TIME animal behavior

What Are Animals Thinking? (Hint: More Than You Suspect)

The mind of an animal is a far richer, more complex thing than most people know — as a new TIME book reveals

Let’s be honest, you’d probably rather die than wake up tomorrow morning and find out you’d turned into an animal. Dying, after all, is inevitable, and there’s even a certain dignity to it: Shakespeare did it, Einstein did it, Galileo and Washington and Twain all did it. And you, someone who was born a human and will live your life as a human, will end your life that way too.

But living that life as an animal — an insensate brute, incapable of reason, abstraction, perhaps even feeling? Unthinkable. Yes, yes, the animals don’t recognize the difference, and neither would you. If you’re a goat, you possess the knowledge of a goat, and that can’t be much. But there’s more to it than that.

Human beings have always had something of a bipolar relationship with the millions of other species with which we share the planet. We are fascinated by them, often dazzled by them. They can be magnificently beautiful, for one thing: the explosive color and frippery of a bird of paradise, the hallucinatory variety of the fish in a coral reef, the otherworldly markings and architecture of a giraffe. Even the plain or ugly animals — consider the naked, leathery grayness of the rhino or elephant — have a certain solidity and equipoise to them. And to see an animal at what appears to be play — the breaching dolphin, the swooping raptor — is to think that it might be fun to have a taste, a tiny taste, of their lives.

But it’s a taste we’d surely spit right out, because as much as we may admire animals, we pity them too: their ignorance, their inconsequence, and their brief, savage lives. It’s in our interest to see them that way — not so much because we need to press our already considerable advantage over them; we don’t. But because we have certain uses in mind for them. We need the animals to work for us — to pull carts, drag plows, lift logs and carry loads, and stand still for a whipping if they don’t. We need them to entertain us, in our circuses and zoos and stage shows. And most of all, we need them to feed us, with their eggs and milk and their very flesh. A few favored beasts do get a pass — dogs, cats, some horses — but the rest are little more than tools for our use.

But that view is becoming impossible to sustain — as a new TIME book reveals. The more deeply scientists look into the animal mind, the more they’re discovering it to be a place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance. There are the parrots that don’t just mimic words but appear to understand them, for example, assembling them into what can only be described as sentences. There are the gorillas and bonobos that can do the same with sign language or pictograms. Those abilities are hard to dismiss, but they also miss the point; they are, in many way, limited gifts — animals doing things humans do, but much less well.

A better measure is the suite of behaviors the animals exhibit on their own: crows that can fashion tools, lions that collaborate on elaborate hunts, dolphins and elephants with signature calls that serve as names, and cultural norms like grieving for their dead and caring for grandchildren. There are the complex, even political societies that hyenas create and the factory-like worlds of bees and ants. There are the abiding friendships among animals, too — not just the pairs of dolphins or horses or dogs that seem inseparable but the cross-species loyalties: the monkey and the dog, the sheep and the elephant, the cat and the crow, members of ordinarily incompatible species that appear never to have thought to fight with or eat one another because, well, no one told them they had to.

Animals, the research is proving, are creatures capable of reflection, bliss, worry and more. Not all of them in the same ways or to the same degrees, surely, but all of them in far deeper measures than we’ve ever believed. The animal mind is nothing like the wasteland it’s been made out to be. And if it’s not the mind you’d want to have as your own, it’s one that is still worth getting to know much better.

(The Animal Mind is now available on newsstands.)

TIME psychology

Quiz: Are You A Narcissist?

Take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, developed by Robert Raskin and Howard Terry.

Check the answer in each pair that comes closest to describing you. Don’t leave any pairs blank; try to complete the survey in just a few minutes. The highest possible score is 40, the lowest is 0.

Penguin Group

Excerpted from The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World

Read More: The Evolution of a Narcissist

TIME psychology

Robin’s Pain: The Mystery of Suicide — and How to Prevent It

Sad Goodbye: Where Robin Williams once stood, flowers now lay
Sad Goodbye: Where Robin Williams once stood, flowers now lay Paul Archuleta—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Robin Williams was just one of 39,000 Americans who take their lives each year. The long-standing puzzle is why anyone arrives at so tragic a place. Increasingly, there are answers

The great paradox of the human brain is that it can’t feel pain. The organ that is the seat of all joy and worry and love and sorrow and whimsy and fear is itself insensible to injury. It’s the reason brain surgery can be conducted on conscious patients without their being any more physically aware of the cutting than if a garment they were wearing were being violated the same way.

