The Science of One Punch Man – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Science of One Punch Man!
Written & Narrated by: Helen Floersh
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Science of One Punch Man – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. So, over the years, you guys know it’s been our mission to use the lens of philosophy, literature, and the humanities to achieve a greater appreciation of art and hopefully to enrich people’s lives. But today, we’re doing something a little different — this is Ground Zero of science content on Wisecrack. And for that, I decided to bring on someone who’s a lot smarter than I am, when it comes to science: Helen.
So, today we are starting with a Wisecrack favorite, to see if we can connect some of the philosophical themes that we talk about with existing research in neuroscience, biology, and psychology. So, today we’re starting with One Punch Man. I also want to give a quick shout out to Brilliant.org for sponsoring this video. Thank you, guys. So, anyway, gonna give it over to Helen.
Wait, so… do- is it “Hey, Wisecrack. Helen, here?”
So, it would be, “Hey, Wisecrack. Helen, here.” You gotta go — it’s 1-2-3, up-down.
“Hey, Wisecrack… Helen, here?”
There we go. Now, say it faster.
Hey Wisecrack, Helen here, and today we’re putting the baldest badass in the universe under the microscope. In One Punch Man, our protagonist Saitama is a salaryman-turned-hero who possesses no special powers apart from the strength he’s gained through his “intense” training regimen. “100 push-ups! 100 sit-ups! And 100 squats! Then, a 10 kilometer run! DO IT EVERY SINGLE DAY!” And now he can defeat every enemy with a single punch. Sounds cool, right? Well, this lack of challenge leaves Saitama bored, detached, and unfulfilled. “Not again. All it took was one punch!” Dreaming of becoming the best at anything is pretty much “Being Human 101,” but does Saitama’s dilemma reflect our growing scientific understanding of how humans can live a satisfying life?
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on The Science of One Punch Man. And as always, spoilers ahead. With no real challenge, Saitama loses his enthusiasm for battle, much to the irritation of his rivals. He blows them off, — “Then prepare to witness the true power of the mighty-” “Aw man, I got dirt in my ‘special pants place.’” “Hey, are you even listening?” — insults them, — “What a letdown. I was pretty excited to see the battle suits I’d been hearing about, but the design is pretty lame. All the do is give you superhuman strength.” — and occasionally has the audacity to yawn during a fight. Doesn’t really seem like Saitama is enjoying himself.
As we’ve mentioned before, philosophers like Masahiro Morioka have argued that challenge is a necessary component of a meaningful life, and that as our lives become more efficient, and therefore less challenging, we risk our mental health. “We will continue to riot until food, clothing, and shelter are provided free of charge to those who do not work.” “Sounds pretty boring.” Turns out this isn’t just philosophical grandstanding: science suggests there’s a biological basis for the idea that challenging ourselves is good for us, and it’s not just our mental health that’s at stake if we always take it easy. Neuroscientist Dr. Mark Mattson argues that the pervasiveness of what he calls “unchallenging lifestyles” prevents us from activating adaptive stress responses, a series of changes that take place at the cellular level when an organism is exposed to danger.
Here’s how it works: let’s say you’re walking down the alley, when you encounter a giant kelp-encrusted monster. Your brain activates your “sympathetic” nervous system – or the part of the nervous system that activates the fight or flight response – by sending out a molecule from the hypothalamus, an almond-shaped area toward the center of the brain. This molecule tells the pituitary gland to send out another molecule, which sets off a series of reactions in the adrenal glands above the kidney, that ultimately lead to the release of a substance called cortisol, aka the “stress hormone.” Its nickname comes from the fact that its the main hormone involved in the stress response, and while there’s always a certain baseline amount circulating through the bloodstream, those levels increase when your fight-or-flight response turns up. That extra cortisol prompts your body to do things things like break down sugar to give you energy and numb the pain response so you’ll be more likely to fight through an injury. It also turns down the part of your immune system that fights off viruses and certain kinds of bacteria. This isn’t a bad thing – the idea is to push the energy you’d need to fight infection to other, more important tasks that’ll help you survive an immediate threat.
If this happens now and then, it works kind of like endurance training: your body learns how to respond to acute stress more efficiently. But if it’s constant, you can wind up with a botched immune system, as your body becomes less sensitive to cortisol. That can lead to chronic inflammation, because there’s nothing stopping your immune system from running on high,’ which can lead to a host of other health problems. We might consider dominator of the universe, Lord Boros, as an exaggerated metaphor for this process. “My species won the struggle for survival amid the harsh environment of our home world. We possess the ultimate in regenerative abilities.” Being able to regrow entire limbs is a pretty potent adaptive stress response, a la the not-so-fictional starfish, a well-known limb regenerator.
Yet, Boros also points out that the extreme strength he exudes in battle is so taxing that it actually shortens his life if he uses it too often. “Doing this places enormous stress on my body, similar to anaerobic exercise. As a result, it shortens my life.” The same problem humans run into when our fight or flight response goes into overdrive for too long. Scientists like Dr. Mattson say humans are evolutionarily adapted to deal with environmental challenges. And then not having them – mainly in the form of not enough physical exertion or too little exposure to the natural toxins found in plants – can lead to the prolonged inflammatory states that have been linked to everything from Alzheimer’s to diabetes to cancer. Inflamation causes changes in DNA, and since DNA contains the “code” for creating all the proteins in your body, wonky DNA can result in misshapen proteins, those can go on to screw up hormone regulation and encourage out-of-control cell growth – in other words, cancer. From Dr. Mattson’s perspective, without challenges, your body isn’t given opportunities to strengthen its defenses – that is, improve the adaptive stress response – so when something starts to go wrong, it has a hard time fixing it.
