The Zoo Effect: Where Is the Line Between Voyeurism and Cultural Exchange?

While many of us remain glued to our televisions as we watch team after team get eliminated from the World Cup, those who are in Brazil for the games have the opportunity to explore the host cities between matches. 


Tourism infrastructure has been amped up over the last few years in anticipation of the games, especially in Rio de Janeiro where government police installations have made the streets significantly safer for the average pedestrian. While traditional highlights like the Christ the Redeemer statue and scene on Ipanema Beach remain perennial favorites, stringent security measures have spawned an interesting aberration of the traditional tourist circuit: slum tourism. 

Dozens of tour operators -- from budget-focused guides to luxury excursions -- now offer trips into Rio's central favelas to explore this unique way of life off the grid. 

But visiting a city's slum is by no means a travel quirk that exists solely in Brazil; dozens of countries around the world -- from India to South Africa and even the United States -- have unfortunate urban pockets where visitors can see "how the other half lives". Nelson Mandela's Soweto has been a tourist favorite since the abolition of apartheid, tours of New Orleans' Ninth Ward shed light on the state of the city, and trips into the intricate shantytowns of Mumbai were popularized after Danny Boyle's hit "Slumdog Millionaire". 

Oftentimes these excursions are run by residents of the neighborhoods themselves, and when larger agencies are involved there's usually a great deal of transparency about profits benefiting the area in question, but at the end of the day what is a tourist really doing when they visit a slum? Are they engaging in an enlightening experience, or is it an act akin to a safari?

Travelers in 2014 are primed for meaningful experiences with locals. Elevated by social media, we use our experiences abroad as the barometer of a successful vacation. Today we habitually shun the glossy holiday veneer in favor of something unadulterated, and slums seem to offer the perfect antidote to that Disney-fied feel: local life in its rawest, most un-touristy form.  

The line between voyeurism and cultural exchange is more a gray zone blurred by extreme opinions. Supporters of slum tourism cite financial benefits and an increase in employment, while ardent naysayers worry about the objectification and zoo-ification of the slum residents in question. 

All points are valid, but beyond weighing the virtues of time spent in a disadvantaged area, it's also crucial to examine the desire to go. Why do we want to visit a slum anyway?

According to a study at the University of Pennsylvania, it's in our nature. We as humans are innately curious.  

As a child, my parents gave me a large picture book entitled Material World. Each spread featured a different family with all of their earthly possessions splayed across the front of their house (or yurt etc). Fascinated, I would thumb through the pages memorizing the different items that each clan held dear (from Iceland to Bhutan everyone owned a TV; the family from Texas had a cherish collection of taxidermic elk.) I often credit this picture book with sparking my genuine interest in how others live and perceive the world around them, which has fueled the majority of my travel interests. 

The book's images of the poorer families were never meant to sensationalize or evoke shock and awe; they were there, etched in colored ink, not as a stand-alone photo, but a patch in a much larger quilt. 

Isolating a slum away from the surrounding urban organism is what creates the zoo effect. Like pages of the picture book displaying the lives most dissimilar from ours, slum tourism works when it is qualified as a patch in the quilt as well; a part of a greater dialog about the city that surrounds it -- the city that was ultimately responsible for its inception. 

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
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

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
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

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."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…