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'The Zombie Apocalypse Is Actually Upon Us': ASU Professor Explores Real-Life Zombies In Podcast 'Zombified'

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The "zombie apocalypse" is a phrase tossed around, usually when people are making a list of all the terrible things that could happen but make it clear that's the one thing that really couldn't. 2020 has changed the perception for a lot of people. The COVID-19 pandemic, increased racial strife following the killing of George Floyd and natural disasters like ever-more intense wildfires and hurricanes. So could a zombie apocalypse actually be on the horizon? On her podcast " Zombified," ASU associate professor Athena Aktipis explores the different ways in which our lives and our minds can be taken over — from puppies to social media. And she is with me. So, Athena, how do these disparate topics come together and all make sense under this zombified label?

ATHENA AKTIPIS: A lot of it comes down to the fact that zombies are not just fictional. I mean, sure, there are zombies that are definitely fictional, that could not be possible in real life, but there are a lot of zombies that are for real. So there are many organisms in the natural world that totally hijack and parasitize other organisms and take them over. And those are real-life zombies. And, you know, we even have some real-live zombies among us. You know, I don't know about you, but I certainly sometimes have been so absorbed in my social media feed that I didn't notice what was going on around me. So, you know, we kind of think about zombification as this just much broader process of, you know, when does one entity kind of hijack another entity? And there can be, you know, different intensities of that, right? I mean, like the amount of hijacking that happens, you know, with my Twitter feed absorbing my attention is maybe not quite as intense as like, you know, Jewel Wasps like, literally taking over a cockroach brain and driving it around. But there are some parallels there. Some forms of zombification are clearly not good for the organism being zombified. But, but others are, you know, maybe neutral or sometimes even positive. So, you know, our very first "Zombified" episode is about the puppy apocalypse and you know how our lives can kind of get hijacked sometimes by our adorable pooches. And that is not always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it's a really good thing for, you know, both us and our dogs.

GOLDSTEIN: Now, puppies are a lot different from social media, but do you think we are, as people say, we have shorter attention spans. Are we generally more susceptible to being zombified these days?

AKTIPIS: I think so. You know, we did an amazing episode with Mary Davis about stress. One of the things that she pointed out, which I kind of keep coming back to myself just in kind of like trying to manage my own stress in my life, is that when we're stressed, we, we really process information differently. And we, we basically constrain ourselves so that we can only have simpler thoughts. Like it's, it's much harder to have complex thoughts when you're really stressed. So, you know, there's kind of like a double whammy of stress zombification, right? I mean, you're, you know, you're stressed. You feel like you're, you know, on edge. There's a zombification there, but then that also can make it so you're not in as good of a position to process information that is coming in and you process it in a much more sort of zombified way. So I think that, you know, there's definitely a lot of forces that kind of are, you know, inspiring, I guess you could say, to make it harder for us to behave in a non-zombified way with, you know, modern technology and the ways that our lives just get filled with so many things that, you know, stress us out if we don't have really good boundaries.

GOLDSTEIN: How do you make sure that to whatever extent, you're comfortable with the topic actually falls under the sort of that zombie umbrella?

AKTIPIS: Yeah. So I have been truly amazed at just how many topics really fit so well with this idea of zombification. You know, when I kind of started out in this space, it was really, you know, using kind of the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor to sort of get us to engage with, you know, tough questions, but also as a, as a way of kind of thinking about the evolutionary roots of hijacking. Of, you know, when organisms kind of take over other organisms. And it became clear to me that a lot of the same kinds of mechanisms were at work, whether, you know, we're talking about how parasites change the behavior and the morphology sometimes, you know, of the organisms that they are parasitizing. Or we're talking about, you know, humans influencing each other's behavior. A lot of the same mechanisms apply across all those systems. So once I kind of started realizing how ingrained these, these basic principles were across all these systems, it just kind of started expanding and expanding outwards in terms of like, you know, what really fits within this framework of zombification. And I have to say that, you know, after you know, now we're on the third season of "Zombified" and our second Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting, I have to say, I think the zombie apocalypse is actually upon us. So much zombification happening.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, for a lot of people, it would seem that this is the perfect time considering what we've been going through with the pandemic. It almost feels like we've been zombified in that sense, too.

AKTIPIS: Yeah, I think, you know, there are a lot of levels on which, you know, these ideas that we've been developing, you know, for many, many years with the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Alliance and the podcast are kind of all coming to a head right now with the many layers of, you know, apparent apocalypses — now mild apocalypses, right? Like, you don't have, you know, zombies at your screen door kind of scratching to get in. But we do have some pretty apocalyptic things that are happening, you know, between the pandemic and wildfires. And so, you know, we, we've been planning this for much longer than, you know, all these crazy events of 2020. But we're, we really see it as a way to engage about some of these things that are actually pretty scary when it comes down to it. But with, you know, a bit of fun, a bit of imagination and a space that really invites creativity and, you know, people to kind of bring their brains together, I guess you could say, and, and share their unique insights from what you know, their discipline is, what they study and kind of come together in this very interdisciplinary space that allows us to grapple with some of these very, very difficult issues that that we do have to grapple with today.

GOLDSTEIN: Athena Aktipis is an associate professor at ASU and host of the "Zombified" podcast. She'll also lead the Zombie Apocalypse [Medicine] Meeting later this month.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.