The Neuroscience of Voodoo Dolls, Vampires & Zombies

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

In this special episode of the Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen take a fun look at the neuroscience behind some of the ghost stories in American folklore and mythology. Tales of vampires, zombies, and voodoo dolls have become deeply embedded in our culture, populating our books, movies, and TV shows. It’s all fiction, or course, but the real-life origins behind these legends just might surprise you.


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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warriors Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD and addictions.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warriors Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we've transformed lives for three decades using brain SPECT imaging to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information visit

Tana Amen: The Brain Warriors Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceutical products to support the health of your brain and body. For more information, visit Welcome to The Brain Warriors Way Podcast.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, today is going to be really interesting. We're going to talk about the neuroscience of voodoo dolls, zombies and vampires. And it's not what you think.

Tana Amen: This is really funny, because I've always been fascinated and curious why our society is fascinated and curious with all of this American folklore, and I've never understood why all of our television shows are going toward this. So we went on a trip to New Orleans and it started to become clear to me, and this is fascinating.

But before we do that, I want to read one thing really quickly, because we got sort of overloaded and bombarded with all these amazing testimonials. So before we actually talk about things that suck blood, let's talk about life giving testimonial at the moment, because it was really fun this weekend, right? We got all these great stories. So Jackie wrote in to us, and she said, "Hi there. I'd like to say a big thank you to you and Daniel. You've made such a positive difference to me and my family. I think the front cover of your book should say, 'Change your brain, save your life.' Your work with SPECT scans is incredible. Will there ever be a chance to have SPECT done in England at some time in the future, or do people have to come to America? Thanks again. I'm so grateful to you. XOXO."

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, at the moment they have to come to America to at least get the work done live.

Tana Amen: Although we're doing it in Canada.

Dr. Daniel Amen: We do.

Tana Amen: There's a place in Canada where we're doing it.

Dr. Daniel Amen: There is. I have another testimonial. We've talked about Mike Weaver, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who came to Amen Clinics, and I just got a great testimonial. Now, I mean he's a world heavyweight boxing champion; he fought Larry Holmes and many other people, and after being on our program he said he's feeling good. He's lost weight because he has more energy to work out, his focus is better, and he's excited about seeing his follow-up scan. So that goes with the whole message of our work: You're not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better, and scientists around the world are proving it way beyond us.

Tana Amen: It's really exciting.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So what's the deal with voodoo dolls, vampires ...

Tana Amen: Well, it's really fascinating, right? I always wondered ... I know there's one story from Romania. So the Countess of Bathory, who believed that if she drank the blood of young women, she would stay young. So part of it comes from some of these ... She was actually a serial killer; she did not live forever. And so some of these crazy stories get blown up and they turn into American folklore.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Now, I just have to interrupt you for one second, because what's actually happening in science is it's not the blood, it's the feces. So they're actually doing fecal transplants - no lie - from healthy younger people into older people. And they're finding - experimentally, at least in animals - that that works. So transferring bodily material.

Tana Amen: But so you bring up a good point. Because the reason that it works is because your gut is not healthy. You need that good bacteria. So think about this: The Countess of Bathory lived in a place with no sunshine. There's a good chance she had - in fact there's some evidence she was clearly suffering from - mental illness, right? What she saw in the mirror was not what other people were seeing, so she had some dysmorphia going on. But there's a very good chance she was also suffering from nutritional deficiency. So this is where I get interested. It's not because I believe in vampires or anything like that. I wonder what's going on in the minds of people.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Although there are people that suck the life out of you sometimes.

Tana Amen: Right. There are other people who do believe in this. So but what I wonder is what's happening in their ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: There's different types of vampires.

Tana Amen: But I wonder what's happening in their bodies and minds that even drives them to this, or why we've become fascinated with these stories, and when we were in New Orleans we discovered that there's actually a story behind it. People in New Orleans are fascinated - they're obsessed, actually - with their ghosts, vampires, zombies, and their Voodoo, right? But there's a reason. There's an actual, real story as to how it got started, and it's really kind of crazy.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. The Casquette Girls.

Tana Amen: Right. 1728.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So not enough women in New Orleans for the guys ...

Tana Amen: In fact, the men who were sent here were mostly prisoners and slaves were sent here, right? Indentured servants.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, and so not enough women, and so they made a deal with France, and they brought over ...

