TIME vaccines

Why Science Is Winning the Vaccine Wars

Nothing to fear: More and more babies are being protected as more and more parents smarten up
Miodrag Gajic; Getty Images Nothing to fear: More and more babies are being protected as more and more parents smarten up

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

A new survey shows that common sense is trouncing fear-mongering

You can’t poll a scientific fact. The speed of light is the speed of light (186,282.4 miles per second) whether 90% of people believe it, 25% believe it or 100% have no opinion. The same is true for the heaviest element, the size of the Earth and the number of cells that make up the average human body (37.2 trillion, in case you’re counting).

And the same is true, too, for the safety and efficacy of vaccines: They’re extraordinarily effective and extraordinarily safe, no matter what the folks in the anti-vaccine fringe have been saying. But in this case, popular opinion makes a difference—potentially a life and death one. That’s because parents who have bought the anti-vax line are far less likely to vaccinate their children, putting those kids at risk as well as anyone in the community who can’t be vaccinated due to age or a medical problem.

It’s the reason there was an outbreak of vaccine-preventable measles earlier this year triggered by a single unvaccinated visitor to Disneyland, and an outbreak of vaccine-preventable mumps in and around Columbus, Ohio. And it just might be the reason an immune-compromised woman—who relied on the protection that a well-vaccinated community ought to provide its few unvaccinated members—recently died of measles in Washington state, the first U.S. measles death in over a decade.

So it’s the best possible news that a new poll conducted by doctors at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that across the country, parents’ views on vaccines are changing fast—and for the better.

Assembling a sample group of 1,416 randomly selected parents with at least one child 17 years old or younger, researchers posed a series of questions about the benefits of vaccines, the risks associated with vaccines, and the wisdom of laws, like the one Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed last month, requiring nearly all children attending schools in the state to be fully vaccinated. They also asked about the parents’ perception of the risks of measles and whooping cough.

In all five categories, the parents seemed increasingly to be aligning themselves with the sense and safety of the basic science camp and less with the misinformation and fear-mongering of the anti-vax camp. Overall, only 7% of parents thought vaccines were less safe than they did a year ago, while 25% thought them more safe than they once did; 68% were unchanged. Similarly, only 6% of parents were less supportive of vaccine requirements for students than they used to be, while 35% were more supportive. And 40% and 37% of all parents believed the risk of measles and whooping cough, respectively, have risen for U.S. kids in the past year, while only 15% in both cases thought the danger has decreased.

“For a quarter to a third of parents to say that their views on the safety and benefits of vaccines have shifted in just a year’s time is quite remarkable,” Dr. Matthew Davis, the director of the poll, said in a statement.

Actually, it’s more than remarkable. It also confirms what a lot of health-policy experts have been saying for a long time—that once parents started seeing the consequences of vaccine denialism in the form of flash-point epidemics like the Disneyland and Columbus outbreaks, they would come rushing back for the protection vaccines offer. An epidemic of any illness may be a terrible way to learn a lesson, but it’s a decidedly effective one.

Davis partly credits media coverage of the epidemics for helping parents wise up. That’s not just because of the reasonably responsible way news outlets reported the outbreaks, but also because of they way they’ve been edging away from the nonsense coming from anti-vaccine celebrities like Jim Carrey. Yes, Carrey got more press attention than he deserved after the vaccine law was approved in California, when he called Brown a “corporate fascist” and proceeded to recycle old myths about the dangers of mercury in vaccines. But he was also blow-torched for his know-nothingism in both mainstream and social media—a sign that the popular consensus is changing. The same kind of global opprobrium has at last caused Jenny McCarthy—the anti-vaxxers’ Earth mother—to go dark on the topic of vaccines altogether.

None of this means the vaccine fight is over—and it never will be as long as there is an Internet and an anti-vax community willing to fill it with silliness. But as the new poll suggests, that community is steadily growing smaller, and a larger community of parents committed to protecting the health of their children is taking its place.

Science, which has never sought to be a popularity contest, is winning this one all the same.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME vaccines

Jim Carrey, Please Shut Up About Vaccines

Actor Jim Carrey arrives at LACMA's 50th Anniversary Gala at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles.
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin—Getty Images Actor Jim Carrey arrives at LACMA's 50th Anniversary Gala at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The erstwhile Ace Ventura sounds off about vaccines. Spoiler alert: he's wrong

Say this for the anti-vax clown car: it never seems to run out of new punchinellos to climb inside. If it’s not scientific fabulist Andrew Wakefield, he of the fraudulent study that got the whole vaccine-autism myth started, it’s Jenny McCarthy, she of the supposedly vaccine-injured son whose autism was cured in part by—yes!—a gluten-free diet because, um, gluten is bad, very bad.