But the pain the brain can cause — the bottomless well of grief, the psychic blackness of depression — is something else again. There is both presumption and a certain pointlessness in trying to explain the awful convergence of sorrow and circumstance that drove Robin Williams to end his life. Williams himself may not have known, and if he did, the secret died with him. That doesn’t stop others from trying to make sense of it, of course — and so we hear that he was suffering from clinical depression or bipolar disorder, or that his battles with substance abuse finally claimed him.

Williams was publicly sanguine about his mental state, telling NPR in 2006, “No clinical depression, no. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, ‘Whoa.’ Other moments you look and go, ‘Oh, things are O.K.’” But after his death, his representative released a statement saying he had been “battling severe depression of late.”

The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Williams arrived at the same terrible place 39,000 other Americans reach each year, and like them, he concluded that the only way to annihilate a terrible despair was to annihilate the self. All anyone can do responsibly is reason back from there — reverse engineer the tragedy — and see what that might reveal.

The numbers can tell you something — sort of. Up to 90% of all people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with depression or some other form of mental illness in their lives. About one third of people with serious depression have had struggles with drugs and alcohol, perhaps as a result of trying to medicate their pain chemically. About 25% to 35% of people who commit suicide have a chemical substance in their blood at the time of death.

But there are plenty of depressed or chemically dependent people in the world, and while their struggles are real, their stories — and their lives — don’t end the way Williams’ did. The difference appears not just to be pain, but pain of a particular valence.

“It’s intolerable, unbearable anguish that can’t go away,” says psychologist Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and U.S. representative to the International Association of Suicide Prevention. “No matter what people have tried — treatment, medication — it doesn’t help. Logic becomes unreal. Attention and focus fall apart. The brain is just an organ and at some point it says, ‘I can’t take the pain anymore. I must take myself out.’”

But that doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a certain ambivalence and a strange kind of deal-making that can go on before a decision to die is actually reached. Suicidal scenarios may be considered, even planned, taken off the shelf and toyed with as a possibility. “This starts to play certain tricks on the mind,” says Reidenberg. “People think, ‘If someone smiles at me today I’m not going to do it. I’m going to have my last meal and if that goes well, I won’t do it.’”

Not all suicides creep up so slowly — or at least they don’t seem to. Situational despair — the kind that comes from the death of a loved one or a sudden bankruptcy — can, anecdotally, precede a suicide, but this happens less than is popularly believed. All of those investors who leapt to their deaths when the stock market crashed in 1929? Those were mostly a myth — though there were some isolated suicides in the days and months that followed the crash. And even in those cases, there was likely an underlying depression or mental illness that was exacerbated by circumstance. If tragedy were the threshold requirement for suicide, a spectacularly successful and globally celebrated person like Williams — or Kurt Cobain or Ernest Hemingway or Marilyn Monroe — would never have ended things as they did.

On those occasions that short-term pain does play a role in suicide, it’s likelier to occur among teens. That’s partly because the impulse control region of their brains have not fully come online yet — which is why even happy teens make such wildly poor decisions sometimes — and partly because they have such a flawed sense of the long arc of time. “The teenager cares about right now, what’s in front of me,” says Reidenberg. “They’re not looking at the next 60 years, they’re thinking about the next six minutes.”

The biggest thing working in the teens’ favor is that they often seem less than entirely certain about the wisdom of suicide, even after they’ve resolved to try it. “There’s a much higher rate of suicide attempts among adolescents than among other groups, but a much lower rate of actual death,” says psychologist John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which runs a website and 24-hour hotline (1-800-273-8255) for people in crisis. “A big part of them doesn’t want to die and the overwhelming majority get through those moments and are glad they’re alive.”

Indeed, says Reidenberg, both teens and adults who attempt suicide but survive often report that in the instant after they took the decisive step — swallowing the pills, leaping from the window — they began hoping that they’d survive the fall or be found alive before the drugs could do their work. Some never try again.

Stopping people short of that point — or pulling them back from the brink if they’ve reached it — can sometimes be a matter of simple preparation. For anyone who has flirted with suicide, Draper recommends putting together a safety plan that can be used in a time of crisis — a list of friends, family members and professionals to contact for help, as well as reminders of self-calming activities or short-term distractions that have worked in the past. Keeping the instruments of self-harm out of reach is important too. About 60% of the 33,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year are suicides.

