The evolution of comic books: From “mentally deficient” to brain boosting

From a low-brow adolescent distraction to a sophisticated art form and educational tool, comic books are finally having their moment in the sun.

Gene Luen Yang: Out of all of the visual storytelling media that are out there – film, animation, television – comics is really the only one that is not time-bound. That’s what I call permanent. Which means, you know, when you’re watching a movie or when you’re watching an animated television series, the rate of information flow is actually determined by the creator of the content. It’s not determined by the viewer. You know, you could slow it down, you can go slow-mo but it’s not the same experience.

Comics on the other hand, with comics the rate of information flow is firmly in the control of the reader. And for certain students and certain kinds of information, that aspect of comics, that control makes for a very powerful educational tool.

In an Algebra II class that I taught whenever I was absent I would create these comics lessons for my students. And that was some of the feedback that I got from them is that, you know, with these comics lessons it was visual, unlike their math textbooks. But then on top of that the students themselves could control how quickly or slowly they read through that lecture. Unlike when I was lecturing in person, right? When I’m lecturing in person I decide how fast or slow I speak. But when they’re reading it in the form of a comic, if they didn’t understand a passage within that comic they could reread it as quickly or as slowly as they needed to.

In the past I think parents and teachers had almost a hierarchy of reading. They saw picture books as almost the lower form of reading than pure prose novels. And comic books, which is my area of expertise, were either left out of the equation altogether or they were seen as like this middle point, this stepping stone between picture books and prose books. And if you were a good enough student you wouldn’t need that stepping stone. Things are changing now and I think more and more parents and teachers are realizing that pictures can be a very sophisticated way of communicating information. Just as sophisticated as text. Back in the olden days, if you look at comics often the picture was there to basically present what the words were already conveying. So you would have a caption that says “Superman punches Lex Luthor.” And then in the picture it would just show you Superman punching Lex Luthor, right? And I think that contributed to this idea that comics were meant for the “mentally deficient.” If you weren’t smart enough to get the meaning of those words then you could at least read the picture. Nowadays though I think if you look at the top comic book writers, the top comic book creators, the relationship between the words and the pictures is much more complex. Often they will pass narrative responsibility back and forth; so in certain parts of a comic or graphic novel the words will convey what the most important information is in that story, and then in the next passage it would get passed to the pictures. And in the hands of a skilled creator each of those forms, each of those forms of communication, the picture and the words, will be leveraged for what they’re best at. There are other comics where the words and the pictures are actually contradicting each other. They might even be telling two different stories, describing two different realities, and they ask you as the reader to decide which one is true.

I really think that to engage today’s audience – today’s audience has grown up on stories. Every single one of us has probably consumed thousands and thousands and thousands of stories within our lifetime. In order to engage in audiences sophisticated as that, you need to have a sophisticated dynamic between words and pictures.

Can comic books make you smarter? It seems too good to be true, but as graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang explains, they've come a long, long way. Imagine this: in the early days of comics, a caption would read: "Superman punches Lex Luthor," and it would be accompanied by a drawing of—drumroll!—Superman punching Lex Luthor. Basic, right? "That contributed to this idea that comics were meant for the mentally deficient. If you weren't smart enough to understand those words, then you could at least read the picture," says Luen Yang. Since then, graphic novelists have shaken things up, and the relationship between the words and pictures is more complex, with narrative responsibility going back and forth and occasionally shooting off into ambiguity. So why does Luen Yang think modern comics have a place in every classroom? Because our brains are not computers: "The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor," as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote. We depend on narratives to help make sense of our world—whether that's algebra, history, or chemistry. Educational comics are turning out to be powerful tools that help kids learn at their own pace. Gene Luen Yang's most recent book is Paths & Portals.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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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."

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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

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

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Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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