After McCarthy, there was Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider—because when you’re looking for guidance on the wisdom of vaccines, who are you going to trust: the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, or the man who gave us Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo? I mean, hello, the movie was huge.

Now, to this group of board-certified jesters add Jim Carrey—the ex-Mr. Jenny McCarthy—who rose on July 1 in all his orange-wigged, floppy-shoed, seltzer-down-the-pants fury to condemn California Governor Jerry Brown for the high crime of common sense, after Brown signed a law that requires virtually all kids in the state to be fully vaccinated as a pre-condition for attending public school. Carrey took—no surprise—to Twitter to air his peer-reviewed views.

“California Gov says yes to poisoning more children with mercury and aluminum in manditory [sic] vaccines. This corporate fascist must be stopped,” said the erstwhile Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. That was followed by:

“They say mercury in fish is dangerous but forcing all of our children to be injected with mercury in thimerosol [sic] is no risk. Make sense?” Which was followed by:

“I am not anti-vaccine. I am anti-thimerosal, anti-mercury. They have taken some of the mercury laden thimerosal out of vaccines. NOT ALL!”

And there was more too, but really, it doesn’t matter. Never mind that Carrey does not understand the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury or the fact that there is virtually no mercury of any kind left in vaccines. Never mind that he doesn’t seem to know that to the extent that aluminum is in vaccines at all, it is there only as an adjuvant—or immune system stimulant—and is well-handled by the body, especially in the trace amounts that it’s found in vaccines. And never mind too that if you’re going for the ad hominem attack—a staple of anti-vaxxers—calling a man like Jerry Brown, better known as Governor Moonbeam, a “fascist” is a bit wide of the argumentative mark.

The anti-vax crowd has never been about reasoned argument or a cool-headed look at clinical science. They’ve been all about rage, all about echo-chamber misinformation. For every sensible action to boost vaccination rates, they have long been there, like a sort of perverse bit of Newtonian physics, with an equal and risible reaction.

Maybe that’s the reason they roll out pratfall comics like Schneider and Carrey to plead their case—a bit of misdirection to hide the tragicomedy of their message behind the larger comedy of the messenger. Or maybe they’re the best they’ve got.

That matters. A movement that begins with a study conducted by a doctor so thoroughly discredited that he’s not even allowed to practice medicine in his native United Kingdom anymore (Wakefield) and takes flight thanks to the prattlings of a Playboy model and talk show guest (McCarthy) ought not to have a chance against the informed scientific opinion of virtually every medical group on Earth. That it does says something about the hucksters’ ability to sell their nonsense and the human tendency to pay more attention to famous but wrong-headed people than to unglamorous but smart ones.

But that’s finally changing. The anti-vax act has at last gotten old, and it’s gotten tired and the cost—sick children, lost school days, outbreaks of diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough—has gotten too high.

Like all fringe groups eventually do, the anti-vaxxers are now entering their rump-faction stage, dwindling to an angry, dense, immune-to-reason core. Soon enough, they’ll be gone. The likes of Carrey—today’s foghorn, tomorrow’s footnote—will vanish with them. And America’s children—not for nothing—will be better for it.

Read next: California Governor Jerry Brown Signs Mandatory Vaccine Law

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME vaccines

Why Jerry Brown Was Right to Sign the California Vaccine Bill

Bad choice: Anti-vaxxers protesting the California vaccine bill
Rich Pedroncelli—AP Bad choice: Anti-vaxxers protesting the California vaccine bill

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The governor had a chance to protect thousands of children—and he did

Updated: June 30, 2015, 2:32 PM EDT

California does not often make common cause with Mississippi and West Virginia. America’s blue-red divide doesn’t come any wider than it does between the liberal laboratory of the Pacific West and the conservative cornerstones of the old south. But with a single signature on a single bill, California Gov. Jerry Brown ensured that the largest state in the nation joined the two far smaller ones in what ought to be a simple, primal mission: keeping children healthy.

The law, which passed the California legislature with bipartisan majorities, does a straightforward job—removing the religious and personal belief exemptions that allowed parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. The legislation leaves standing the medical exemption—the waiver families receive when a child has a manifest medical condition like a compromised immune system that would make vaccines dangerous. Under the new rules, families without the medical waiver face a choice: get your kids the shots or prepare to home-school them, which ensures they get an education but protects other children from whatever pathogens they may be carrying.

Mississippi and West Virginia are the only other states in the country that currently have such no-nonsense rules and they’ve got the stellar vaccination rates to prove it: fully 99.9% of the states’ kids are up to date on all their shots. California was right to follow the example of those southern-fried smarts. Only 90.4% of the Golden State’s kindergarteners had their full complement of vaccinations in the 2014-2015 school year. The worst offenders are the parents in the too-rich, too-famous, too-smart by half provinces of Silicon Valley, where vaccination rates in some day care centers struggle to crack the 50% mark.