Tana Amen: Louisiana was French-owned at the time.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. They made a deal and they got 100 women and the voyage was supposed to take two months.

Tana Amen: But the reason they called them the Casquette Girls was because they took these women and put all of their belongings into these rectangular boxes, and they called the boxes casquettes. Okay, Q-U-E-T-T-E, right? So they called them the Casquette Girls. But the voyage took double the time it was supposed to take.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. It was like five months and they got scurvy, which is a vitamin C deficiency, and when they came, they had bleeding gums.

Tana Amen: Their joints were swollen, and so they were hunched over. They were in a lot of pain. They were very pale. Their eyes were bulging, and they were walking with a limp, and they were very sensitive to sunlight, so they didn't want to come out during the day. So the men wanted nothing to do with these women; they were freaked out by them, in fact. So they had these bleeding gums, their mouths were bleeding, and so no one would come near them, so the only people that would take them in were the nuns. The Ursuline nuns took them into the convent and they healed them. They brought them back and they did what nuns often do in convents: they turned it into a hospital. And they were nursing these women, and they were sensitive to sunlight, so they only opened the shutters at night. Okay, so you see where this is going, right? So people started talking. "Oh, they're vampires." The blood, the sensitivity to daylight, all of this stuff. Rumors started going around. And you know how that goes. I mean, especially in a time where there wasn't a lot else to do.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, imagine if there was social media then.

Tana Amen: Right. So they started saying that these women were vampires, and the nuns just really stayed out of it and healed the women, but they didn't do anything to stop the rumors, and that's what happened. So when the women were healed, they didn't want anything to do with the men, because they had been treated so poorly when they got off the boats. Now they want nothing to do with these people, right? They're freaked out by them. So the nuns sneak them out at night to take them away from New Orleans so they can marry people in surrounding towns where they don't know the story. So now all the girls disappear. They just disappear. But the casquettes are left in the attic.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And so they think that's where the vampires are imprisoned.

Tana Amen: Right, so they now call it a vampire prison. But you see how interesting, right? These are just ordinary girls who got sick, had a nutritional deficiency, and it becomes one of America's biggest folklores of how vampires came to New Orleans, and I just think that that's really fascinating.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, and voodoo dolls was also something ... You know, we think of them as evil, or that ...

Tana Amen: But they didn't start that way.

Dr. Daniel Amen: There's actually a scientific study that we talk about sometimes on the show where scientists gave couples voodoo dolls, and then they measured their blood sugar right before bedtime, and people had the lowest blood sugars had twice the number of pins in the dolls, because the researchers said, "We want you to express your feelings about your partner with the pins in the dolls." But that's actually not why they made dolls. The dolls ... You almost think about it like statues to your ancestors or dolls to the saints that people would pray to. And here in the Voodoo religion ... And I was shocked that there is a practicing group in New Orleans.

Tana Amen: Fairly large practicing group.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It was 3 to 6% of the population actually practiced Voodoo religion, which I thought was interesting. But the dolls, it was much more like acupuncture and acupressure that they would make dolls to people who were important to them; their ancestors or someone who might be sick.

Tana Amen: And they were putting pressure on the dolls to release energy. But interesting, the way that Voodoo even came to the United States was because they brought these West African people here to be slaves; horrifying, but they brought them here and that was their practicing religion at the time. It was not actually an evil religion; what happened was there are always evil people who capitalized on this ability to practice magic. They knew that it sold. They were called Hoodoo witch doctors or Hoodoo magicians.

But the Voodoo was a religion brought here at the time. Whatever your feelings are about that, that was their religion, that's what they practiced. And the way they got it to fly under the radar and not be caught was because they had to be baptized - or christened or whatever you want to call it - Catholic, and so in order to do that they basically agreed that they would call it Catholicism. They just made the parallel. So where Catholics were praying to saints, they were praying to their ancestors. Where Catholics would make statues and crosses, they would do the dolls to their ancestors. And so they made those comparisons.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, and it also came through Haiti.

Tana Amen: Right, those parallels.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Where there was that combination of Catholicism and the African religions. It's just fascinating, but as in anything, as you said, you can turn good into evil.

Tana Amen: Well, and a lot of it had to do with money. So when the Hoodoo - not Voodoo; Hoodoo - magicians decided to take Voodoo and sell it, they could capitalize on it. This was one of the most interesting parts. Now we're going to get into zombies. So another neuro ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: The neuroscience of zombies.

