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Zombies and the Fringes of Consciousness

 

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This past week, I enjoyed watching some of scary zombie movies on Hulu and Netflix; it’s a custom I have kept since I was a boy of seven or eight years old.

Halloween was always a fun time for me as a child. Watching scary movies still remains a ritual every time of this year.

Horror films often give us a rare opportunity to examine our deepest questions about the nature of our existence, of life and death, and life beyond death. To some degree, they force us to examine our deepest fears about the postmortem existence of our souls. When we die, is there any part of our soul that remains present in the body itself?

Horror writer Stephen King’s Pet Semetery, reminds me of a Kabbalistic teaching about the different manifestations of the soul. The highest level of the soul is identified as neshamah—the soul breath of God that gives us the capacity to wonder about our nature and inspires us to act humanely toward one another. The second level is ruach—the spirit realm that inspires within us a capacity to feel emotion and compassion toward all living beings.  And then there is nefesh—the lowest manifestation of life that we share with the vegetative kingdom. On this level, we exist only to physically survive and nothing more.

Stephen King’s movies illustrate what happens when human beings forget what it is that makes all of us “human.” According to this definition, a zombie is a being whose residual soul is bereft of all its humanity. It lives to consume; it consumes only to live.

By all accounts, it seems that the  life of a zombie is pretty simple and uncomplicated. So some of us might wonder: Are zombies merely mythical creatures? Do they or do they not exist? Could a zombie apocalypse really occur?

Inquiring minds really want to know…

While rabbis across the world may wonder, “Who Is a Jew?”—on this night of Halloween, I am going to pose the question: “Who Is a Zombie?” Are zombies “human,” or are they something “Other” than human? The question has profound implications not just in the sphere of science-fiction, philosophy, religion—but also in the area of medical ethics.

The 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes viewed animals as machine-like creatures, bereft of a soul. Every aspect of the animal could be explained in terms of its physical “mechanical” movements. Descartes even entertained the idea of a mechanical person what we could call today, a robotic being. How would one differentiate such a creature from the “real deal”? For one thing, the machine would never be able to spontaneously formulate sentences; its non-verbal behavior would also be limited. (Bear in mind that the rabbis arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the artificial being known as the “golem,” for it too was incapable of human speech.)

“So what is it that defines our humanity?” asks Descartes—it is the presence of the immaterial mind, the soul, which interacts between the brain and the other organs of the body.

But this raises an important question regarding the nature of “personhood,” (to use the more modern terminology). At what point does a human being, cease being “human”? If we apply Cartesian philosophy to our question, it might very well be when our brain ceases to function adequately.

Could this apply to zombies as well? (Not that they care very much about our deep philosophical deliberations!)

Of course, this begs the question: Do zombies really exist? Or, are they merely mythical creatures created out from Hollywood?

In general, many mythic stories of primitive peoples have some sort of basis in fact. This principle would apply to zombies as well.

Ever since I watched that great movie, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” I have been fascinated with this question. Harvard botanist, E. Wade Davis and Dr. Lamarque Douyon, Canadian-trained head of the Psychiatric Center in Port-au-Prince, have been trying to establish the basis for zombies, and according to them—they do exist![2] By the way, the book is much better than the film!

Haiti is a remarkable country; much of the contemporary folklore concerning zombies originates in Haiti—but there are legends about zombies that really go back to ancient history. Davis narrates the following story:

On a brilliant day in the spring of 1980, a stranger arrived at L’Estère marketplace in Haiti’s fertile Artibonite Valley. The man’s gait was heavy, his eyes vacant. The peasants watched fearfully as he approached a local woman named Angelina Narcisse. She listened as he introduced himself, then screamed in horror—and recognition. The man had given the boyhood nickname of her deceased brother Clairvius Narcisse, a name that was known only to family members and had not been used since his funeral in 1962. This incident was witnessed by more than 200 people!!

Well, it looks like the zombie can speak—and respond to human questions!!

You might wonder, “What could possibly turn a person into a zombie?” I have other questions as well, like—where did this man eat for the past 18 years, McDonald’s take out? What kind of music groups do zombies listen to? The Grateful Dead? (Sorry for the pun!)