That matters—a lot. When vaccine coverage falls below 95%, communities begin to lose what’s known as herd immunity, the protection a fully inoculated population provides to the relative handful of its members who can’t be vaccinated. California has suffered the consequences of that, with outbreaks of whooping cough and mumps across the state. Earlier this year, more than 100 cases of measles in California and Mexico were traced to a single unvaccinated visitor to Disneyland. That outbreak, at one of the state’s most iconic destinations, at last got Sacramento’s attention, and the new law, though hotly debated, passed.

Brown was vague at first about whether he would sign the bill and that left a lot of health policy experts worried. He had signed an earlier bill that preserved the personal belief exemption but at least made it harder for families to claim one. No longer could parents simply check a box on a form—an awfully easy thing to do without giving the matter much thought. Under the previous law, they would have to visit a health care provider who would sign a statement confirming that the parents had been informed of the benefits (too many to enumerate) and the risks (vanishingly small) of vaccination. Once they’re in the doctor’s office, plenty of parents come around. But Brown, a one-time Jesuit seminarian who has made no secret of his spiritual side over the years, carved out an exception in that law for religious beliefs.

He was right not to make the same mistake this time. There was a time when religious exemptions were no cause for worry. The share of Americans whose faith forbids vaccinations is exceedingly small, and as long as the herd remained intact, those kids would remain safe. But that was before the nonsense factory of the anti-vaccine community went into operation, churning out all manner of misinformation about autism and brain damage and big pharma conspiring with big government to inject unsuspecting children with toxins. The result: Vaccine rates have plummeted nationwide, and children have paid the price.

The tension between religious liberty and civic responsibility is hardly a new issue in the American system. If your religion does no harm to anyone else—least of all kids—you ought to be free to practice it in peace. But if that faith requires prayer to treat pediatric cancer or laying on of hands as a cure for severe pneumonia, the state ought to be able to intervene and provide proper care if you won’t and prosecute you if your child is injured or killed. In some states that’s indeed possible but in others it’s not, and a complex patchwork governs the level of care each state will or won’t mandate.

Mandatory testing for lead levels in blood? OK in most places, but not if you live in Delaware, Maine, Kansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, where religious exemptions are available. Mandatory eyedrops to help prevent blindness in newborns? An important preventive for kids born to mothers with certain kinds of STDs—but they may be out of luck if they’re born in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, or Pennsylvania.

The kids, it’s worth noting, did not choose to be born in states with weak protections. And they don’t choose either to be born to parents who look at vaccines and see in them something sinister or dangerous or strangely unholy.

Anti-vax parents came into a world of medically rational adults who had seen the wages of polio or diphtheria or smallpox or whooping cough and were grateful for a preventive that could eliminate those horrors. Jerry Brown himself came into that world too. Contemporary children deserve the same kind of wisdom and the same kind of care the grown-ups around them enjoyed. And California children deserve a governor who will see to it that that they get it.

Today Brown lived up to that responsibility.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME A Year In Space

How Serious a Setback Is the SpaceX Rocket Explosion?

A dramatic accident just minutes after launch could mean problems for the International Space Station

There are uncountable laws of physics and engineering that govern the launch of a rocket. But there’s one that supersedes them all: Ultimately, stuff will blow up. Always has, always will.

Elon Musk had never come face to face with that rule before — at least not in space travel — but Sunday morning he did in a very big way, when his Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon cargo vehicle exploded just two and a half minutes after launch. The rocket came undone before its first stage had even shut down and separated, blowing itself to pieces and auguring into the Atlantic just off the Cape Canaveral coast.

NASA, as NASA does, initially framed the failure as clinically as possible, describing it as a “non-nominal” liftoff. But NASA administrator Charles Bolden later described the agency as “disappointed” by the loss of the mission. “We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight,” he said. “This is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback.”

Musk himself was more candid, if a little oblique:

But the most poignant and most apt response came from astronaut Scott Kelly, currently completing the third month of his marathon year aboard the International Space Station:

And so space is—very, very hard, and it’s the International Space Station (ISS) that has recently been paying the price. In April, a Russian Progress cargo vehicle carrying thousands of pounds of equipment and supplies reached orbit but spun out of control and eventually plunged back through the atmosphere, incinerating itself and its cargo. In October 2014, an Antares rocket—built by Musk’s cargo competitor Orbital Sciences—exploded just six seconds off the pad.

