How to criticize, from a critic

Film critic A.O. Scott on how to be more constructive in your criticisms.

A.O. SCOTT: There was one pull quote I saw. I won't say what critic wrote it but I remember like seeing it was an adverb adjective combination, which is especially dangerous and like not to be messed with. A movie described as fiercely hypnotic. And I remember thinking like what the hell does that mean? First of all, those don't seem to go together. How can you be fiercely hypnotized? Also, if you're hypnotized doesn't it mean you're asleep? I mean is that good? Or if your fiercely hypnotized are you somehow in a state of intense sleep? So I thought what could that possibly be? The worst adjective of them all though, the one that is the most overused and the one I did work at a publication where the editor would always ban it and would always just kind of get on the phone and say I'm sorry we can't print the word compelling because that is just like maybe one of the emptiest words in the language. Like who does it compel? Compel to do what? It just kind of is this empty placeholder for something. This was a compelling book. What did it compel you to do? I don't know, it could have compelled you to stop reading it.

Adjectives can be your friend and there is an old fashioned approach I think that comes out of Hemingway and some school writing teachers will tell you cut out all the additives and the adverbs. Make it simple. Make it clean. I don't necessarily believe in that. And if you write criticism for a newspaper your editors will really want some adjectives, especially if you have a review that starting on the front page let's say of a section. This is a print thing so some of you younger people might not follow it, but then jumps to a later page, the editors will very often want an adjective before the jump that will just sum up what you think. So can you just say like in this marvelous new film or in this disappointing, something. In a way to excuse any reader who's in a hurry or has a short attention span from reading all the way to the end. And I've often fought back against that for just that reason. If you want to know what I think you have to read the whole thing.

Adjectives can be very useful and can be a way of evoking qualities that you want to convey. Part of what you're doing when you're criticizing, when you're writing criticism, is describing. So you want to find the right descriptors. On the other hand there is a kind of emptiness to certain kinds of critical adjectives that you have to be careful of and that can kind of get you into a little bit of trouble that are just empty, so mesmerizing, stunning, exhilarating, thrilling, all of these things that are kind of really describing your own reaction or your own response to this as if they were qualities of the thing itself. You were excited. You were thrilled. You were stunned. You were mesmerized, the person writing, but you're kind of making a little bit of a leap when you're pretending that that's an inherent quality of what you're writing about.

And I have to say in all honesty I've had a little bit of an adjective crisis myself since publishing this book because I write in it against adjectives I try to be very stingy as a critic with the sort of empty inflated adjective. But I've read some reviews of my own book and I wish that there were more of them. I was like could you have just stuck like a brilliant in there? Something we can put in the ads to sell more copies? So I'm a total hypocrite in that regard.

  • Criticism is about more than likes and dislikes.
  • NY Times film critic A.O. Scott warns against the "emptiness" of certain adjectives when it comes to giving constructive and meaningful criticism.
  • Pulling from nearly two decades of experience, Scott's book shows why criticism matters and how we are all critics.
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  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

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.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
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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. 

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Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

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