Feeds

What are zombie behaviours?

Unleashing internal demons

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Also in this week's column:

What are zombie behaviours?

Asked by Arthur Wasnegel of New York City

Zombie behaviours? Sounds like the action from B-grade horror movie. Or perhaps what The Stepford Wives get up to. In fact, zombie behaviours refer to routine things we do every day and night without even thinking. It is our unconsciousness acting out.

Most brain activity is unconscious. For example, the regulation of body temperature is one of the jobs of the brain. Yet such an activity is hardly done consciously. Zombie agents cause us to automatically and rapidly perform our zombie behaviors - actions without our conscious mind being aware of the stimulus and physical response.

We do this driving, dancing, and performing many routine actions where we seem to put our conscious mind on hold. Zombie behaviours and the zombie agents that cause them are significant, important to understand, and worthy of scientific study.

According to Christof Koch, a neurobiologist at CalTech in Pasadena, "Zombie agents control your eyes, hands, feet, and posture, and rapidly transduce sensory input into stereotypical motor output. They might even trigger aggressive or sexual behaviour when getting a whiff of the right stuff. All, however, bypass consciousness. This is the zombie in you."

According to Koch, an extreme example of zombie behaviour is sleepwalking. Sleepwalkers can carry out highly complex actions without remembering what they have done. In addition, a sleepwalker can drive a car (as sleepwalkers can and sometimes do).

A zombie behaviour thus occurs within a zombie behaviour - all the more fascinating to Koch. Also, laboratory experiments demonstrate that normal people will respond to scary pictures of snakes and spiders even though they are not consciously aware of them. The zombie behaviour is acting autonomously.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, it has been found that zombie behaviours occur at speeds that far outpace the speeds of conscious reactions to calculate and activate. Being slower, consciousness would therefore seem to be a maladaptive behaviour.

Assuming that any maladaptive behavior would be selected out due to natural selection and thus disappear from the species, an intriguing question emerges in terms of human evolution. Why did consciousness ever evolve at all if the zombie behaviours incorporated into our unconsciousness work so fast and so well?

One possible answer to this comes from Koch along with Francis Crick (the same Francis Crick of DNA double helix discovery fame).

In a 2001 article in NATURE entitled "The Zombie Within", Koch and Crick first speculated that: "It may be because consciousness allows the system to plan future actions, opening up a potentially infinite behavioural repertoire and making explicit memory possible."

Thus, consciousness would appear to be more varied, useful, and adaptable. Koch continues research in this area. In 2004, Koch wrote The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (Roberts & Company) with a foreword by Crick.

There are many questions surrounding Zombie behaviours and what causes them. Could the zombie in us, primitive though it is, be the source of those rare flashes of insight that appear out of nowhere and from which solutions to problems appear fully formed when we next become conscious? Is this why we solve a problem by "sleeping on it overnight"?

An even more fundamental question (more speculative and fun too) is this: Is our conscious state merely a preparation for our unconscious state? Sleep would be the "normal" human state and being awake would be the preparation for sleep.

Rather changes how we think of about being a human doesn’t it? Maybe the zombie human within us is the more real human? What do you think?

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

Mobile application security vulnerability report

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
All those new '5G standards'? Here's the science they rely on
Radio professor tells us how wireless will get faster in the real world
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Microsoft's anti-bug breakthrough: Wire devs to BRAIN SCANNERS
Clippy: It looks your hands are shaking, are you sure you want to commit this code?
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.