But it’s the SpaceX explosion that will prove the most costly. The key piece of cargo the now-destroyed Dragon was carrying was the first of a pair of International Docking Adapters (IDA) that was supposed to connect to the station’s Harmony module and serve as the attachment node for private crew vehicles that are scheduled to begin flying in 2017. Two companies won the contracts to build the new craft—SpaceX, which is modifying its Dragon craft to make it habitable; and Boeing, which is building a new vehicle dubbed the CST-100. Boeing built the lost IDA as well, but both companies are designing their craft to be compatible with it.

How big a setback this will be to the future of station operations is not clear. The current three-person crew—which will increase to six when the next expedition launches from Kazakhstan in July—is in no danger of running out of essential supplies like food, water and breathable oxygen. But luxuries like personal packages from family members and perishables like fresh fruit can make it aboard only as often as the cargo runs succeed.

The docking adapter is another matter, however. One of the biggest action items on the astronauts’ to-do-list for the next few months is reconfiguring ISS’s various modules to ready the station for the new crew vehicles. Kelly and soon-to-arrive crewmate Kjell Lindgren will be embarking on their first spacewalks to help get that job done. Without the IDA, however, the work can only proceed so far.

Worse, the Obama White House and NASA itself have bet their space reps on NASA’s ability to make a smooth transition to private suppliers for trips to low Earth orbit, freeing the space agency to focus on unmanned missions to the planets and, eventually, manned trips to deep space. Serial failures by Orbital Sciences and SpaceX do not do much to boost confidence in that plan.

Geopolitics play a role too. American leverage in the increasingly strained relationship between Washington and Moscow has not been helped by the fact that, since the grounding of the shuttles, the U.S. has been entirely dependent on the Russian Soyuz rocket to carry astronauts to space.

In response to the U.S. and European measures to clamp down on Russian banking and overseas assets in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin snarkily Tweeted, “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Rogozin was bluffing. Russia charges the U.S. more than $70 million per seat for trips on the Soyuz and a cash-poor Kremlin is not inclined to say no to the ready pocket money. But it was galling at least for the U.S., and nobody in Washington or at NASA wants America’s dependency on the Russians to go on any longer than it absolutely has to go.

That, however, is for tomorrow. Today, Musk, who is experiencing his first major launch failure, must dig into his telemetry and the remains of his rocket and see what in the world went wrong. He’s not the first to have to conduct such a post-flight autopsy and he won’t be the last. Space is always hard—and on some days it’s too hard.

TIME A Year In Space

6 Ways Medicine in Space is Completely Different from on Earth

Preparing to make a house call: Scott Kelly, currently aboard the space station for a one-year stay, checks out spacewalk suit of space doc Kjell Lindgren, who blasts off next month
NASA Preparing to make a house call: Scott Kelly, currently aboard the space station for a one-year stay, checks out spacewalk suit of space doc Kjell Lindgren, who blasts off next month

Everything's different in zero-g

You may or may not want to go to space, but here’s something certain: you definitely don’t want to get sick there. Ask the crew of Apollo 7, the 1960s mission in which the commander contracted a cold, spread it to the other two astronauts and all three of them spent the entire mission trapped inside a cramped spacecraft, sneezing, hacking and griping at the ground.

And that was just 11 days in Earth orbit. What about a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS)? What about a two-and-a-half-year mission to Mars. And what about something a wee bit more serious than a cold—like appendicitis or a heart attack or a severe injury? Zero-gravity plays all manner of nasty games with the bones, muscles, organs, eyeballs, the brain itself—never mind the infectious risks that come from sealing half a dozen people inside a self-contained vessel, where a virus or bacterium could simply circulate ’round and ’round, from person to person indefinitely.

These are some of the things that will be on the mind of rookie astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who will spend nearly six months aboard the ISS when he lifts off in late July as part of the station’s next three-person crew. Lindgren is not just a well-trained astronaut, but a specialist in aerospace and emergency medicine—just the kind of expert who will increasingly be needed as the human presence in space becomes permanent.

“If we want to go to Mars some day,” Lindgren said in a recent conversation with TIME, “if we want to get further and deeper into the solar system, we need to start thinking about these things, thinking about the capabilities we need to do an appendectomy or take out a gall bladder.”

There will be no gall bladder or appendix takings while Lindgren is aloft. For now, he and the ISS flight doctors back on Earth are taking only space-medicine baby steps, learning the basics about the radical differences between medical care on the Earth and medical care off it. Here are a few of the most vexing problems they have to learn to solve:

1. Where is that kidney again? On Earth, your organs settle into predictable positions. A doctor palpating your liver or thumping your chest knows exactly where things ought to be. In zero-g, not so much. “The organs may be displaced a little bit,” says Lindgren. “They tend to shift up a little more. The heart may have a little bit of a different orientation, which may be reflected on an EKG.” Other kinds of shifting or compression—of the lungs, stomach, bladder and more—can cause problems of their own.

