Driving home after a visit with a relative, you suddenly realize you have no specific memory of how you got there. Well, you’ve taken that trip so many times, you tell yourself, that you could just about do in your sleep. Tying a shoe later, you reflect again on how often you accomplish things while your conscious mind is barely paying attention. Of course, you’re not wrong. We all have those moments.
At around three pounds, the gelatinlike tissue in your skull accounts for only a couple of percent of your total body mass, but it consumes a lot of energy—some 20 percent of the calories you eat every day. Conscious thought is “expensive” in energy terms. Is it any wonder the brain tends to shift its more costly processing tasks toward becoming more automated, “cheaper” routines?
That thought struck me during one of our weekly editorial meetings some months ago while we were discussing story ideas. How much of our lives is actually decided for us by our brain without our active awareness, I wondered? Naturally, when I asked that question out loud, longtime Scientific American senior editor Gary Stix was only too happy to explore the answer. The outcome is the cover story by Yale University psychologist John A. Bargh, “How Unconscious Thought and Perception Affect Our Every Waking Moment.”
Bargh explains how decision making about such tasks as voting, making purchases or even planning vacations often occurs without our giving things much conscious thought. In matters small and large, we routinely arrive at automatic judgments, our behaviors shaped by embedded attitudes. Put another way, awareness about our relative lack of awareness gives us a new appreciation for how profoundly our unconscious mind steers our lives.
Two other articles take a look below the surface, from different perspectives. “Superpowerful X-ray Laser Boils Atoms in Molecules, Nanosystems and Solids and Explodes Proteins, All in the Name of Science,” by physicists Nora Berrah and Philip H. Bucksbaum, describes a microscope of unprecedented power, which can create exotic forms of matter found nowhere else in the universe. The x-ray laser, powered by the world’s longest linear accelerator, subjects atoms, molecules and solids to high-intensity x-ray pulses. The resulting exotic states of matter last only a few femtoseconds—but nonetheless give us useful glimpses of an extreme environment that has no parallels on earth.
In “Life under the Microscope: Stunning Photographs from the BioScapes Competition,” by Scientific American associate editor Ferris Jabr, we take a microscopic look at the surprisingly intricate minuscule creatures that inhabit our planet, as well as the tiniest features of larger organisms. The photography reveals startling details, from the internal symmetry of a lily bud to a dinosaur bone that has transformed into sparkling crystal. We hope you will enjoy using some of your conscious mind’s bandwidth to contemplate the many wonders brought to light by the process of science.