The Comedian (Louis C.K.) vs. The Smart Phone

The reason Socrates banished laughter or comedy from the poetry of the just city is that comedians, at their best, remind us of what we all know: There’s an inexpressible sadness just beneath the surface of all our happy talk, and that means there are limits to how much any of us can be at home in any particular place. So Socrates understood that laughing—as much as crying--expresses a deep dissatisfaction with our present condition.


How to handle that sadness while still living well—how to be as home as we can with our homelessness—is the core of what Aristotle calls the moral virtue of wittiness. How to laugh at the right time and in the right way requires a kind of astuteness and a kind of insight given to only a few of us. Wittiness is a harder and better virtue than justice, because it puts even justice in its place.

Aristotle comes close to saying that the philosopher-comedian is the one who can judge best how to balance our laughable contradictions with the serious sense of singular personal destiny with which we all must live. The therapy that the comedian attempts to provide for us, sadly, he usually fails to provide all that well for himself. Even the philosopher-comedians must struggle more than most of us to find what happiness they can.

Remember, to begin with, the legendary shyness of the founding giant of late-night TV Johnny Carson, which made him constantly uncomfortable (when not in control on stage) and allowed him to be on to something most of us aren’t.

If you’re looking for the therapeutic insight of a philosopher-comedian today, it’s hard to do better than Louis C.K. He sees better than most of us the truth about “smart phones.” I will reduce his eloquent and witty observations on Conan’s late-night show to a series of points. But for you to appreciate true comedic genius, you have to both read the text and watch the video on the link. Reading without watching will cause Louis to seem too preachy or not so funny, but watching without reading might well cause you to miss the profundity of his words.

Kids are by nature mean. Smart phones make them meaner. Why? They can’t see the faces and experience the reactions of those they diss. Their “humor” is more cruelly fun than it might otherwise be, because it’s unchastened by empathy. Smart phones work against the emotion that evolutionary psychologists say we need to moderate our selfish struggle for status.

The real comedian, it seems to me, has a particularly humane aversion to cruelty. That’s even or especially true of that funny guy Machiavelli. And an insightful comedian today reminds us that nobody with eyes to see really believes that kids or the rest of us are getting less mean. These might be the toughest times ever not to be smart and pretty.

Smart phones might be said to build a community, but it’s a virtual community of the diverted. They undermine the habits that lead you “to just be yourself and not be doing something.” It’s “the ability to just sit there...[t]hat’s being a person.” Why? “[U]nderneath everything in your life there’s that thing that’s empty--forever empty.”  What’s “down there” is the “knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone.”

That emptiness is often called anxiety; it’s an indispensable part of who we are. Smart phones really keep each of us from, in the authentic sense, being a person. And obviously you have to be able to live well with yourself before you can live well with others. The comedian exaggerates when he says that being alone is the whole truth about who we are deep down. But that’s what really funny guys do.

The experience of being alone leads to an inexpressible sadness. Sadness is a big part of life. Kids need to get used to it, be at home with it. It’s part of price of being human, of living in the truth. It’s part of growing up. We want kids to laugh and cry for the best possible reasons.

People kill and maim themselves and others by texting while driving. It’s a risk they embrace in our risk-adverse time, because they’re so convinced that being alone is too hard. (I don't text while driving, but I do at stoplights, just as I do when [inevitably] feeling alienated and misunderstood at academic meetings.) 

So it's better to listen to music than to text while driving, although it's a bit dangerous too. (If you try to do both, then texting inevitably trumps listening, and you will be very lucky to get home unscathed.)

Louis tells the story of being moved to tears by the "faraway sound" of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's "Jungleland." The experts at Rolling Stone were wrong not to have ranked "Jungleland" as the Boss’ best song.  Clarence Clemons (the legendary “big man” on the sax) said in his strange book it was by far his most soulful (in the precise sense) performance, and its artistic excellence came from Bruce making Clarence play his “faraway” part dozens and dozens of times and then taking the best parts from those performances for the record. The care taken to perfect the faraway sound was never so great.

So Socrates never would have allowed "Jungleland" to be performed in his just city. Its moodiness is much more subversive that the Springsteen tunes that embrace political causes—all of which are praised (by liberals at least) for their justice. The tune"Jungleland" made Louis so sad that he had to pull over and cry. 

The way Louis tells the story—which includes his hilarious imitation of the “faraway sound”—shows us that it’s more than a bit ridiculous that he was so moved. But he was. The song reminded him of his homelessness, of a kind of nostalgia that can’t be reduced to some kind of social or economic or neuroscientific explanation.

Louis was “grateful to feel sad,” because it was a “beautiful” and “poetic” prelude to “profound happiness.” The philosophers say that anxiety is the prelude to wonder about the mystery of being and human being, and so it’s who we are to experience that interdependence of misery and joy. Crying even leads to laughing; tragedy and comedy are interdependent. They both help put us in our place as somewhat displaced beings.

A close encounter with that "first bit of sad" scares us enough that "we push it away with the phone or a jack-off or the food.” Our addiction to the screen is a kind of addiction to masturbation, to being compulsively lost in a fantasy divorced from the real experiences of life. It’s part of a mediocre life in which you’re never “completely sad or completely happy.” Life is the “kinda satisfaction” that comes with being the consumer of products, such as video games.

“[T]hen you die” without having been moved to thought by birth, self-consciousness, or death.

So Louis concludes that if we’re preparing kids to live we have to just say no when it comes to the smart phones. In the most important respects, they’re making all of us stupider. We’re not raising them, Louis reminds us, only to be happy.

We ought to be suspicious of any techno-innovation aims to deprive us of our “sad moments,” from screens to mood-enhancing drugs to biotechnological efforts to bring tragedy to an end. As Walker Percy (a writer admired by the early Springsteen) wrote, we have a right to our anxiety.

So comedians laugh and cry more than most of us. And Louis kept his audience laughing while talking about crying. It just occurred to me that I failed to do that for you. That’s no doubt because I don’t have a video component to my message, and because I, unlike the comedian, didn’t draw much of anything from my personal experience. So I hope I at least gave you a prelude to laughing.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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