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Have you been 'zombified'?

Stress, social media and even man's best friend can "zombify" us.
Zombie narrative provides a lens for a deeper understanding of complex issues.
June 7, 2019

In new podcast, ASU psychology professor asks us to take a deeper look at the forces which seek to control us

Athena Aktipis wants brains. Not because she’s a zombie but because she’s been zombi-fied. And so have you.

By social media. By stress. By your friends. Even by loyal old Fido. And the only cure is to bring as many brains from as many fields possible together to get a handle on how and why those noodley masses of muscle and synapses can be manipulated by forces seemingly beyond our control.

That’s the premise of the Arizona State University psychology professor’s new podcast, “Zombified,” an educational exploration of how we are vulnerable to being “hijacked” by everything from parasites to monstrous algorithms, featuring informal conversations between Aktipis, her co-host David Lundberg-Kenrick and scholars from ASU and beyond.

“Things will evolve to manipulate other things if they can benefit from it,” Aktipis said. “That's why you see all these bizarre things like parasites manipulating host behavior. And we're kind of at this really interesting inflection point where we have, as humans, set in motion a whole other evolutionary process for zombification and manipulation without quite realizing that we've done it; we've set these monster algorithms into motion that are evolving to manipulate us.

“So that's kind of the scope of this podcast. All the way from parasites and infectious diseases to why do you keep picking up your phone.”

“Zombified” premiered Tuesday, June 11, with a launch event that took place at 1 p.m. in the Psychology Building, room 230, on the Tempe campus. The event included a livestream of the first episode and a discussion with that episode’s guest, ASU psychology Professor and dog expert Clive Wynne.

In the episode, Wynne provides some insight into where dogs come from, how they tap into our attachment systems and why we find puppies to be so irresistibly cute.

Aktipis admits to being zombified by her own dog, Tia, a 2-year-old half-Lab, half-pit bull rescue.

That’s a good way of being zombified, she says. But there are more scary ways.

Lundberg-Kenrick, program manager for the Psychology Department and a self-professed zombie movie enthusiast, recalls a particular episode about being zombified by corporations.

“I think that was the scariest one, because it was just so real,” he said.

The podcast takes a purposely interdisciplinary approach to the science of zombification, including experts from disciplines as diverse as evolutionary biology, psychology, parasitology, microbiology and computer science.

“That's the only way that we're really going to be able to grapple with the complex and wicked problems that we're facing now, and that we will face more and more in the future, is if we can bring people together who have different knowledge and different perspectives, different approaches, different methods, and create an environment where everyone can talk to each other and listen to each other,” Aktipis said.

“The way I talk about it is ‘bringing brains together.’ Let's bring the brains, let's share our brains.”

A reluctant entrant into the production side of the podcasting scene, Aktipis came up with the idea for “Zombified” when searches for podcasts with a certain amount of intellectual meat proved fruitless. After airing her grievances with her grad students and lab manager, she finally caved under their goading and set out to make one herself.

“I want this podcast to be a conversation that you can listen to while you're doing your laundry or driving somewhere that’s really intellectually stimulating but also kind of like keeping you company,” she said. “That's the goal for the podcast, to be personal but also be educational and to engage at the same time with the ethical issues. I think that's important to be doing as we're doing science and I think I’ve been really lucky that I came to ASU because there's all these groups and organizations that are doing things like that.”

Part of the inspiration for the podcast came from similar existing efforts of Aktipis and her colleagues to make science, ethics and the often complex concepts and issues associated with them more accessible to a general audience through organizations like the Center for Science and the Imagination; the School for the Future of Innovation and Society; and the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, of which Aktipis is a member.

Aktipis is also the mastermind behind the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting and recently hosted the 2019 ASU Cooperation and Conflict Symposium. This year’s topic was “Telling Fact from Fiction in the Age of Information.” All of the discussions were recorded and will soon be available to the public for free via the Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative website.

“The motivation behind all this was, let's think about how to create something that is accessible to people who are engaged and willing to do a little bit of work to understand stuff sometimes,” she said. “We’re not dumbing it down, it's still a very high-level conversation, but it’s happening without the jargon and happening with this framing about zombies and the apocalypse.”

Why zombies and the apocalypse? That’s a good question for English faculty associate and “Zombified” episode guest Emily Zarka, an expert on monsters who hosts a PBS Digital Studios show on the subject called “Monstrum.”

“It’s hard to pinpoint one reason why the zombie genre has exploded in the past decade or so, but if I had to, I think it can be narrowed down to three primary reasons,” Zarka said.

“One, scientific and technological advancement. Genetically modified crops, genetic engineering, bioweapons, even a better understanding of real, brain-altering parasites, have led us to question not only the basis of life but to consider what could go wrong if we lose control of the science we are experimenting with. In other words, what could happen if nature takes the upper hand, or if some evil-minded person released a virus or plague that dramatically shaped our world? The second reason would be overpopulation. We are running out of space and resources for the influx of human life and this is reflected in recent films where zombies appear not by the hundreds or even thousands, but by the tens, even hundreds of tens of thousands. Finally, access. With the Internet and other digital technologies, the increase in conversation, including global conversation, about zombies has made these monsters and the themes they represent more prevalent.”

So there you have it. And if the idea of having a little more personal autonomy and understanding the world a little bit better sounds like something you can get down with, you’re going to want to tune in to “Zombified.”

