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 Music

Hip-Hop Was the Biggest Revolution in American Music and That’s Backed By a Study of 17,000 Songs

Photo of Public Enemy Jan. 1, 1991
Ebet Roberts—Redferns/Getty Images Photo of Public Enemy , on Jan. 1, 1991

Forget the British invasion of the 1960s or the synth-pop of the 1980s

The explosion of hip-hop onto the music scene in the 1990s was the biggest musical revolution in American pop history.

That’s according to a team of scientists who, for the first time, have analyzed the evolution of Western pop music, spanning from 1960 to 2010, and published their findings in the Royal Society Open Journal.

The team, from Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London, looked at 30-second snippets from about 17,000 songs from the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 over a 50-year period. The researchers studied trends in style and diversity as well as how harmony, chord changes and tonal quality changed over time.

“We can actually go beyond what music experts tell us, or what we know ourselves about them, by looking directly into the songs, measuring their makeup, and understanding how they have changed,” said lead author of the study Matthias Mauch.

Mauch’s team found that there were three distinct music revolutions: 1964, 1983 and 1991.

1964 was the start of “British invasion” when bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones flooded the American charts. But contrary to popular belief, these bands didn’t initiate the rock revolution, they were merely following existing trends.

The rise of new technologies — such as synthesizers, samplers and drum machines — in the 1980s ushered in a new style of music, personified in bands like Duran Duran or the Eurythmics.

But then hip-hop exploded into the mainstream in the 1990s, sparking the biggest music revolution in 50 years.

“The rise of rap and related genres appears, then, to be the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts in the period that we studied,” Mauch said.

TIME Research

People With Back Pain May Have Chimpanzee-Shaped Spines

Research shows that people with spines similar to chimpanzees' have more trouble walking upright

People who suffer from lower back pain may have spines that are similar to chimpanzees, new research shows. In a study published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, researchers analyzed the spine shapes of modern humans, ancient humans, chimpanzees and orangutans. They found that modern humans who had spine shapes most similar to chimps were more likely to have a small lesion that forms in the disc between vertebrae in the lower back, causing pain. These people’s spines are less well-adapted for walking upright, making them more susceptible to back pain.

The research could help doctors to analyze spine shapes to evaluate which people are most likely to suffer from back pain.

TIME Science

You’re Not Fooling Anyone With Your Pretend Laughter

Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A fake laugh is produced with a slightly different set of vocal muscles controlled by a different part of our brain

Why do we laugh? The obvious answer is because something is funny. But if we look closer at when and how laughter occurs in ordinary social situations, we see that it’s not so simple. Like most aspects of human behavior, laughter is complicated.

Scientists are learning about not only the ways in which people hear and categorize laughs, but also how human laughter relates to similar vocal behaviors across the animal kingdom. We have now uncovered many clues about the origins of this fascinating and ubiquitous behavior: While laughter might seem on the surface to be about jokes and humor, it turns out that it’s really about communicating affiliation and trust.

And then it gets tricky.

In one line of research in my Vocal Communication Lab at UCLA, we have been playing recorded laughs to listeners and asking them, is this laugh “real” or “fake”? Our recorded laughs were taken from real conversations between friends in a laboratory setting, or produced on command, also in the lab. Listeners were able to tell the “real” laughs from the “fake” laughs about 70 percent of the time. Why are people falling for the fake laughs? Before we can answer that, we need to address where laughter came from in the first place.

Laughter in humans likely evolved from play vocalizations in our primate ancestors. We see related vocal behaviors in many primate species today, as well as in rats and dogs. Scientists have described these play vocalizations as evolved from labored breathing during play. If one animal bites another, it could be taken as an attack—but if they signal while panting that they are just playing, the play can continue without being interrupted by an unnecessary real fight.

So how does this relate to human laughter? By comparing traits in different species, and then incorporating what is known about the evolutionary connection between those species, we can estimate how old a trait is, and how it has changed over evolutionary time. Our laughs have become longer, and the sound has more of a tone, including the stereotyped vowel sounds we all know: the human “hahaha.” Of course, human laughter can be composed of many sounds, including snorts, grunts, and hisses. But when we produce the classic “hahaha” sound, we are revealing the action of an ancient emotional vocal system shared with many species, and that has important consequences in how people appraise a laugh, and the laugher, at that moment.

