Scientific American Mind

Like every other nerdling, I grew up believing that I was one of the cool kids. I based this perception on the fact that I usually had something to do on Friday night and that I was a fully made member of a cafeteria clique. It never dawned on me that perhaps the true cool kids were enjoying the same bountiful social existence, but with more chicks.

Awareness of my nerdish leanings didn't arrive until a freshman-year biology project in which we were asked to make presentations on Scientific American articles. My curiosity about the world around me piqued, I kept reading; my classmates did not. In North Jer-Z, regular perusal of any magazine that wasn't Circus revealed as much about one's true nature as a bright-orange TOOL tattoo. I was thusly branded.

In the years since, Scientific American has experienced a perceptual renaissance, from teensy-fonted refuge for the curious to the print belle of the Discovery-Channel-lovin' ball. That it does well enough to spawn a spin-off, Scientific American Mind, is one of the few signs I can find that we're headed in the right direction intellectually.

The four-year-old Scientific American Mind focuses squarely on the ol' noggin: how it processes information, where its limitations may be, why it doesn't take too kindly to repeated collisions with cinder-block walls, etc. It goes deep, discussing the neuroscience behind teamwork and the recognition of good advice. This is not a magazine for halfwits.

The front-of-the-mag "Head Lines" section momentarily confused me, as I initially read it as "Head Lice" (what was that just before about halfwits?). Once coherent thought kicked back in, I learned a ton: about the emotional component of moral decision-making, about how people often unwittingly base their votes on candidates' facial characteristics, about how acts of self-restraint sap the body of fuel. The latter may explain why I can never stay awake following $5.95 buffets or Eliza Dushku movies.

The stories don't beat around the bush; they give the who/when/where/why/how in swift succession, then just as quickly move on to the next one. The section conveys more information than an entire year's worth of Psychology Today.

As for the features, I won't lie and claim I understand every theory contained therein (let's just assume that "spatiotemporal contexts" have something to do with "The Matrix"). Each story lays out a scientific theory and buttresses it with gobs of research. We learn about the science of intuition, the effect of antidepressants on kids' brains, abnormal sleeping patterns and their cascading effects, and a whole bunch more.

The mag refrains from overwhelming the reader with vast terrains of text, as each piece gets its share of illustrations and infoboxes. When it goes the wordy-word route with its sidebars, it usually concentrates on something peripherally related to the main feature. For instance, the sidebar that accompanies the piece on the evolution of our ability to speak explains how scientists came up with the name of the speech gene (FOXP2).

Scientific American Mind sags, in fact, during those few moments where it tries to make its content palatable for slower-blinkers. Each feature comes with a "Fast Facts" box that summarizes three or four main points using really, really small words ("An effective work group should be designed well from the start, bringing together people who can contribute to the right mix of knowledge, skills, tools and other resources necessary to succeed"). But while the boxes break up the stories nicely from a design perspective, most Mind readers (pun massively, guiltlessly intended) aren't about the quick fix. You simply don't read a magazine like this if you're not willing to fight your way through the challenging material. It seems wasteful to include the shortcuts.

The June/July issue's book reviews come across as somewhat of an afterthought, while the flat profile of research psychologist Theodore Millon suggests that Scientific American Mind could occasionally lay off the science in favor of some personality. But these are minor quibbles, especially given that no other title bothers to present information about the brain and perception for a mainstream audience... unless you count Newsweek's shallow, twice-per-decade "can memory make you remember stuff?" inquiries. I admire Scientific American Mind's ambition and its intellectual intensity. I wish more publications aimed quite as high.

I feel the need to apologize, actually, as Scientific American Mind makes for great reading but a chuckle-free column. I'm enriched, you're not. Sorry. If it's any consolation, the score on that front is still something like 221 to 4 in your favor.

Published by: Scientific American, Inc.
Frequency: bimonthly
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