Making psychotherapy more widely available can help as well. Roughly 60% of the people who need mental health services in the U.S. each year do not get it, often beause of the stigma of seeking help, though just as often because of lack of insurance. The Affordable Care Act is changing that, with requirements that all policies cover mental, not just physical illnesses.

Early detection of people prone to suicide could make a difference, and one finding earlier this summer revealed that a gene known as SKA2, which is abundant in the prefrontal cortex, may play a role in helping people manage negative feelings and contain impulsive behavior — both important brakes on suicidal behavior. Handily, the gene produces blood markers that indicate its level of activity, providing a quick way of diagnosing potential problems long before they start. Talk therapy is important too, and medications may be an important adjunct, though just which drug is best depends on just which patient is being treated — antidepressants for the depressive, mood stabilizers for the person with bipolar disorder.

As with any deadly disease, of course, there is nothing certain about who will be lost to suicide and who will not. Williams himself seemed to understand the knife edge on which such mortal matters balance. In a 2006 TV interview, after completing two months of treatment for a relapse into alcoholism, he described how easy it is for a former drinker to pick up the bottle again. “It’s the same voice that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump.’” This week, in his own way, Robin Williams jumped — and a little bit of all of us went with him.

TIME Infectious Disease

Watch a Science Cop Take on Donald Trump

TIME's Jeffrey Kluger takes on The Donald for crimes against science

The Ebola outbreak that is causing such fear and suffering in Africa is a very real and very deadly thing. But the fact is that the nature of the Ebola virus is such that it stands a very low chance of ever causing a pandemic like AIDS or H1N1. That hasn’t stopped America’s great foghorn—Donald Trump—and others like him from spreading all kinds of misinformation about the disease, warning people that patients should not be brought to the U.S. and that flights from West Africa should be stopped, otherwise we face an American epidemic.

But Trump and his ilk are committing a science crime—the crime of misinformation. Here’s the truth, from TIME’s Jeffrey Kluger.

 
 

TIME mental health

How Do You Spot a Narcissist? Just Ask

Like the view? The original Narcissus and his BFF
Like the view? The original Narcissus and his BFF John William Waterhouse; Getty Images/The Bridgeman Art Library

It's not easy to diagnose most personality disorders. But narcissism is a snap—since the narcissists themselves know who they are

Narcissus got a bad rap. Sure, the guy was self-absorbed—what with all that staring at his own reflection in a stream. But once he fell in and drowned, well, lesson learned, and he wasn’t around to cause anyone else any grief. But the modern-day people who suffer from the disorder named after him? They’re a whole different matter.

Narcissists are alternately preening, entitled, aggressive, greedy, insensitive, vain, unfaithful, dishonest, lethally charming (a charm you buy at your peril) and sexually exploitative. They may represent merely 1% to 3% of the general population—but that’s only full-blown, capital-N narcissism, the kind formally known as narcissistic personality disorder. There are plenty of other people with lowercase, sub-clinical cases of the condition who can do all kinds of damage—and the odds are very, very good there are at least a few in your life.

How can you learn to recognize a narcissist at a glance? Easy, suggests a new study published in PLOS ONE: Just ask them.

Narcissism is typically diagnosed with a 40-item questionnaire known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, or NPI. (Take it here.) The NPI is a so-called forced choice test, one that asks people to choose between two generally contradictory statements such as “I prefer to blend in with the crowd” and “I like to be the center of attention,” or “I like to have authority over other people” and “I don’t mind following orders.” In many cases, both qualities may apply—it’s entirely possible to like to be the boss and to accept another person’s authority as well. But the “forced” part of “forced choice” means you must pick the quality that more closely describes you.

The lowest you can score on the NPI is a zero, the highest is a 40. Average in the U.S. is between 15 and 16, depending on age, gender and other variables.

The problem with the NPI is it’s time-consuming and inconvenient—hardly the kind of thing you can administer on a first date to find out if you’re getting mixed up with a charming louse before you accept a second date. But a team headed by psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan suspected that in some cases it might be possible to go at things more directly, asking people one carefully phrased written question:

“To what extent do you agree with this statement: ‘I am a narcissist.’ (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, and vain.)” The parenthetical was included to ensure that all participants in the study were working from the same definition. They were then asked to rate themselves on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 meaning “Not very true of me” and 7 meaning “very true of me.”