Laughter triggers the release of brain endorphins that make us feel good, and it reduces stress. There is even evidence that we experience a temporary slight muscle weakness called cataplexy when we laugh, so we could be communicating that we are unlikely (or relatively unable) to attack. But laughter is not always made in fun, and can be quite hurtful (e.g., teasing). Laughter is a powerful signal with huge communicative flexibility.

We were laughing before we were talking, and crying, screaming, gesturing, and making other nonverbal signals. But we did eventually learn to talk, and developed fine control over our breathing to regulate it for speech, and better motor control over our larynx, lips, and tongue. These innovations afford us the ability to be vocal mimics. As this skill developed for speech production, the ability to imitate other non-speech sounds came rather quickly. Suddenly, the fake laugh was born.

A fake laugh is produced with a slightly different set of vocal muscles controlled by a different part of our brain. The result is that there are subtle features of the laughs that sound like speech, and recent evidence suggests people are unconsciously quite sensitive to them. For example, if you slow down a “real” laugh about two and half times, the result is strangely animal-like. But when you slow down human speech, or a “fake” laugh, it sounds like human speech slowed down.

The ability to be a good faker has its advantages, so there has likely been evolutionary pressure to fake it well, with subsequent pressure on listeners to be good “faker detectors.” This “arms race” dynamic, as it’s called in evolutionary biology, results in good fakers, and good fake detectors, as evidenced by many recent studies, including my own.

The reasons we laugh are as complicated as our social lives, and relate closely to our personal relationships and communicative strategies. One focus of researchers now is trying to decipher the relationship between specific sound features of our laughs—from loud belly laughs to quiet snickering—and what listeners perceive those features to mean. For someone studying the evolution of human communication, there are few things better to study. And it’s no joke.

Greg Bryant received his Ph.D. in psychology from UC Santa Cruz in 2004 and is now an associate professor in the Department of Communication at UCLA. He is interested broadly in the evolution of communication and cognition, and has published on a variety of topics exploring the role of the voice in social interaction. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

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 Research

Men Are Totally Hardwired by Evolution to Prefer Curvy Women, Study Finds

Human Spine
Getty Images

And it's one curve in particular

A new University of Texas study has found that men express a clear preference for women who have a pronounced back-to-buttock curve.

After asking around 100 men to rank the attractiveness of images of various females, researchers found that men strongly preferred women with a back-to-buttock curve of 45.5 degrees, which they described as the “theoretically optimal angle of lumbar curvature.”

They theorized that, in ancient times, such an angle meant that women were more likely to carry out successful pregnancies.

“This spinal structure would have enabled pregnant women to balance their weight over the hips,” said researcher David Lewis.

“These women would have been more effective at foraging during pregnancy and less likely to suffer spinal injuries. In turn, men who preferred these women would have had mates who were better able to provide for fetus and offspring, and who would have been able to carry out multiple pregnancies without injury.”

Researchers conducted a second study to rule out if the spinal curvature preference was due to the buttock size rather than the spinal curvature angle itself. But they discovered that men repeatedly exhibited a preference for women with spinal-curvature angles closer to the optimum, even if the women had smaller buttocks.

“Beauty is not entirely arbitrary, or ‘in the eyes of the beholder’ as many in mainstream social science believed, but rather has a coherent adaptive logic,” Lewis added.

Read next: This App Alerts You When You’re Near a Spot Where a Woman Made History

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME mating

Why Women Like War Heroes More than Any Other Kind of Guy

A stock image of a man in a military uniform lifting up a woman
Getty Images

And why men don't find brave women attractive

In a study that could explain so much about the Brian Williams thing, it has been found that women are more sexually attracted to men who have been deemed heroic during conflict than men who have merely served in the armed forces. And—sorry, humanitarians—men who were deemed heroic during a non-war-related crisis didn’t have nearly the same game.

