Marketers and The Myth of Perfect Control

You're not broken. I promise.


I can understand why you would think you are, though. After all, you're an expert in yourself. Like a fine painter, you're so familiar with your subject matter that you quickly notice when things are off by a hair. Leonardo da Vinci would surely notice if Lisa had her hands crossed incorrectly, and so you notice a little extra puffiness in your cheeks or a tiny blemish the size of a pinhead on the side of your nostril.

But the dark side of expertise is obsession. And there are few obsessions more tempting than envy and self-criticism. It’s part of the human condition. But there is no worse place to be. Self-pity is quicksand, and will keep you mired and focused inward, contemplating your slightly-less-than-perfect navel.

Today, with technology bringing more of the world under our control, envy and self-pity can lead to never-ending consumption and modification. There is always another watch you can buy, or wine you can drink, to feel a little more worthwhile and confident. In 1800, if you were born with a less than flattering nose, you had to deal with it. In 2015, you can get a masterful nostril reshaping done to the specifications of your favorite celebrity.

In psychology, this is called your locus of control. If you believe you can control what happens to you in life, you have what’s called an internal locus of control. If you believe you’re at the mercy of outside forces, you have what’s called an external locus of control. And in the 21st century, everyone is being internalized. This is a blessing for humanity, but a control freak’s nightmare. While you might have learned how to come to peace with the uncertainty of life and your imperfections in the 19th or 18th centuries, today you can decide to successfully wage all-out war against everything you don’t like.

This is partly due to true technological advancements, and partly due to devilishly effective marketing. Technological advancements in computing, medicine, agriculture, mobile phones, and so forth have genuinely given us control over much of our lives. But consumer marketing, pioneered by Edward Bernays in the early 20th century, has given us an even greater illusion of control.

Each product in our lives has been associated with a happy outcome or a positive image. Toilet paper is no longer just toilet paper. It’s a kid pleaser and a home saver. In ad after ad we see a happy father pull a 12-pack of extra-ply TP off the shelf while his nearby children cheer and smile. Consciously we see this ad as ridiculous. Subconsciously, though, a connection has been made between the product and our happy children. “Buy this product and your kids will be contented” seems to be the hidden message. And so we purchase product after product with expertly crafted associations and branding. Consciously, we don’t really expect anything magical to happen. Over time, however, we might notice ourselves getting a bit frustrated with the world. The kids aren’t happy. The boss doesn’t respond the way we’d like to our presentation. A new freckle or zit has popped up on the nose.

This is life. It’s uncertain, wild, and mostly uncontrollable. It’s imperfect and will always be — and so are you. We all are. In our never-ending quest to create our ideal selves and life, let’s not forget that true perfection comes when we change the things we can, and accept the rest. Every great hero has a flaw.

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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  • 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.

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
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