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Left-handedness and Zombies

February 25, 2010

No, there isn’t a higher occurrence of left-handedness amongst zombies; one in every ten zombies is left-handed, just like everyone else.

This is about theories that have been debunked, and the major annoyance that causes people like me who want to base our fiction on some kind of scientific fact.

When I was growing up, everybody knew that left-handed people were right-brained. According to some very brilliant people whose names I don’t remember, the right hemisphere of the brain dominates the left side of the body. Because the right side of the brain is very visual, left-handed people are more creative. I’m left-handed, so I always liked this theory. I had a plan tucked away in the back of my head for a Kilgore Trout-esque sci-fi story about a planet full of awesome, unique, creative left-handed people and a planet of dour, stuffy right-handed people who enjoyed doing math (yeah that does sound kind of silly. Perhaps it’s a blessing that it never got written…).

But it turns out the whole left-handed/right-brained thing is bunk. It’s really just an oversimplification of another theory, which has more to do with what part of the brain processes language than magical creativity and fun. Now, I could still write my story but I would look like a class-A moron (so…like Alec Baldwin portraying Jack Donaghy. So not bad, but still fifty and male, which would be weird, no?).

Another theory that I heard a lot in my teenage years was that zombification was actually caused by tetrodotoxin poisoning and other drugs. Tetrodotoxin (TTX) is the poison of blowfish, and supposedly it paralyzes the body while dissociative drugs cloud the mind, creating a still-living zombie who nonetheless appears to be the walking dead. This just begs to be turned into a horror story, right? Imagine the horror of being the zombie, being completely controlled by a cackling, insane Vodoun priest, and then coming to a few days later caked in blood and mud and not knowing what happened to you. Kinda like Spring break, but more terrifying (or maybe not, depending on what you do for Spring break).

Turns out the zombie thing is bull as well. The TTX poisoning theory was based upon the work of a single Harvard ethnobotanist. He went to Haiti and interviewed a number of people about their religious beliefs and rituals. They all swore up and down that zombies were created using  TTX, that their brother’s friend’s sister’s cousin’s son had been zombified back in aught-six and forced to work on a plantation for years before he came around. They all lied. They took one look at Whitey O’Boston and they lied to him. They figured he would buy a crazy story about drugs and evil priests controlling their zombie minions for years on end, and they were right. So now, no zombies-on-drugs story for me, either.

Accuracy is important, especially when one writes to cater to geeks. Venturing into the sci-fi, horror, or fantasy genres is like opening Pandora’s box. Out fly the vices: Nit-picker, Fact-checker, and of course, the Writer of Angry Letters. They notice things. They notice when Chief O’Brien has too many pips on his uniform collar, and that Ro Laren has her Bajoran earring on the wrong ear, making her a member of the cult of the Pah-wraiths. I’m one of these geeks, so I know how they will pick my writing apart if it’s not well-researched ( in fact I’m checking the spellings of those Star Trek references now, just in case).

For example, a while ago my husband and I started watching Joss Whedon’s outer space Western, Firefly. I had just been reading about Kluver-Bucy syndrome for a story I was writing (research, research, research). When damage occurs to the brain, specifically the temporal lobes and amygdala, it is possible for humans to develop this condition. A person with Kluver-Bucy doesn’t have much in the way of emotional responses. Rhesus monkeys with their temporal lobes surgically removed lost all their fear responses following the surgery.

So, what this has to do with Firefly is: on the show is a cute little damaged girl, River, and in one episode the crew of the ship takes her to a hospital facility to try and help her. Her brother, a doctor, examines her brain and concludes that because of alterations to her amygdala, she has heightened perceptions and emotional responses. He calls it “the opposite of Kluver-Bucy.” He actually refers to the real disorder, and makes up a fake one that is its opposite.

This is idiotic (sorry, Joss Whedon, but research is not your strong point. You know, on the off-chance that Joss Whedon is reading my blog). At very least, they could have made up a cool science fiction name for what was wrong with River. When I feel cold, I do not have “the opposite of a fever.”

My point is, if I make a mistake the geeks will find me out. And I will never, ever, ever hear the end of it. So, better safe than sorry: no left-handed zombies creating colorful mural paintings while under the influence of drugs.


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