To a remarkable, statistically significant extent, the scores on this Single Item Narcissism Scale (SINS) correlated with the subjects’ scores on the more-complex NPI. Even with those results in hand, the researchers wanted to probe further, so they also tested their subjects on ten other personality metrics such as extraversion, agreeableness, aggression, sexual adventurousness, entitlement and more—all of which are either direct or inverse indicators of the narcissistic personality. Here too, the results lined up tidily.

The reason narcissists are so honest—a lot more honest than you’d be if someone asked you, say, “Are you a sociopath?”—is because they just don’t think their narcissism is a problem, which is perfectly consistent with people who think so highly of themselves. “Narcissists have these great mental health outcomes,” Konrath told me when I was researching my upcoming book The Narcissist Next Door. “If you’re trying to think of a group of people who are low in depression and anxiety, high in creativity and accomplishment, that’s narcissists.”

That, by itself, doesn’t sound bad at all. But narcissists often possess those good qualities to the general exclusion of others—especially social and relationship skills, a shortcoming that can hurt both them and those around them. Indeed, one of the metrics Konrath’s group looked at was whether the subjects rated primal rewards—such as a favorite food—higher than social rewards, such as seeing a friend. The friendship thing just doesn’t mean much to someone in the grip of narcissism.

“If you told a narcissist he’s not good in interpersonal relationships, he wouldn’t be any more upset than anyone else,” said Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman, another participant in the study, whom I also interviewed for my book. “But if you tell them they’re not smart, they get angry.”

All of this—the fragile ego, the tenuous human ties, the overweening self-regard–inevitably comes crashing down, even if less calamitously than it did for the proto-Narcissus. It’s for the narcissists themselves to recognize the dangers in the condition to which they admit so readily. And it’s for everyone else to get out of the way while they’re figuring it out.

TIME language

Congress and Its Do-Nothing Code Words

Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation
Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation Alex Wong; Getty Images

Conditional phrasing is the red flag of uselessness. Congress no longer talks about the things it "will" do; only the things it "would" or "could do"

Time was, reading news stories about NASA was a thrilling experience. What helped make it that way was something most people didn’t even consider: the verbs. Even before the hardware had been built and the people had been launched, the space agency knew where it was going. And so the press releases and the reporters’ stories were filled with promises that “the Gemini program will allow astronauts to walk in space,” and “the Apollo program will achieve the first lunar landing before 1970.” In early 1969, NASA even issued a “Neil Armstrong to Be First Man on Moon” press release.

As history notes, the Gemini and Apollo programs did just as they promised and Neil Armstrong was indeed the first man on the moon, and the only reason NASA didn’t get called on its hubris was because — as baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, the subject of TIME’s April 15, 1935 cover, famously put it — it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

But then the Apollo program ended, the manned space program started to drift, and slowly the declaratives gave way to the conditionals. So reports trickled out about a new spaceplane NASA was building that would take off and land like a jet, and the new Mars program the agency was planning that could have humans on the Red Planet by 2019, and the return-to-the-moon Constellation program that should be ready to go by 2020. But the space plane never flew and the Mars and Constellation missions were scrapped and, in its defense, NASA could at least say, well, we never lied to you.

Now, as NASA finally, slowly rebounds, an entire branch of government — Congress — has descended to the land of the conditionals. Increasingly, lawmaking in Washington has been reduced to little more than a pantomime, with both parties retreating to their bicameral would-sheds, cranking out a lot of doomed, never-gonna-happen bills — base-pleasing legislation that could or would do a lot of things, but never actually will.

Google the phrase “the bill would,” along with the words “House” and “Senate” and you get 59.8 million hits. That’s an admittedly imprecise way to go about things, not least because it gathers in a lot of similarly partisan behavior in state legislatures — though all that may indicate is that the celebrated laboratories of democracy have begin working with the same inert chemicals the federal legislature has.