Tana Amen: Brain science, right. This is really fascinating to me. I was sort of blown away by this. So talk about how these Hoodoo magicians actually started to create real life zombies.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, so you could actually put a contract out on someone.

Tana Amen: You didn't like.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You could pay the Hoodoo priest to take someone out, and they would get together a concoction; a poison, if you will ...

Tana Amen: It was blowfish powder, so it was made from blowfish. So you know, like even in Japan, it's a game almost, like "Can you eat this without dying or going into a neurotoxic coma?"

Dr. Daniel Amen: And so they would take these people, put them into a neurotoxic coma with the blowfish poison ...

Tana Amen: And what they did is they put it in their shoes, or they would blow it in their face.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And then they would go in a coma, and people would think they were dead.

Tana Amen: And then put them in the crypts, right?

Dr. Daniel Amen: Put them in the crypts ...

Tana Amen: For three days.

Dr. Daniel Amen: But they knew that over time, they would wake up ...

Tana Amen: So three days later, they would usually come to.

Dr. Daniel Amen: But what would happen is they would have anoxia, or a lack of oxygen to their brain, and we've seen on SPECT scans what that does. It just devastates ...

Tana Amen: Like near-drowning babies. So think of a near-drowning, right?

Dr. Daniel Amen: A near-drowning. It devastates brain function. Or if you've had a heart attack and you were unconscious for 10 minutes and then they bring you back, I've actually seen scans before and after. It's devastating.

Tana Amen: Would that be similar to the sort of effects of stroke, when someone is ... You know how they're paralyzed?

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, or cerebral palsy, which again is a lack of oxygen or lack of blood flow.

Tana Amen: So they end up with this paralysis in limbs.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, so they can't speak.

Tana Amen: They're slurred.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So the utterances are odd. They have trouble with their limbs. And so if you just think of zombies ...

Tana Amen: Right, so they start dragging, say, a foot.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And they can't talk, and they're ...

Tana Amen: They're limping and dragging their limbs and their, maybe, upper extremities are paralyzed or spastic, where they're holding them tight. So they're very, very tight. And yeah, so their joints are sort of contorted.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, and so The Walking Dead is really a great example.

Tana Amen: Well, that's what they called them, because they would put them in the crypt, take them out three days later, and now people feared the Hoodoo priest, but they also thought of these people as zombies.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Correct.

Tana Amen: Fascinating. All from blowfish powder.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So there are many neuroscience explanations for Voodoo and zombies and vampires.

Tana Amen: See, I'm a very skeptical person. I tend to not just believe that things are ... I just don't buy into, "Oh, wow, that's crazy, that's magic." I just don't buy it. I always think there's an explanation to it. And so that's why I was so fascinated and excited to learn this, because I'm like, "I knew it. I knew there was a reason behind it."

Dr. Daniel Amen: But you're also a deeply spiritual person. You believe you're here for a reason ...

Tana Amen: Purpose.

Dr. Daniel Amen: That your behavior matters ...

Tana Amen: Absolutely. I do believe in good and evil. I do believe in good and evil.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And both you and I love helping people. So we hope you found this as interesting as we did. There are some takeaways, though. You want to make sure you get vitamin C so you don't get scurvy.

Tana Amen: Yes. Stay away from blowfish.

Dr. Daniel Amen: That drinking blood probably is a really bad thing for you.

Tana Amen: But get your numbers checked, because ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: But get your probiotics to make sure that your gut is properly populated.

Tana Amen: Well, and think about it; there's also one more thing just to throw in there. So there's this disorder called pica.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Where people eat paint chips, or ...

Tana Amen: So when you crave odd things, or you crave dirt or clay or things like that, where you want to chew on it.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Or blood.

Tana Amen: Or blood. There's probably a good reason for that. You've got some nutritional deficiency. So get your numbers checked, right? So that's one of the big takeaways I took away from New Orleans.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You're listening to The Brain Warriors Way Podcast. Stay with us.

Tana Amen: Thank you for listening to The Brain Warriors Way Podcast. We have a special gift for you. It's an opportunity to win an evaluation at the Amen Clinics. All you have to do is subscribe to this podcast, leave a review, and rate us on iTunes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: To learn more about Amen Clinics and the work we do, go to You can also learn about our nutraceutical products at Thanks for listening.