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Brain Myth: You Use Just 10% Of Your Brain

Brain Myth: You Use Just 10% Of Your Brain

May we one day be able to unlock our brain’s full potential?

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Right now, your eyes are skimming over these very words whilst your brain processes the visual information to make sense of it all. At the same time, many other unconscious processes are taking place, such as the continual beating of your heart and the filling and emptying of your lungs with air. All these conscious and subconscious processes must require very little brain activity if the modern-day human only has access to 10% of their brain potential.

Owing to the fact I’m a neuroscientist, I was asked numerous times last week whether we would ever manage to unlock the unused 90% of our brain and, if so, what superpowers we would gain. The ability to stop time, make people around you topple to the ground and instantaneously change your hair and eye colour are just a few examples put forward by the new film ‘Lucy’. It centres around the widely held belief that we only use 10% of our brain’s capacity. The main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, takes a potent drug that enables her to unlock the idle 90% of her brain and acquire superhuman powers.

I apologise in advance for any disappointment caused, but this is anything but true. The writer, Luc Besson, is well aware of this but entertained this unfounded premise for the sake of science fiction. Yet, over the past century, the promotion of this myth as fact by both the entertainment and advertisement industries has led many of us to fall for it.

Origins of the myth
The exact origin has not been pinpointed. The theory was, nonetheless, extensively promoted by psychologist Karl Spencer Lashley (1890-1958). He removed up to 58% of the outermost layer of the rat brain, called the cerebral cortex, and claimed their ability to perform simple learning tasks was unaffected. This led to the over-interpretation and exaggeration that only small parts of the entire brain are used, yet he only looked at this one brain region and did not use complex tasks.

Research has since shown that the brain is divided into distinct regions that are specialised in different functions such as visual and auditory processing, and that these regions are also connected to enable integration of all this information. If a proportion of the so-called idle 90% of the brain were to be damaged then we would expect no loss of abilities. Yet there is virtually no brain area in humans that can be damaged without resulting in some form of functional impairment. In cases where function is recovered, this does not suggest the damaged tissue originally served no purpose but that the brain is able to compensate by reorganising itself.

Use it or lose it
Your brain only accounts for 2% of your body weight, but it consumes 20% of the calories your body burns. In energy terms, the brain is very expensive to run so directing all this energy to an organ that is only partially used would be counterproductive. We would have evolved to harbour smaller, more efficient brains if this were the case. Functional brain imaging has shown that every region can be activated and even whilst you sleep no brain region remains completely inactive.

We use our entire brain, but not all at once. What would happen if the entire brain were to be activated at once? Could you then attain Lucy’s superpowers? This is highly unlikely as it could potentially cause mass dysfunction and seizures. The human brain harbours neuronal brain cells that inhibit, and not only stimulate, the activation of other neuronal brain cells. Thus, the ability to neutralise and inhibit activity is crucial to normal brain function.

We should all give evolution more credit for designing the one thing that makes us human. The 5-minute TedEd talk  below summarises the major points and is well worth the watch.

There is no untapped brain potential that you don’t already have access to. We can’t blame this urban myth for our shortcomings; we simply have to work with what we’ve got. It is time we face the fact that we are all capable of achieving amazing feats.


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This post was written by Elisabeth Buhl Thubron:
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