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Life After Death— the Science Behind Zombie Brains

Updated on December 23, 2016

Can the Dead Think?

Can a dead brain think and react to external stimuli? Until now, this possibility had been the realm of science fiction and horror movies. However, a recent peer-reviewed study has shown that brains which had been preserved in formaldehyde and alcohol for as long as twenty years after they had been removed from their body, still reacted to external stimuli in much the same way a living brain would. What’s more, these pickled brains showed cerebral activity nearly identical to that of living brains in the area of the brain most associated with personality, a sense of self, and core memories, which suggests the perseverance of some residue of the person deep inside a disembodied brain.

Science vs. Popular Culture

The idea that a severed brain floating in a specimen jar could still think and act has been a mainstay of Futurama, which features President Nixon and other celebrities leading a sort of afterlife in large mobile glass jars. It has also been the foundation of the current zombie craze in movies, television, and books, all of which are based on the idea that the unusually hungry undead are animated by a brain which has someone maintained at least a little activity following the demise of its owner.

In the entertainment universe, there is no consensus on how a dead brain could still make its corpse body lumber about in search of human prey. Some movies such as Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, left the question completely unanswered, though the fact that those who had been bitten by a zombie came back to life as flesh-eating zombies suggested some sort of infectious agent. In the Walking Dead, the zombies are said to be animated as a result of some sort of infection, but the process or nature of the pathogen is never clearly explained.

The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks, was the first book to take a “serious” look at how zombie brains might continue to operate, despite the death of the body. According to ZSG, zombie brains had been infected by a virus which preserved the brain and slowed decay, and as a result made away with the need for food, for oxygen, and all of the other things that living brains need.

The theory put forth in ZSG seems preposterous and not possible in real life. After all, the brain – like all of our other organs – needs oxygen and nutrients to survive or it begins to break down and decompose. But what if decomposition could be stopped or slowed down, such as when a brain is placed in a preserving solution?

The Research

Until now, the prevailing wisdom is that even though the visible structures of the dead brain might be preserved by immersing it in alcohol or formaldehyde, the underlying environment was so different from the conditions of life that no brain function could be possible. Except that no one had bothered to test that assumption, at least until now.

Starting from the observation that the structure of organs dictates their functions, a team of neurosurgeons set out to ask: if the structure of the brain remains intact, will its function survive?

The researchers took a number of brains and parts of brains which had been preserved in embalming fluid, for as long as twenty years, and subjected them to a number of stimuli ranging from electromagnetic, chemical and light. They then measured the brain’s reaction using essentially the same equipment that would be used to measure brain activity in a living brain.

The Results

The results were both shocking and disturbing. All of the dead brains that were tested, showed reactions nearly identical to the types of reactions that occurred in living brains when the living brains were exposed to the same kind of stimuli. Despite the fact that the dead brains had been without nutrients, without oxygen, and in some cases had been dissected, they continued to function at least on a basic level. What’s more, the activity elicited by these stimuli took place in areas of the brain that were associated with memory, with selfhood, and with personality.

The results led the researchers to make to understated but striking conclusions:

  1. The precise point beyond which the brain is no longer “living,” a threshold which remains unidentified, is perhaps less definite than has been historically assumed.
  2. [T]he post-mortem brain which displays subtle cortical oscillations, particularly within the theta and gamma bands as demonstrated here, could express some capacity for cognitive activation. (Cognitive = thinking.)

Nixon's Head in a Jar

What Do You Think?

Do you think that dead brains might still be conscious?

See results

What Does This All Mean?

The study’s results are too new to fully map out all of the implications, but they hint at the survival of some sort of consciousness after death, at least until the brain decays to the point where its structures are no longer intact. Usually, the brain begins to irreversibly decay the moment that a person dies, but in cases where the brain has been preserved, as in the case of specimens in a jar or perhaps even in cryogenic sleep, it is possible that the brain – and perhaps its consciousness – persists. This is both fascinating and horrifying. Have we condemned thousands of brain specimens floating in jars in university labs throughout the world to a kind of half death? Could they be self-aware? Do they dream? Are they trapped forever in between life and death? Could this lead to a way to cheat death, like on Futurama, or does it mean that zombies are possible after all?

If some consciousness survives, what does this mean for Einstein’s Brain whose beautiful brain has been preserved for decades in a glass jar? Has he been whiling away the years working on a universal theory of relativity all this time? What would a brain completely devoid of sensory input do? Experiences with people put in isolation chambers suggest that they would start to hallucinate and dream. Perhaps you the reader are floating in a jar, and this article is your own invention, your brain’s way of telling you that all of what you see is just an illusion.

Imagine if we could learn to contact and communicate with the brains of the dead? Perhaps they could unlock secrets for us, even solve their murders by telling us who did it, or allow us to eventually re-animate them completely. Perhaps this will lead to a new service offered by funeral homes: preserving the brains of your loved ones and hooking them up to virtual reality so they can continue to enjoy their afterlife.

Of course, our meddling with the processes of death might just unleash a zombie apocalypse.