Still, there are more than enough examples of Congress taking the lead—introducing a river of proposed legislation that would defund Obamacare (50 times), or reform the immigration system, or turn Medicare into a voucher program, or raise taxes on the 1%, or lower taxes on the 1%, or require background checks for gun purchases, or streamline the tax code, or raise the minimum wage, but that never actually will do any of those things. On Friday, the GOP majority in the House moved toward approving a bill that would at last address the unfolding border crisis, but only at the cost of deporting the 500,000 so-called Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The move faces a certain death in the Senate or White House veto but allows the legislators to go home to campaign, claiming that at least they tried something. President Obama — who has proposed plenty of his own dead-on-arrival legislation — dismissed the bill as “the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere.”

Showpiece legislation designed more to make a point than anything else is a part of every parliamentary body, and in the U.S. it has always been a bipartisan form of mischief — even if in the 112th and current 113th Congresses, the Republicans have been guiltier than the Dems. Both parties learned a powerful lesson in the uses of legislative vaporware 20 years ago, with the Republicans’ sweep of the House and Senate in the 1994 midterms.

The GOP surfed to power that year thanks in part to New Gingrich’s and Dick Armey’s celebrated Contract With America, an ingenious campaign gimmick that promised House action within 100 days of a Republican takeover on 10 bills dear to party stalwarts, including a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and capital-gains tax cuts. Every one of the proposals did come to a vote and cleared the House. And virtually none of them went anywhere — nor were they expected to, given a balky Senate and a Democratic president with a veto pen. But the strategy worked — at least insofar as shifting the balance of power in Washington — and that did not go unnoticed by strategists in either party.

Nobody at this point expects a return to the dew-kissed days of Ronnie and Tip and Lyndon and Everett, when politicians would maul one another for show, then quietly worked out deals for real. Even then, members of both parties would often take care to describe their bills humbly, hedging with the conditional would. But the will was usually implicit, because passing legislation was what they’d been sent to Washington to do.

That, however, no longer seems possible. The members of the current Congress are increasingly content to produce only hollow bills that benefit no one but themselves—and why not? It’s easy, it costs nothing, and it gets them re-elected. Voters — eventually — will catch wise and punish them for that behavior. History, surely, will pillory them for it — and on that last point, there is nothing conditional at all.

TIME polio

The Battle to Eradicate Polio in Pakistan

A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad
A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Political unrest in Pakistan has been a gift to the poliovirus, with 99 cases reported there so far this year. But Rotary International, which has already vaccinated 2 billion children in 122 countries, is hitting back hard

Epidemiology can be all about geography—and that’s especially true when it comes to polio. If you live in the U.S., where polio was eradicated in 1979, the specter of the disease has faded almost entirely, though pockets of infections can occur among the unvaccinated. In Pakistan, however, things are moving in precisely the opposite direction, and have been for a while now.

One of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic (the other two are Nigeria and Afghanistan), Pakistan had been close to joining the world’s polio-free nations, with only 58 infections in 2012. But thanks to bans on vaccinating—and deadly attacks on polio fieldworkers—by the Pakistani Taliban, the caseload rose to 93 in 2013. In 2014, the total reached 99 by July 18—a figure all the more alarming compared to this point last year, when there had been just 21 cases.

“It’s a scary number,” says Aziz Memon, Pakistani chairman of Rotary International’s polio eradication campaign. “Children in North Waziristan have been trapped for three and a half years without a drop of polio vaccine, and that’s what’s causing this.”

The folks at Rotary know what they’re talking about. Since launching their polio eradication effort in 1985, they have been responsible for the vaccination of 2 billion children in 122 countries. Along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, The Gates Foundation and others, they have helped slash the global infection rate from 350,000 cases per year in 1988 to 416 in 2013.

That’s indisputably good news, but polio is an exceedingly sneaky virus, with 200 symptom-free carriers for every one case of the disease. That fact, combined with the anti-vaccine forces in Pakistan, not to mention the porous borders cause by war and unrest in the overall region, has caused the disease to leak out from the three endemic countries, with stray cases turning up in Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Cameroon, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. In a handful of other countries, the virus has been detected in sewage, but it has not led to any cases of the disease—yet.

It’s Pakistan though that’s considered ground zero, and Rotary has announced that it’s now deploying some very simple weapons in what has always been a village-to-village, door-to-door battle. To improve surveillance and tracking—a maddeningly difficult job in a country in which so many people live off the communications grid—Rotary has distributed hundreds of cell phones to midwives who circulate through communities, canvassing residents to find out who has received the vaccine and who has been overlooked. Information on the unvaccinated kids—the “missing children” in the fieldworkers argot—is entered into the phones and uploaded to a central spreadsheet, allowing later vaccinators to target their efforts more precisely.

