Monday, February 14, 2011

Demystification: The Ten Percent Myth

You've heard it, right?

We only use 10% of our brain capacity.

It's been used many times as a plot device, not to mention in money-making schemes and advertising campaigns.

And it's so appealing, isn't it? It's wonderful to believe that, lying deep within your brain, is this amazing potential. Who knows what you could do if you could unlock that extra 90%? Heck, even an extra 10%? You could be a genius! See auras or move things with your mind! Cure the common cold! Do calculus in your head! Smite your enemies with laser beams from your eyes!

Surveys show that A LOT of people believe this to be true. But everything we know about the human brain suggests it's ... um ... crap.

First, if you suffer a head injury, do you think you could lose 90% of your brain and be in good shape? Terry Schiavo lost 50% of her cerebrum, and that was sufficient to devastate all her higher mental functions. And research shows that if ANY part of your brain is significantly damaged, functioning is deeply affected. It's hard to explain that if you're not using 90% of it.

And then there's evolution. The brain doesn't account for a huge percentage of your body weight, but it sucks up 20% of your oxygen intake. If most of it was really useless, why would we have developed like that?

Oh, and the actual brain studies. At this point, with all the technology we have (and all the cool acronyms: EEG, PET, MRI, fMRI), scientists have been able to determine the functions of most of the brain's structures. All parts of the brain work pretty hard. No slacking allowed.

So, unfortunately, as much as it would be cool to locate and activate some unused part of our brain, it appears all that real estate is already sold. Still, enough people believe this that if you want to use it in your psychic plotline, you probably won't be called on it.

Now tell me: if the 10% myth were true, what would you want to use that other 90% for?

I'll go first: I'd want to be able to remember people's names after hearing them only once, have an in-depth understanding of the differences between fuzzy and Bayesian logic, play the piano, and comprehend the popularity of shows like the Bachelor. Oh, and probably be a better writer.

How about you?

Oh, and be sure to check out Lydia's Medical Monday post and Laura's Mental Health Monday post!


  1. One of my high school English teachers argued that it was the ability to use all of the brain that created the gods of ancient cultures (gods were people who used their full brain, which was why they were revered). I bought it until I majored in biology in college. :)

  2. I would want to:

    1) Learn 30 languages

    2) Have a photographic memory of epic proportions

    3) Be able to read a Biochemistry book in one sitting AND UNDERSTAND IT

    4) Demystify the power of Justin Bieber's hair

    Bonus answer: be a better writer. :)

  3. I want the same thing you want. I'm so, so bad with names! The writer part is a given. ;-)

    I would totally like to learn a few new languages, too.

    And I want to smite my enemies with laser beams.


  4. Any idea where this myth got started?

    Oh, and any extra brain capacity would be used to develop an array of psionic abilities. I freely admit that my harnassing of telekinesis would not mean good things for humanity...particularly some people I went to high school with. Not that I'm bitter. Or harbor a grudge. Or am burdened with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance.

  5. Brian--early in the 20th century, the psychologist William James made a statement about how he doubted most average people achieve more than 10% of their intellectual potential. That statement was then skewed later in the century and mentioned in some very popular books (How to Win Friends and Influence People, for example). Some people have said Albert Einstein said something about this, but his archives were searched a number of years ago and no mention of the 10% thing was found. It's such an attractive and catchy myth, easy to remember, and has probably been mostly perpetuated by some folks' misunderstandings of scientific findings.

  6. Thanks a lot Sarah, you just ruined my next novel.

    Just kidding. If I could use 100% of my brain I would just keeping doing what I do, because I'm already a genius. Oh crap, I just followed a 'just kidding' with another joke. Oops.

    Happy VD!

  7. And I just saw your reply comment, and wasn't there something different about Einstein's brain? I seem to remember reading somewhere that they found extra synapses or something when they found it preserved somewhere. I'll have to go look for the article.

  8. The Wikipedia article has some interesting stuff, but nothing conclusive:'s_brain

    I'll go away now.

  9. Matt--yeah, I guess Einstein's brain showed some unique development patterns and increased glial cells, but that research was pretty controversial. It totally makes sense that people who think so differently have differences in their neuroanatomy. But the idea that Einstein just used more of his brain than the rest of us ... it's not a satisfying explanation (to me). And I think such a claim was falsely attributed to Einstein himself, when it was really someone else's ill-informed explanation. Thanks for the link and the comments!

  10. oh crap sarah!!! you really did just ruin one of my WIPs!!!! ugh!
    *100% of brain goes on overload seeking a way to fix plot*
    please. re. boot...

  11. It's an extrapolation of the assumption that most people don't use their full potential - which is true. It's just not accurate in the way most people think of it. Most people don't utilize their total ability to do anything, resulting in a lack of efficiency when they do XXX.

    When a person doesn't exercise often, their muscles are inefficient. Their respiratory and circulatory systems are inefficient, which is why an athlete's resting heart rate is lower than a couch potato's - the system is more efficient. Both the athlete and the couch potato still use their lungs, but one gets better results.

    You can have an empty 10 gallon bottle without a cap on it, and it would have air inside, but it wouldn't be "packed" with air the way it would if you forced it to capacity and capped the top.

    Anything used more often will naturally fall into a pattern of more efficient use. A person who predominantly uses critical thinking skills will begin to see patterns based on their prior knowledge and experience. A person who predominantly uses creative thinking skills will begin to see patterns based on their prior knowledge of color and shape and placement.

    Both use different parts of their brain, and if you did a brain scan on both, you would see activity in varied parts of their brain, but the sectors responsible for critical thinking or creativity would be in use at a higher level depending on which individual's scan you examined.

    Depending on how someone's brain is "wired" they'll be able to process information faster or with greater accuracy. If something gets cross-wired you end up with anything from a person whose eyes or ears don't send information to the brain in its correct configuration (dyslexia) to someone whose processing speed is off the charts (savant).

  12. Josin--absolutely. There's no magic way to awaken some dormant 90% of your brain, but if you work hard and practice something, there's a good chance you'll get better at it.

  13. Hmmm... I'd want to get better at relating to other people. I think that part of my brain is in permanent spasm. :/

  14. his miss sarah! that pretty interesting stuff for sure. now i could tell my teacher im using all of my brain not just that 10%. for what i could wanna do if i had all that extra brain i could wanna get in touch with my alien dna and find out how i could get from earth to another planet. we got watching a tv show that called in search of ancient aliens and that what got me thinking that. happy valentines day!

  15. Awesome post, Sarah. You never fail to amaze!
    Me, I'd put, like, Wikipedia in that 90%!

  16. I would want to know everything about everything, lol!

    Nice post!

  17. It's interesting what 'facts' are out there that are widely believed as true.

    I would want to be able to remember the difference between effect & affect. Those two always get me.. I should probably think of something better then that. Umm... Oh never have writer's block again!

  18. LOL! Vic, you're hilarious. Keep plodding :) Maybe you could turn it into paranormal or urban fantasy, where people really DO only use 10% of their brain. :D

    As for me, I'd have to go with telekinesis. I'm not saying I'd go all 'Carrie' on everyone, but it'd be sweet to be able to sterilise my baby's bottles without moving a muscle.

    Holy crap, I'm boring ...

  19. Learn several languages and Latin. Better understand why my teenager does what he does. And unlock the door to Autism for my middle son.