Well, in both the movie and in real life, there is a coma-inducing toxin that comes from the voodoo priest (known as “bocors”), which slows the human metabolism. The sources for this toxin “textrodotoxin,” come from: New World Toad (Bufo marinus), and the Japanese “Puffer Fish,” which is considered to be a delicacy in Japan—after the toxin has been removed. The chemicals of these ingredients can affect both the heart and the nervous system. In Japan, thousands of miles from Haiti, those people who have accidentally consumed the puffer fish toxin behave—well, a lot like zombies—Japanese zombies, I might add.

Godzilla, move over!!

Experiments on rats have proven that the drug can induce a trancelike state as well. So, what does this all mean?

For one thing, zombies do not have an appetite for eating human brains. But there is some scientific evidence that certain drugs can induce the famous zombie-like state. So, would a person be guilty if he killed a zombie, according to Jewish law? Based upon the evidence these two scientists have shown, a “zombie” still remains within the category of a human being. Kabbalists believe there is a residue of the soul that lingers in the body after death. Could this explanation apply to zombies?

BEYOND THE QUESTION ABOUT ZOMBIES . . .

 

However, there is one lingering question regarding the nature of a “person” that is still a difficult to ascertain. Would a person still be considered “human,” even if s/he is in a chronic vegetative state? The case of Terry Schiavo is an excellent example of someone whom the State declared as “clinically dead,” while the family who loved her claimed that she was still “alive,” and even allegedly, “responsive.”

About six months after her life-support was turned off, and while she was also starved by order of the court, Discover Magazine produced a fascinating article that made special mention about people like Terry Schiavo, who suffer from the chronic vegetative condition.

 

Here is one part of the Discover Magazine article that I thought was especially interesting.

 

  • In the 1970s, when intensive care dramatically improved the survival of brain-injured patients, doctors found that if the body can be kept alive, the brain usually shakes off a coma—a totally unresponsive, eyes-closed state—within two to four weeks. At that point some people simply wake up, although they may be delirious and impaired. Others graduate to an in-between zone that New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center neurologist Fred Plum labeled the “persistent vegetative state” in 1972. At the time, among these patients, it seemed as if only “vegetative” brain functions like breathing, waking, and blinking were working. The higher functions commonly associated with consciousness seemed to be lost.

 

  • The first vegetative patient Schiff saw, the victim of a stroke, had no sign of consciousness. But when he ran into her three years later at a rehab center, he was shocked to find her awake and capable of talking to him.

 

  • The patients, doctors found, usually had widespread brain damage, but two injured areas were especially noteworthy: the thin outer rind, called the cortex, and the thalamus, a pair of walnut-size lumps in the brain’s central core, along with the neural fibers that connect these regions. The two areas are normally in constant cross talk, filtering and analyzing sensory data and making continual adjustments to attention and alertness. Lacking this chatter, someone in a vegetative state seems to be awake but not aware. They might moan and shift around, but they do not look toward a loud hand clap or pull away from a pinch. Given a feeding tube and basic medical care, someone might stay in this condition from days to decades, potentially until death. [3]

 

Well, as science progresses, it is only a matter of time before it can finally resolve this ethical question regarding the chronic vegetative state. Questions regarding the quality of life–even if such person should be revived from the chronic vegetative state–needs to be ethically weighed and considered by the family. If the patient has no quality of life, it is possible that reviving such a person may only cause indefinite suffering. Would this be something desirable? There is a season for everything under the heavens . . . sometimes we need to let go of the people we love. The dignity of the patient is something we must also take into consideration.

Obviously, the border separating consciousness from death is a question worthy of a Solomon to answer. In one of the symposiums I organized and participated in, I argued that ultimately—we may know a lot about the human body, but we still know very little about the nature of consciousness–where it begins and where it truly ends.

Lastly, here’s a piece of trivia that will probably surprise you: Oddly, even some of the Italian rabbis of the 17th century saw nothing wrong with kids having a little bit of Halloween fun–but that is a topic for another time.

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Notes:

[1] R. Descartes, Discourse in Method, c. 5.

 

[2] Time Magazine, “Zombies: Do They Exist?” Oct 17, 1983,
www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,952208,00.html – Similarto Medicine: Zombies: Do They Exist? – TIME – Time Magazine

 

[3] Discover Magazine, Kat McGowan, “Rediscovering Consciousness in People Diagnosed as ‘Vegetative,’” March 2011; http://discovermagazine.com/2011/mar/09-turning-vegetables-back-into-humans/article_view?searchterm=Terri%20Schiavo&b_start:int=3

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 September 2013