But be prepared. At the beginning of each episode, you’ll have to answer the question: Have you been zombified?

Top illustration by Neil Smith

Pervasive polymers of the deep blue sea


June 7, 2019

"It all comes out in the wash" is proving to be a more accurate phrase than previously realized, and it may not be good news.

It seems that humans' cleaning habits are a major contributor to the growing problem of synthetic tidbits in the ocean. Unfortunately, most of us are unaware that we are part of the problem. Deep sea “Grey water” pouring from washing machines to water treatment plants contain a stew of microplastic particles. The plastic is ending up in rivers and oceans. Download Full Image

Researchers at Arizona State University are finding a particularly pervasive problem with the microplastics that originate from human everyday use. Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering and professor at ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, and his team worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to analyze oceanic samples collected from vast vertical depths of seawater by the MBARI team.

The results were published June 6 in a Scientific Reports journal article titled, "The vertical distribution and biological transport of marine microplastics across the epipelagic and mesopelagic water column."

The issue runs deep

The research sought to discover how far down the oceanic water column microplastic pollution could be found. Plastic that is less than 5 millimeters in length — the diameter of a pencil eraser — or smaller is considered “micro.” The study was approached in two distinct phases. The first phase analyzed tiny particulates collected by MBARI submarine robots within California’s Monterey Bay and the Monterey Canyon, an underwater canyon that is equal in depth to Arizona’s Grand Canyon. This was the first time researchers were able to compare plastic filtered from waters all the way down to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) below sea level. The second phase focused on filtering the stomach contents of crabs and larvaceans (a free-swimming marine invertebrate) within the same areas to see if the problem also affected the animals.

Charles Rolsky, a member of the Halden lab and a PhD student in the ASU School of Life Sciences, developed a technique for the separation and screening of the microplastic samples for the hundreds and hundreds of samples collected. Rolsky spent the greater part of eight months tediously separating the tiny microbits under a microscope, and then screening them with Raman spectroscopy to determine which pieces were natural and which were synthetic plastics. This type of spectroscopy provides a sophisticated energy signal that can be thought of as a molecular fingerprint. Armed with a databank of these spectroscopic identifiers, the researchers were able to determine the amount of microplastics in the ocean depths, and confirmed that the plastic infestation did not spare the local wildlife.

Discovering this level of oceanic pollution was alarming, researchers said. It conclusively found that an uninterrupted distribution of microplastics spanned the entire depth of the water column studied. The microplastics were most concentrated 200-600 meters (656-1,968 feet) below the water’s surface. The plastics remained in the digestive systems of animals that ingested the water — including sea life that could end up on a dinner plate. The spectroscopic analysis also confirmed that these microplastics most likely originated from products manufactured by humans. The weathered condition of the tousled microplastics further indicated that most particles had made a long journey before settling into the bay. Overall, the study emphasized how big this “micro” issue really is.

Our actions have consequences

Perhaps the information of greatest concern was that the majority of the microplastics that Rolsky analyzed contained plastics that are resistant to further breakdown. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) products make up the largest population of these plastics. PET is a synthetic polymer, and PET plastics are well known for crowding the macro world within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch found in the middle of the ocean. And it seems the micro PETs are drowning oceanic waters in plastics as well. This level of plastic pollution is becoming increasingly challenging for the planet’s animals and plants. Unfortunately, public awareness is not on par with the problem, researchers said.

“This situation is a testament to out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” Rolsky said. “Just because something leaves your house, doesn’t mean it no longer exists. The plastic is ending up in our rivers and oceans. It is important that we consider this on a daily basis.”

What most people don’t realize is that more than one-third of oceanic microplastics originate from plastic-laden synthetic fabrics. Polyester and acrylic fabrics aggressively shed microplastic fibers during washing machine cycles. If you washed just 1 pound of synthetic material (less than the weight of the clothes on your back) in a typical warm wash cycle, expect to shed an average 46,000 fibersThe estimate for microfiber shedding is based on an averaging a 1-to-1 mixture acrylic and polyester materials.. This means that the “grey water” pouring from washing machines to water treatment plants contain a stew of microplastic particles.

“We are still unsure as to the total effects of microplastics,” Rolsky said. “However, this study has made it clear that the issue is far bigger than previously anticipated. It is imperative that we take action. We need to consider the way we manufacture, buy and use plastics — and what we choose to wear and wash.”

Although wastewater treatment plants are good, they are ill-equipped to destroy nonbiodegradable microplastics. The particles exit in both treated water and the treatment byproduct, called sewage sludge. Therefore, the microbits that are captured by the treatment plant are redirected into rivers, lakes and oceans as reclaimed water and into agricultural soils since the sewage sludge is applied on land for its disposal.

Taking the rudder

Halden concludes that people are the real solution.

“The important thing, I believe, is that pollution is not caused by someone else. It is caused by us,” Halden said. “We have gotten so used to the plastics that we don't consider any more that these are failed materials. They have let us down. They are making us sick, and they destroy the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems that humans rely upon for sustenance. So we really need to change our behavior. Since manufacturers don’t pay for the pollution, they have little incentive to change the status quo. Thus, it is up to us individually to take the rudder and steer clear of producing more plastic pollution that ultimately will find its way into the environment and into our bodies."

Christine Lewis

PhD candidate and science communicator, Biodesign Institute, School of Molecular Sciences