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    • quotations profile image
      Author

      Robert P 3 weeks ago from Canada

      I am not sure what you are referring to. The link to the peer reviewed article *that means it was published in a scientific journal* is provided in my hub. Here it is for your ease of reference: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.137.../journal.pone.0167231

    • ptosis profile image

      ptosis 8 weeks ago from Arizona

      I would be more inclined to take this more seriously if only you had given me a reference to this 20 years in formaldehyde such as in a link so that I can read the original research myself. For all I know InfoWars did the 'research'.

      Tried googling it and all I got was that Brain live a little after a 'clean' decapitation. As for the formaldehyde : "formaldehyde exposure undermines brain functions such as memory and learning." - https://news.brown.edu/articles/2016/09/formaldehy...

      " This aldehyde is a well-established neurotoxin that affects memory, learning, and behavior. In addition, in several pathological conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, an increase in the expression of formaldehyde-generating enzymes and elevated levels of formaldehyde in brain have been reported." - http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jnc.123...

      So I suspect the research you based this article on is: false.

    • Whispering Night profile image

      MICKEY MOUSE 2 months ago from our World

      Very interesting article I don't wish my brain to be trapped in a jar.

    • profile image

      Scott Michael Haddox 4 months ago

      You know, im on social security at 32 for ptsd after an assault and i came out of the hosputal believing i was dead. Its sad but thats what crazed is like. Not knowing if life is real or not. I know enough to keep my ethical judgements and good morals for human decency, i mean, i am working on an educational co-op for everybody to share what they know with the comunity. We would no longer require lawyers or doctors, insurance or an out of control governing body. We wouldnt need money, our pets would be healthy and not at risk of intentional malpractice of the veterinarian societies. Space travel for those who dare and not those who feed others crap sandwich's labeled as "tasty" to get rich. I wonder, i bet you, parallel "computing" through an organic medium, such as brains in jars, would be much more efficient than silicon doped resistors. Please dont go fucking trying that though. We are NOT GOD... I wouldnt appreciate being used. I don't appreciate being used

    • profile image

      zen 5 months ago

      stay away from homer alaska they are a gangstalking town. they kill targetted people.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 months ago from Long Island, NY

      This research is interesting Robert. And your analysis is enlightening. It stands to reason that if the brain has been preserved, there is a chance it may continue to function at some primitive level.

      I can believe that because I relate it to flash memory (as in USB memory sticks), which retain memory without the need for power.

      I must say, however, that the relationship to zombies takes away from the scientific discussion you were aiming for.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 months ago from Long Island, NY

      This research is interesting Robert. And your analysis is enlightening. It stands to reason that if the brain has been preserved, there is a chance it may continue to function at some primitive level.

      I can believe that because I relate it to flash memory (as in USB memory sticks), which retain memory without the need for power.

      I must say, however, that the relationship to zombies takes away from the scientific discussion you were aiming for.

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 6 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      I agree with you that these research results are shocking and disturbing, and that we fervently hope these preserved brains are not conscious.

      With your other readers, I tend to think there is more to consciousness than brain activity. Consciousness is very mysterious.

      I've heard that if you take individual muscle fibers from a heart and put them in a petri dish, they will continue to contract as if beating. It seems that our very cells have their instructions about what to do, even when not receiving signals from the rest of the body. Perhaps that's what these preserved brains are doing. I hope that's all they're doing.

      On a related topic, I have sometimes wondered the same thing about frozen embryos. We assume they don't have any consciousness, but do we really know?

      So far, when they are implanted and grow into healthy babies, they don't seem to have been affected by the experience of being frozen, and certainly don't remember it. But I still think it's wrong to "harvest" them for stem cells. It's experimenting on humans ... as would be the case with the scary new brain applications you envision.

      Thanks for this very disturbing article ... one more thing to keep me up at night.

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 6 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      This sounds unbelievable, and unlikely. But then what knowledge do I have in this department? If this was true, brains will be transplanted next, just like a heart.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 8 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Very interesting. I can't say what causes the reactions observed, but I don't think it should be called "mind" or "consciousness." Probably some simple stimulus response or maybe the specimen's were contaminated. Nonetheless, very nicely done.

    • quotations profile image
      Author

      Robert P 9 months ago from Canada

      Thank you so much for your comment! I truly hope that they are not conscious, even on a low level. I think that that would be a terrible fate. I agree that this discovery may open up possibilities for brain transplantation or to reverse death in, for example, cases where the brain has been preserved by freezing.

    • simplehappylife profile image

      sannwi 9 months ago

      Awesome topic ٩◔‿◔۶ I think it's fascinating that preserved brains show activity, long after death. I honestly don't believe these are "conscious" brains. Brains are mechanical while the intangible mind is the vehicle of consciousness.

      It's so fascinating though. Everything has a reason. So what would the purpose be for a well-preserved brain that is still fully functional? My first thought is, brain transplants. What if they could take this science to the next level. Allowing a person who has recently become catatonic have a real chance at life again? I don't know. I don't believe these scientists have discovered this for no reason.

      Great hub (◠‿◠✿) I look forward to reading some of your other many interesting hub topics.