2. Your bones hate space: Without the constant tug of gravity, your skeleton doesn’t work nearly as hard, which causes it to weaken and decalcify. Astronauts spend many hours a week exercising to counteract some of that, but nothing can reverse it completely. When Russia’s Mir space station was still flying, newly arriving cosmonauts were warned not to exchange traditional bear hugs with crew members who had been there for a while. The risk: broken ribs.

3. Your eyes do too: Astronauts who have been in space for long-term stays often find that their vision grows worse, and it doesn’t always bounce completely back when they return to Earth. The problem is caused by fluid shifting upward from the lower body into the head, compressing the optic nerve and distorting the shape of the eyeball. Eye infections and irritation are more common too—for decidedly ick-inducing reasons. “Dust doesn’t settle in the vehicle like it does on Earth,” says Lindgren. “So things that are liberated, little pieces of metal from equipment or maybe dead skin just float around and cause eye irritation.”

4. But your feet will thank you: You know all of those callouses that you’ve built up on your heel and the ball of your foot after a lifetime of walking around? Say goodbye too them. They serve a purpose, which is to cushion your foot against the shock of walking, but since you’re not walking in space, you don’t need them. Just beware when you remove your socks. The callouses don’t tell you when they’re going to slough off, so the wrong move at the wrong time could leave unsightly chunks of you floating around the cabin. (See, e.g., “ick-inducing,” above.)

5. Try not to need stitches: Suturing wounds is one of the most basic things doctors and other medical caregivers learn how to do, but it will take a little extra work in space. On Earth, sutures are simply laid on a tray along with the other equipment. In space, that’s not possible. “Instead of your sterile suture thread laying in a sterile field, now it’s floating around and running into everything,” says Lindgren. While aloft, Lindgren plans to experiment with different techniques to address this problem; no word on which of his five crewmates will volunteer to be the patient.

6. Eat your roughage: Easily the least glamorous part of space travel is the simple business of, well, doing your business. The space toilets aboard the ISS and the shuttle have come a long way from the bags and tubes of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era. But the human body hasn’t changed much in that time, and when it comes to keeping the intestines operating, a little gravity can help. One lunar astronaut who, for the sake of legacy and dignity will not be identified here, claimed that one of the best parts about landing on the moon was that things that hadn’t been working at all when he was in zero-g, got moving right away in the one-sixth gravity of the moon. History is made by mortals, and no matter where they are, mortals gotta’ do what mortals gotta’ do.

TIME the brain

Why You’re Pretty Much Unconscious All the Time

Nobody's home: There's less of you here than you think
Getty Images Nobody's home: There's less of you here than you think

A surprising new paper argues that consciousness is just a bit player in the human brain

Your body has a lot of nifty parts, but it’s the brain that’s the it organ of the summer. The brain’s all-the-rage moment is mostly a result of the box office hit Inside Out, from Pixar, the animation company that had previously limited itself to such fanciful questions as “What would happen if your toys could come alive?” or “Are there really monsters in my closet?” With Inside Out, the filmmakers raised their game, taking on a rather more vexing issue: How does the brain work?

The answer—which involves five colorful characters living inside your head and operating a giant control panel—was perfect at a lot of levels, equal parts fairy tale, metaphor, and sort-of, kind-of, pretty good science. But no sooner did the problem get solved, than the real scientists came along and spoiled the party. And they did it in a big way.

In a new paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a group of researchers led by associate professor of psychology Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University, took on the somewhat narrower question of exactly what consciousness is—and came up with a decidedly bleaker view: It’s pretty much nothing at all. Never mind the five characters controlling your thoughts, you barely control them. It’s the unconscious that’s really in charge.

Morsella’s paper was not based on any breaking experimental work. There were no new brain scans or questionnaires or subjects being asked to respond to flashing lights or flickering images on a computer screen. Rather, the work involved little more than a group of really, really smart people thinking really, really hard about things. That, for better or worse, is how most questions about consciousness have been answered since humans began considering them, and the answers have often been pretty compelling.

The one Morsella and his colleagues came up with is something they call “Passive Frame Theory,” and their provocative idea goes like this: nearly all of your brain’s work is conducted in different lobes and regions at the unconscious level, completely without your knowledge. When the processing is done and there is a decision to make or a physical act to perform, that very small job is served up to the conscious mind, which executes the work and then flatters itself that it was in charge all the time.

The conscious you, in effect, is like a not terribly bright CEO, whose subordinates do all of the research, draft all of the documents, then lay them out and say, “Sign here, sir.” The CEO does—and takes the credit.