Meanwhile, women who were considered heroic for any reason were found to be less attractive to men than regular women. (You read that right. Less attractive.)

The findings are the result of three studies done by researchers in England and the Netherlands. First, the researchers established from archives that World War II veterans who were Medal of Honor winners had more kids on average (3.18) than other returned servicemen (2.72).

The number of offspring is not completely correlated with the frequency of springing into bed, however. So the researchers asked 92 female British students to rate how attracted they were to various profiles and the war hero came out as the No. 1 most dateworthy type. Military service was attractive to women generally, but interestingly, if the guy had no war honors, whether he had served overseas or never left home base made no difference to his magnetism. In other words, men who see more action don’t necessarily see more action.

In the third study, 159 women and 181 men studying in Holland were given various profiles to rate and again the decorated war veteran was the female favorite. Soldiers who had been honored for their work in disaster zones or humanitarian crises got no spike in interest. And, depressingly, guys were less interested in women who had done something amazingly brave than women who hadn’t, even though the participants in the study were the supposedly gender equal Dutch.

The researchers were looking at the impact of medals not to enhance the dating resumes of veterans, but to examine the effect of conflict and bravery on evolution. (Those who attract the most mating partners have the highest chance of passing on their genes.)

So why are women drawn to guys who are demonstrably willing to engage in life threatening behavior? Because they’ve proved their genetic hardiness, suggest the researchers.

“Raids, battles, and ambushes in ancestral environments, and wars in modern environments, may provide an arena for men to signal their physical and psychological strengths,” says Joost Leunissen, a psychologist at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study. The thinking is that those who have the clarity of thought to try something life-saving and the physical prowess to pull it off must be built to survive, and are therefore a good evolutionary bet.

Leunissen also seems to offer, perhaps unintentionally, some eggheady advice on whether women should be on the front lines. “In light of the physical dangers and reproductive risks involved,” he says, “participating in intergroup aggression might not generally be a viable reproductive strategy for women.” Translation: not if they want to have kids.

TIME Archaeology

Neanderthals May Have Used Tools, Making Them Smarter Than We Thought

A multipurpose bone tool dating back to before the Stone Age was discovered in France

A new discovery suggests that Neanderthals, the immediate ancestors of human beings, may not have been as technologically inferior to our species as previously thought.

Researchers from the University of Montreal found a multipurpose bone tool in Burgundy, France, that dates back to the Neanderthal era, Science Daily reported.

“It proves that Neanderthals were able to understand the mechanical properties of bone and knew how to use it to make tools, abilities usually attributed to our species, Homo sapiens,” said Luc Doyon, a University of Montreal anthropologist who participated in the excavation.

The pre–Stone Age implement is the first of its kind ever discovered, and challenges a long-held assumption that Neanderthals did not have the cognitive ability to create tools. Marks on the artifact, supposedly fashioned from the left femur of a reindeer, indicate that it was used as a scraper, a sharpener for stone tools and a device to puncture meat.

[Science Daily]

TIME animals

Newly Discovered Fanged-Frog Gives Birth to Live Tadpoles

A newly discovered frog from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia is the only known frog to give direct birth to tadpoles.
Jim McGuire—UC Berkeley A newly discovered frog from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia is the only known frog to give direct birth to tadpoles.

As opposed to eggs, like most frogs

Scientists have discovered a rare frog in Indonesia that gives birth to live tadpoles, researchers report in a journal article published this week.

Herpatologist Jim McGuire found proof this summer that the frog, one of a group of roughly 25 species in Indonesia that have two fangs used for fighting, lays not eggs or even live froglets but live tadpoles. It’s the only frog species in the world to do so.

McGuire found the frogs on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. He named to the species Limnonectes larvaepartus.

Jim McGuire—UC BerkeleyTwo tadpoles, each about 10 millimeters long, shortly after birth.

[Eureka]

TIME Science

Watch Bill Nye Explain Evolution Using Emoji

“We emojinized it.”