Outside of the physical effects a lack of conflict introduces, a similar logic operates psychologically. While Saitama may not be getting diabetes, he’s probably got some issued going on in his brain parts. Through the show, we can see how enduring challenges can make you more mentally resilient. Let’s take Genos. He’s faced certain challenges that Saitama hasn’t. Based on what we know from the show, Saitama’s had it pretty easy: He didn’t get into the crime-fighting business to avenge the death of his family or bring justice to the oppressed. He just did it for fun. “You’re a fast one. Who are you?” “Just a guy who’s a hero for fun.”
On the other hand, Genos’s backstory is much more traumatic. He witnessed the destruction of his hometown and the death of his family at the hands of an out-of-control cyborg. “We lived a peaceful and happy life together, until that fateful day, when a crazy cyborg went out of control and attacked our town.” His experience mirrors that of many other characters in the genre: Guts from Berserk, Eren from Attack on Titan, Naruto… a painful childhood is a common denominator throughout anime, manga, and comics in general. How do those experiences shape the characters? Well, it’s pretty complex – and often a little f**ked up. On one hand, their struggles often motivate them, or at the very least seem to give them the strength to withstand extremely difficult circumstances.
Psychology backs this up: a growing body of research suggests that some people who go through adverse or traumatic experiences as kids are in some ways more resilient than those whose childhoods were relatively care free. For instance, some individuals who grow up in high-stress environments develop unique problem-solving skills and are better able to deal with uncertainty than their peers who had it easier. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that there are loads of other issues associated with having a rough childhood, like problems with learning and memory and a propensity for being emotionally reactive. And there are caveats to the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” idea, too: research on adults has indicated that those who face a “medium” number of challenging life events – like the death of a loved one or financial difficulties – are better able to cope with worry and stress than those who deal with either an unusually low or unusually high number of such experiences. It’s sort of like the Goldilocks principle: optimal adaptation to stress is achieved from having not too much exposure but not too little, either.
In theory, Genos’s traumatic experiences may have boosted his ability to handle the emotional whiplash of hero work (though being a cyborg definitely helps). He fights to near death in battle and shows up when others don’t, like when the S class heroes are called in to hold off the meteor that threatens to wipe out City Z. Meanwhile, Saitama meanders through life. He can’t even try to swat a mosquito without losing it. “Damn mosquitos.” Additionally, having something to strive for – becoming as strong as his sensei — gives Genos’s work meaning a stark contrast with Saitama, who is already at the top of his game. “I’m the hero I’d always dreamed of becoming, so what is this? What’s wrong with me? Why does my heart feel so lifeless and empty?” Would Saitama be more satisfied if he had something more meaningful to work towards than some BS superhero classification? And what’s the purpose of having a purpose anyway? Is there some kind of biological benefit to leading a meaningful life?
Back in 2008, a team of researchers published a study on the Japanese concept of ikigai – which roughly translates to “a reason for being.” In it, they asked 43,000 people a simple question: Do you have ikigai in your life? By the end of the seven-year-long study, roughly 95 percent of those who reported having a sense of ikigai were still alive, compared to only 83 percent of those who said they did not. Regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, psychological factors, lifestyle or history of illness, the increased mortality risk remained. Most of those who died without a sense of ikigai, did so as a result of heart disease, mainly strokes. For context: a link between heart disease and a lack of purpose has shown up consistently in other studies: a 2015 roundup of Japanese and American research on the topic found reduced heart disease in those who reported having a sense of meaning in life.
Unlike the villians in the series, who often have rather legitimate reasons for wanting to destroy humanity, — “In order to wipe out humanity and the evil civilization built on her surface, the Earth in her infinite wisdom has given birth to me!” — Saitama is still unsure of his ikigai. How do you even have purpose, when you’ve achieved what people like Genos can only dream of? His aimless existence leaves him prone to depression, irritability, and melancholy. Boros has struggled to find his ikigai, too. His purpose in life was to destroy one world after the next, but after growing so strong that he no longer had worthy adversaries, he found himself bored and apathetic. A seer told him he could a find the opponent that would reignite his passion for battle, so he’s been traveling for 20 years to find one when he encounters Saitama. In a sense, Saitama is Boros’s ikigai. “Come, and give stimulation to my existence.”
Scientists, for years, have postulated a relationship between purpose, life satisfaction and resilience. Back in 1946, Dr. Victor Frankl – a psychiatrist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor – suggested that the societal ills of “aggression, addiction, and depression” stemmed from an “existential vacuum,” or the idea that one’s life and work lacked purpose. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,”he describes the psychological impact of daily life in a Nazi concentration camp. He notes that the prisoners who clung on to a sense of purpose were the ones most likely to survive, writing: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Since then, we’ve seen over and over again that having no sense of meaning in life is associated with a higher risk of addiction, anxiety and depression. On the flip side, having a sense of purpose is associated with lower incidence of these issues.
If challenging oneself is key to finding purpose in life, and having some sort of purpose is necessary for optimal psychological, and perhaps even physical health, then we can see why having virtually no competition leaves Saitama miserable. Challenging ourselves can help us find that meaning, and improves our well-being in other ways too. And in some cases, even the hardships we can’t control can make us more resilient, which suggests there might be a psychological benefit to seeing them as an opportunity for growth. So, will Saitama ever be presented with a real challenge? “I wonder if taking out this guy will count as work?” And if he does will it give him a much needed sense of passion? We’ll just have to wait until Season 2, whenever that is, to find out.