“The information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious thought,” Morsella said in a statement accompanying the release of the paper. “Nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.”

There are deep evolutionary reasons for things to work that way. Humans, like all animals, operate as parsimoniously as possible; if we could be run entirely by our reflexes and instincts with no conscious thought at all, we would. There’s a reason you don’t stop to contemplate whether you should pull your hand off a hot stove, and instead simply do it. Consciousness in that case would just slow things down.

But as we became complex, social organisms, capable of speech and emotion and tool-making and more, we needed a bit of the brain that could step in not so much to run things, but to guide the body or choose between two or three very simple options. Take the experience of holding your breath underwater or carrying a hot dish. Your musculoskeletal system wants you to take a breath in the first case and drop the dish in the second. However, the part of your unconscious brain that is aware of consequences knows why both of those choices are bad ideas. So the conflict is served up to the conscious mind that keeps you in control until you’ve reached the surface of the water or put the dish on the table.

But the unconscious mind is far more powerful and creative than that. The authors cite language in particular—a human faculty that is considered perhaps our highest and most complex gift—as one more area in which consciousness is just a bit player. You may be the world’s finest raconteur, but when you’re speaking you’re only consciously aware of the few words you’re saying at any one moment—and that’s only so you can direct the muscles that make it possible to form and express the words in the first place. All of the content of your speech is being pre-cooked for you before you say it.

Things are a bit different if you’re, say, delivering a rehearsed toast or speaking in a language that is not your own; in these cases, the conscious mind has either mastered a script or is continually consulting an inner dictionary, reminding itself to convert, say, the English cat to the Spanish gato. But the whole goal of language fluency is to eliminate that step, to think in the second language and thus, once again, put the conscious mind out of work.

Morsella goes heavy on the acronyms to make his case. The brain’s guiding principle in mediating between the conscious and unconscious is described as EASE—for Elemental, Action-based, Simple and Evolutionary-based. The system for speaking one word instead of another or holding onto a hot dish even when you don’t want to is PRISM—for Parallel Responses into Skeletal Muscle. But those utilitarian terms do a very good job of capturing the utilitarian way the human system works.

We are, like it or not, biological machines, and the simpler we keep things, the less chance there is for a mistake or a breakdown. The mind, as the most complex part of us, needs the streamlining more than anything else. None of this changes the fact that our brains are the seat of our greatest achievements—our poetry, our inventions, our compassion, our art. It’s just that it’s the unconscious rather than the conscious that should take the bow. The only thing that should have any quarrel with that is one of our lesser impulses: our vanity.

TIME A Year In Space

See 2 Dramatic Views of Space Travel

International Space Station Scott Kelly
Scott Kelly—NASA

A pair of pictures tell a powerful tale

A trip to the International Space Station starts and ends with fire, but in between, there is only a sweet, shimmery drift. That’s a fact of your work life if you’re one of the tiny handful of people who fly those missions, but for the rest of us, it’s nice to have a little photographic evidence now and again. For that reason, this is a good week to offer a hat tip to astronaut Scott Kelly who can be found 251 mi. (404 km) above the Earth, where he’ll be until his year in space mission ends next March; and to NASA photographer Bill Ingalls, who can be found, well, pretty much anywhere on the planet his history-capturing services are needed. As the pictures above and below prove, both men have been doing their jobs exceptionally well.

Kelly’s picture was part of his “Good night from the International Space Station” series, a regular image he posts on his Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds before bunking down for the night—which easily qualifies him as having a much, much more interesting Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feed than you do.

MORE: See The Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

In the foreground of the image is one of the station’s many projecting limbs of hardware. In the background is the rainbow-hued onion skin of Earth’s atmosphere and the spine of the Milky Way, ranging in all directions.

Expedition 43 Soyuz TMA-15M Landing
Bill Ingalls—NASAThe Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft lands with Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts of NASA, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from European Space Agency (ESA) near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on June 11, 2015.

Ingalls’ picture was taken on June 11, from the open hatch of helicopter 28, as it hovered over the Kazakhstan steppes when the Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Terri Virts, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti returned to Earth. As a Soyuz makes its final approach, it is moving at a parachute-controlled 24 ft. per sec (8.5 m/sec), which is a whole lot slower than the speed it was traveling during its blistering plunge through the atmosphere, but still way too fast for a safe landing. So one second before impact, two small clusters of engines ignite, braking the spacecraft to just 5 ft. per sec (1.5 m/sec). That’s a speed that you’ll easily survive but you won’t remotely enjoy, as any crewmember who has ever experienced the teeth-rattling impact of hitting the Kazakh deck will tell you.

But never mind. Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti returned home safely, Kelly logged another busy day aboard the station, and the rest of us rode along in our own small way, thanks to the people who capture the images of the otherworldly places humanity goes.