Bill Nye has never been known to teach science the way you learned it in school — unless, of course, your school taught you about water displacement by spoofing Sir Mix-a-Lot. The Science Guy is still infusing fun into science, this time spreading the gospel of evolution with the help of some emoji.

In the video, produced by Mashable as part of General Electric’s “Emoji Science” promotion, the major players in evolution get emoji matches: carbon is represented by the diamond, self-replicating molecules are interconnected faces and bacteria are represented by the purple alien monster. But despite his casual demeanor in this video, Nye takes the topic rather seriously. Back in February, he debated Ken Ham, a prominent proponent of creationism, in an attempt to win over creationists with the scientific evidence supporting evolution. In November, he released a book called Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, aimed at exposing young creationists to the scientific principles of evolution.

For those who don’t plan to read the book, the video offers a simplified version. “We shook it up with emoji, and then we told a story,” Nye says of the digital age approach to evolution. “The way you might do if you had too many, um, Jell-O shots.”

TIME

On Evolution Day, Remember That Darwin Knew He’d Meet Resistance

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Philippe Lissac—Godong / Getty Images A statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum, London

Plus, TIME's original coverage of the anti-evolution arguments of the 1925 Scopes trial

Correction appended, Nov. 24, 2014, 5:49 p.m.

Time was, “Darwin” was just a guy’s name. It was not a noun (Darwinism) or an adjective (Darwinian). And it certainly wasn’t a flash point for debate between folks who prefer a Scriptural view of the history of life and those who take a more scientific approach. That started to change 155 years ago today, on Nov. 24, 1859, when Charles Darwin’s seminal work—On the Origin of Species—was published.

Darwin knew that by supporting an empirical theory of evolution as opposed to the Biblical account of Creation he was asking for trouble. Two weeks before the book’s publication, he sent letters to 11 prominent scientists of his day, asking for their support—or at least their forbearance—and acknowledging that for some of them, that would not be easy. To the celebrated French botanist Alphonse de Candolle he wrote:

Lord, how savage you will be, if you read it, and how you will long to crucify me alive! I fear it will produce no other effect on you; but if it should stagger you in ever so slight a degree, in this case, I am fully convinced that you will become, year after year, less fixed in your belief in the immutability of species.

And to American Asa Gray, another botanist, he conceded:

Let me add I fully admit that there are very many difficulties not satisfactorily explained by my theory of descent with modification, but I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain.

But the whirlwind came anyway. Speaking of Darwin in 1860, the Bishop of Oxford asked: “Was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?” The battle raged in the U.S. in the summer of 1925, with the trial of John Scopes, a substitute school teacher charged with violating a Tennessee statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in schools.

But Darwin and his theory of evolution endured, so much so that Nov. 24 is now recognized as Evolution Day. As if serendipity and circumstance were conspiring to validate that decision, it was on another Nov. 24, in 1974, that the fossilized remains of Lucy, the australopithecus who did so much to fill in a major gap in human evolution, were found in Ethiopia.

In honor of Lucy and Evolution Day and Darwin himself, check out TIME’s coverage of the florid anti-evolution closing argument of prosecuting attorney and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial, as quoted in the magazine’s Aug. 10, 1925 issue:

“Darwin suggested two laws, sexual selection and natural selection. Sexual selection has been laughed out of the class room, and natural selection is being abandoned, and no new explanation is satisfactory even to scientists. Some of the more rash advocates of Evolution are wont to say that Evolution is as firmly established as the law of gravitation or the Copernician theory.

“The absurdity of such a claim is apparent when we remember that any one can prove the law of gravitation by throwing a weight into the air and that any one can prove the roundness of the earth by going around it, while no one can prove Evolution to be true in any way whatever.”

Bryan died mere days after the trial ended but, as the historical record shows, his strenuous efforts paid off—sort of. Scopes was duly convicted. His sentence for teaching what most of the world now accepts as science: $100.

Read the full text of that story, free of charge, here in the TIME archives, or in its original format, in the TIME Vault: Dixit

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the date of Darwin Day. Darwin Day is typically celebrated on February 12.

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