies or “undead” evolved in cinema over only a few decades. If my memory is sharper for words related to zombies, and if ideas of zombies are more frightening than ideas of other, more traditional predators, perhaps it can be further explained as to how these contemporary experiences relate to different survival capacities, adaptations, or rates, compared to the survival patterns of our ancestors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s