TIME Family

How Parents’ Expectations Mess With Kids’ Grades

Bad news? Blame your folks
JEFF PACHOUD; AFP/Getty Images Bad news? Blame your folks

When Mom and Dad expect one child to perform better than the other, that's often exactly what happens

Never mind how long you think it’s been since you got your last report card, if you’re a parent, you get them all the time. Your son’s D in history despite the many times you told him to sit down and study already? That’s your D too. And as for all those As your no-nonsense, hardworking daughter keeps getting? Well, don’t get too full of yourself, but you own a piece of those as well.

That, at least, is one implication of a new—and faintly unsettling—study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. The report’s takeaway: your kids get the grades you expect them to get.

Parental expectations have long been an under-appreciated factor in the childrearing game. Kids are smart, the research suggests, especially when it comes to divining what mom and dad think of them. A child who is expected to underachieve will often live down to that prediction. A child expected to thrive will not necessarily become an academic, athletic or social superstar, but will have a much better shot at it.

To test how this dynamic plays out in the case of scholastic performance, Alexander Jensen of Brigham Young University and Susan McHale of Penn State assembled a sample group of 388 two-parent families with at least two children, and focused on the first- and second-borns of the brood. The sibling dyads—or pairs—were selected to represent all four possible age and gender combinations: two brothers, two sisters, an older brother and younger sister and an older sister and younger brother.

The parents were asked a handful of questions about how their children are similar or different when it comes to school work, which of the two is a better student, and how great, on a five-point scale, that difference in performance is. Simple stuff, but it produced surprising results.

On the whole, parents tended to believe that their older child was the better student, though the previous year’s report cards and grade point average often showed that that wasn’t the case. Parents exhibited a gender bias too, typically believing that a daughter was a better student than a son—which on average was true—even when the daughter was the younger child.

All those beliefs, founded in fact or not, had their effect on kids. When the researchers controlled for all of the reasons one child might have performed even a little bit better than the other in the previous school year, they found that the biggest factor determining how the kids would perform the following year was the parents’ belief in who the better student was. On average, the sibling the parents expected to outperform the other one did, by an average GPA bump of 0.21 points. That’s hardly an inconsequential margin, especially when it makes the kind of symbolic difference bringing home a 2.79 versus a 3.0 does.

But while parental expectations had a powerful impact on the kids performance, the reverse was not often true. Even when the child who was thought to be the lesser student did better than the other one, parents’ beliefs remained fixed; the golden child will always be seen as the golden child, never mind any academic tarnish that may accumulate over time.

The study was by no means a perfect one. Some parents surely do a worse job of hiding their expectations than others; some may even make it a point not to hide them, in the why-can’t-you-study-like-your-sister-does way. A sample group of 388 families might have 388 different ways of managing that dynamic.

Then too there is the chicken-egg problem. A question and answer survey of parents and a statistical core sample of just a year or two of grades does not remotely capture an entire childhood’s worth of experiences in which kids’ academic performance may be changing all the time and parents are forever having to tack into those winds.

“At younger ages, differences between siblings may shape parents’ beliefs,” the authors conceded, “and a direction for research is to determine how parents’ ideas about similarities and differences between their children emerge and develop over time.”

Still, if there’s one thing kids have always had it’s an uncannily good radar for what their parents think of them. And if there’s one thing parents often lack, it’s a good defense against that. Mom and Dad may never be able to hide their expectations about their kids completely, but they could, at least, do a better job of adjusting them as circumstances warrant. The kids themselves—to say nothing of their GPAs—will thank them for it.

TIME movies

Inside Out’s Trippy Ride Through a Strange Land

Joy and Sadness represent two of the emotions clashing in a little girl’s mind.
Pixar Joy and Sadness represent two of the emotions clashing in a little girl’s mind.

Spoiler: The brain

Your brain does not operate the way the folks at Pixar say it should–and that’s a pity. It goes about its job in its blobby, gray-white way, processing your fear, your sorrow, your joy in your amygdala, your limbic system, your prefrontal cortex, while your hippocampus handles your memories.

What your brain doesn’t have is a mission-control room in a gleaming white tower staffed by five multicolored characters–Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear–watching the world through your eyes and dialing up the right feeling for the right moment. What it also doesn’t have is a great city laid out at the foot of the tower, with a movie studio where your dreams are made, a Goofball Island where your playfulness lives and a train of thought that is actually a train.

Your brain doesn’t have any of that, but Riley’s does. Riley is the 11-year-old girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) in whose head we spend most of the mind-bending Inside Out, the latest release from Disney’s animation Wurlitzer, Pixar. We meet Riley as a newborn when she opens her eyes and catches a glimpse of her cooing parents, and her first memory–in the form of a shimmering, yellow bowling ball of glass–rolls down a chute onto a shelf in the control room.