“The midwives also track pregnant mothers,” says Memon. “And when their children are born they can continue to maintain complete health records, not just for polio but for other vaccines and basic health care as well.”

Rotary has also worked with The Coca-Cola Company to build what’s known as a reverse osmosis water plant—essentially a sophisticated filtration facility—in the town of Malin, within the city of Karachi. Polio is a disease spread almost entirely by human waste, and once it leeches into the water system it can spread nearly anywhere. The Malir plant, which was constructed near a school to give polio-age kids the first access to the newly filtered water, is a relatively modest one, with just 20,000 gal. (76,000 liters) of clean water on hand at any one moment, and cost only $40,000 to build. But as a pilot project it represents a very good start. “We can’t build a massive plant like the government can,” says Memon. “This is a small plant for a small community.”

One thing, paradoxically, that’s working in the vaccinators’ favor is the increased number of displaced people in Pakistan. A recent push by the Pakistani military to flush the Taliban from its safe havens has broken the vaccination blockade, and already 350,000 children have received at least one dose of the polio vaccine. But 1.5 million refugees are scattered around the country. Rotary has dispatched field workers to refugee camps and transit points to identify the children and few adults who need the polio vaccine and administer it on the spot.

“The government did not have any idea about what the numbers of displaced people would be,” says Memon. In the refugee camps, he adds, there are at least 40,000 pregnant women, whose babies will have to be vaccinated shortly after birth.

The diabolical thing about polio—and indeed any disease science hopes to eradicate—is that even one case is too many. As long as any wild poliovirus is out there, everyone needs to be protected. It is only when the last scrap of virus has been found and snuffed, that the protective push can stop. That has happened once before in medical history—with smallpox. In the case of polio, it’s tantalizingly close to happening again.

TIME Opinion

I Don’t Love Lucy: The Bad Science in the Sci-Fi Thriller

Maybe if the screenwriters had used 20% of their brains...

You use a whole lot more than 10% of your brain—but a common fallacy that says otherwise is nonetheless the central premise of a new movie

Now there are three Lucys I have to keep straight: The 3.2 million year old Australopithecus unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974; the eponymous star of the inexplicably celebrated 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy; and, most recently, the lead character—played by Scarlett Johansson—of the new sci-fi thriller straightforwardly titled Lucy. Going by intellectual heft alone, I’ll pick the millions-year-old bones.

The premise of the movie, such as it is, is that Lucy, a drug mule living in Taiwan, is exposed to a bit of high-tech pharma that suddenly increases her brain power, giving her the ability to outwit entire police departments, travel through time and space, dematerialize at will and yada-yada-yada, cut to gunfights, special effects and a portentous message about, well, something or other.

The movie poster’s teaser line? “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”

Let’s forgive the poster its pronoun problem (the average person—as in just one of us—uses 10% of their brain capacity), because the science problem is so much more egregious. The 10% brainpower thing is part of a rich canon of widely believed and entirely untrue science dicta that include “Man is the only animal that kills its own kind” (tell that to the lion cubs that were just murdered by an alpha male trying to take over a pride) and “A goldfish can remember something for only seven seconds” (a premise that was tested…how? With a pop quiz?).

No one is entirely sure where the 10% brainpower canard got started, but it goes back at least a century and is one of the most popular entries in the equally popular book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. There is some speculation that the belief began with an idle quote by American philosopher William James who, in 1908, wrote, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources,” an observation vague enough to mean almost anything—or nothing—at all.

Some people attribute it to an explanation Albert Einstein offered when asked to account for his own towering intellect—except that Einstein never said such a thing and even if he had it would not make it true. Still others cite the more scientifically defensible idea that there is a measure of plasticity in the brain, so that if the region that controls, say, the right arm, is damaged by, say, a stroke, it is sometimes possible for other parts of the brain to pick up the slack—a sort of neural rewiring that restores lost motion and function.

But none of that remotely justifies the 10% silliness. The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs. At birth, babies actually have up to 50% more neural connections among the billions of brain cells than adults do, but in the first few years of life (and, to a lesser extent, on through sexual maturity) a process of pruning takes place, with many of those synaptic links being broken and the ones that remain growing stronger. That makes the brain less diffuse and more efficient—which is exactly the way any good central processing unit should operate. It also allows it to use up fewer calories, which is critical.