Joy (Amy Poehler) is at the controls at that moment, but soon enough Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) turns a knob, the baby starts fussing, and another glass ball, this one blue, rolls down the chute. So it goes for Riley’s first day of life–and every day thereafter–as hundreds of glass balls, all color-coded, are collected and designated for storage.

That Inside Out’s story turns on a traumatic year in Riley’s life in which she and her family move from bucolic Minnesota to an alien San Francisco–leading to bedlam in her emotional control room–is almost secondary. The same is true for the movie’s brilliant casting. (Who else would you get to play Fear, Disgust and Anger but Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black?)

The genius of Inside Out is the way it cunningly illuminates the workings of the brain, an organ that’s always been mystifying in its complexity and opaque in its function. The heart looks like the pump it is. But the brain–still and silent and too cool for school? A riddle.

So Inside Out answers it. Jelly-bean-shaped workers walk the aisles of Riley’s archives, vacuuming out the memory globes she no longer needs–the names of all the glitter princesses she could recite in pre-K, say. That may not be how the brain actually works, but it’s not exactly not how either. The same is true of a chamber called Abstract Thought, which turns characters Picassoesque when they enter, and an Imagination Land that stamps out make-believe boyfriends who all say, “I would die for Riley.” Refracted through these hallucinogenic prisms, the real brain makes more sense.

Most important is what Inside Out says about your emotions. It may be Joy who leads the movie’s save-Riley mission, but it is Sadness who makes sure it succeeds–with big assists from Disgust, Anger and Fear. Your mind contains multitudes, and as Inside Out makes clear, you need them all.

Kluger is TIME’s science writer and author of The Narcissist Next Door


This appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME space

The Mystery of Saturn’s Earth-Sized Cyclone, Explained

How a whole lot of little storms converge to produce one of the largest tempests in the solar system

Correction appended, 6/17/15

There’s one big difference between Earth and Saturn—OK, there are a lot of big differences between Earth and Saturn, including size, chemistry, temperature, distance from the sun and number of moons (one for Earth, up to 62 for Saturn). But the difference that may be most important concerns their atmospheres: Earth has one, Saturn essentially is one, part of the solar system’s quartet of gas giants that also includes Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.

With a vastly larger atmosphere than Earth’s, Saturn also has vastly larger storms—and none is as impressive as the huge cyclones that spin at its north pole, each as big around as the entire Earth, with winds that whip at 300 mph (483 k/h). The storms, first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, have always been a mystery. But now, a paper published in Nature Geoscience by a team of researchers headed by planetary scientist Morgan O’Neill of MIT may explain things.

One thing O’Neill and her colleagues knew was that understanding cyclones on Earth would provide only limited help in understanding them on Saturn. The Earthly storms can’t form without a fixed surface beneath them—especially a wet, fixed surface, which provides the friction that allows winds to drag and converge and the warm water that serves as the storms’ rocket fuel.

MORE: See The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

To understand how things work on Saturn, the researchers had to develop a computer model that recreated the planet’s gassier, drier, deeper and more turbulent atmosphere. They then ran hundreds of simulations over the course of days to try to see how cyclones could form at all and why they would converge into one super storm at the top of the planet. The computer delivered the goods.

Around the planet, the models showed, small vortices develop as a result of temperature differences in the atmosphere interacting with condensed water and ammonium hydrosulphide. The storms spin in two directions at once, with the bottom half moving one way—either clockwise or counterclockwise—and the top half moving the other. The rotation of the planet drags the storms toward the poles, in a process called beta drift. A second process, called beta gyre, surrounds each mini-cyclone, tearing it in two, with the upper half of each moving toward the equator, where they have room to disperse, and the top half continuing toward the poles, where they converge. The result: lots of mini-storms producing one massive, long-lived one at the top of the planet.

Why does any of this matter—aside from the fact that it’s an exceedingly elegant solution to an exceedingly stubborn riddle about Saturn’s behavior? For one thing, it provides some rules that help explain atmospheric behavior on other worlds. Exceedingly large planets like Jupiter are unlikely to have suprcyclones at their poles because the size of the individual storms is too small relative to the size of the overall world. Smaller gas giants like Neptune could well have polar cyclones. All that, in turn, could lead to greater understanding of exoplanets—those orbiting other stars.

Oh, and finally there’s this: Saturn’s atmosphere is just hypnotically beautiful, as this gallery of pictures suggests. Understanding how it works doesn’t increase that beauty any, but it does help you appreciate it more.

The original version of this story misidentified the gender of lead researcher Morgan O’Neill. She is a woman.

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