“We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

Added Ray Jackendoff, co-director of the center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, “The thing that’s really astonishing might not be that we lose so many connections, but that the brain’s plasticity and growth are able to continue for as long as they do.”

OK, so the Lucy screenwriters aren’t psychologists or directors of cognitive studies institutes. But they do have the same 100 billion neurons everybody else’s brains have. Here’s hoping they take a few billion of them out for an invigorating run before they write their next sci-fi script.

TIME Science

Note to Science: The GOP’s Just Not That That Into You

Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it
Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it Orlando Sentinel; MCT via Getty Images

Fla. Gov. Rick Scott is the latest Republican to play the scientific ignorance card. It's a game that's gotten old

Every dysfunctional relationship proceeds though the same stages: from promise to problem to crisis and, ultimately, to repetitive farce. There is one more embarrassing public scene, one more fight that disturbs the neighbors—a lather-rinse-repeat cycle that becomes more tiresome than anything else. That final stage is where the hard right of the GOP has at last arrived in its tortured pas de deux with science.

The most recent Republican to get into an ugly dust-up with the scientific truth is Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Running for re-election against former Gov. (and former Republican) Charlie Crist—and currently trailing in polls—Scott was asked by a reporter whether he believes climate change is real. Depressingly but predictably, he went for what is becoming the go-to dodge for too many in the GOP when pressed on a scientific fact that they dare not acknowledge for fear of fallout from the base, but can no longer openly deny for fear of being called out for willful know-nothingism. “I’m not a scientist,” Scott thus began—and there he should have stopped.

The device, of course, is meant to suggest that the issue is just too complex, just too abstruse for people without advanced degrees to presume to pass judgment on. It was the bob-and-weave used by Fla. Senator Marco Rubio when GQ magazine asked him the age of the Earth. “I’m not a scientist, man,” he said—adding the “man” fillip because it presumably suggested a certain whew-this-stuff-is-hard fatigue.

It was used as well by House Speaker John Boehner when he was pressed about proposed EPA regulations intended to curb greenhouse gasses. “Well, listen,” he began, “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

There’s something not just risibly dishonest about this reg’lar-folk pose, it’s flat-out unseemly too, which is why less disingenuous Republicans, whatever their views, tend to find a defter way to phrase things. Boehner, Scott, Rubio and the like are seeking to have things two incompatible ways—they deny the science, even ridicule the science, and then they seek to hide behind the skirts of the science, recusing themselves from answering questions because it’s all just too dang complicated.

Never mind that if you take them at their word—if you say, okay, let’s see what the eggheads in the labs say, and it turns out that the eggheads in the labs all but universally agree that global warming is dangerously, frighteningly real—they neatly flip the script. The scientists—the ones to whom they pretend to defer—are suddenly dismissed as “grant-grubbing” hoaxsters, conniving with liberal politicians to “expand the role of government.”

But, okay, let’s pretend the politicos are sincere. If the Speaker, by his own admission, isn’t qualified to debate climate change, fine, he’s excused from the conversation—and he should be expected not to offer further opinion on the matter. This, however, is a dangerous game to play. If being a scientist, man, is a threshold requirement for taking a thoughtful, honest position on climate change, then the same is true for being an economist or physician or astronomer if you presume to offer an opinion on the federal budget or the health care law or NASA funding.

The “both sides do it” faux equivalency game is hard to play on this one, since science denial is simply not endemic in the Democratic party the way it is in the GOP. But that hardly means all Dems have covered themselves in glory. West Va. Sen. Joe Manchin literally shot a hole in a copy of the cap and trade bill in a 2010 election ad, a crude symbolic twofer that signaled yes to guns and no to climate regulation in his rural, coal-producing state. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, locked in a tough reelection battle, has consistently blocked climate action, opposing tighter regulations on coal-fired power plants, because, she says, “Requiring [the plants] to use technology that has not been proven viable in industrial settings is completely backward,” a good argument if what she says about the technology were remotely accurate—which it isn’t.

But the hard truth is Manchin and Landrieu are outliers among the Democrats, while the counterfactual voices are among the loudest within Republican ranks. The time really has come for the GOP to fix its relationship with science—or just break up for good. Either way, they should do something soon, because the rest of us are getting sick of the fighting.

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