Ten Percent Brain Myth


The 10% of brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban legend that the average human can only make use of 10% (or some other small percentage) of their brain. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By association, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence by spiritual, chemical, or technological means.

Though factors of intelligence can increase with training, the popular notion that large parts of the brain remain unused, and could subsequently be ‘activated,’ rests more in popular folklore than scientific theory. Though mysteries regarding brain function remain—e.g. memory, consciousness—the physiology of brain mapping suggests that all areas of the brain have a function.

One possible origin is the ‘reserve energy’ theories by Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis in the 1890s who tested the theory in the accelerated raising of child prodigy William Sidis to effect an adulthood IQ of 250–300; thus, William James told audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential, which is a plausible claim. In 1936, American writer Lowell Thomas summarized this idea (in a foreword to Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’) by adding a falsely precise percentage: ‘Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability.’ However, this book was not the first to use the figure, which was already circulating within self-help movements of the time; for example, the book ‘Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain’ includes a chapter on the 10% myth which shows a self-help advertisement from the 1929 World Almanac containing the line ‘”There is NO LIMIT to what the human brain can accomplish. Scientists and psychologists tell us we use only about TEN PER CENT of our brain power.’

In the 1970s, psychologist and educator Georgi Lozanov, proposed the teaching method of ‘suggestopedia’ believing ‘that we might be using only five to ten percent of our mental capacity.’ (His method, which is used in foreign language learning has been called a pseudoscience because it strongly depends on the trust that students develop towards the method by simply believing that it works.) The origin of the ten percent myth has also been attributed to Dr. Wilder Penfield, the US-born neurosurgeon who was the first director of Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University.

According to a related origin story, the myth most likely arose from a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of neurological research in the late 19th century or early 20th century. For example, the functions of many brain regions (especially in the cerebral cortex) are complex enough that the effects of damage are subtle, leading early neurologists to wonder what these regions did. The brain was also discovered to consist mostly of glial cells, which seemed to have very minor functions. Dr. James W. Kalat, author of the textbook Biological Psychology, points out that neuroscientists in the 1930s knew about the large number of ‘local’ neurons in the brain. The misunderstanding of the function of local neurons may have led to the 10% myth. It might also have been propagated simply by a truncation of the idea that some use a small percentage of their brains at any given time. In the same article in ‘Scientific American,’ John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota states: “‘Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain.’

Although parts of the brain have broadly understood functions, many mysteries remain about how brain cells (i.e., neurons and glia [nerve helper cells]) work together to produce complex behaviors and disorders. Perhaps the broadest, most mysterious question is how diverse regions of the brain collaborate to form conscious experiences. So far, there is no evidence that there is one site for consciousness, which leads experts to believe that it is truly a collective neural effort. Therefore, as with James’s idea that humans have untapped cognitive potential, it may be that a large fraction of questions about the brain have not been fully answered. Neurologist Barry Gordon describes the myth as laughably false, adding, ‘we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time.’

Neuroscientist Barry Beyerstein sets out seven kinds of evidence refuting the ten percent myth: 1) Studies of brain damage: If 90% of the brain is normally unused, then damage to these areas should not impair performance. Instead, there is almost no area of the brain that can be damaged without loss of abilities. Even slight damage to small areas of the brain can have profound effects. 2) Brain scans have shown that no matter what one is doing, brains are always active. Some areas are more active at any one time than others, but barring brain damage, there is no part of the brain that is absolutely not functioning. 3) The brain is enormously costly to the rest of the body, in terms of oxygen and nutrient consumption. It can require up to 20% of the body’s energy—more than any other organ—despite making up only 2% of the human body by weight. If 90% of it were unnecessary, there would be a large survival advantage to humans with smaller, more efficient brains. If this were true, the process of natural selection would have eliminated the inefficient brains. It is also highly unlikely that a brain with so much redundant matter would have evolved in the first place. 4) Brain imaging (neuroimaging): Technologies such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allow the activity of the living brain to be monitored. They reveal that even during sleep, all parts of the brain show some level of activity. Only in the case of serious damage does a brain have ‘silent’ areas. 5) Localization of function: Rather than acting as a single mass, the brain has distinct regions for different kinds of information processing. Decades of research have gone into mapping functions onto areas of the brain, and no function-less areas have been found. 6) Microstructural analysis: In the single-unit recording technique, researchers insert a tiny electrode into the brain to monitor the activity of a single cell. If 90% of cells were unused, then this technique would have revealed that. 7) Neural disease: Brain cells that are not used have a tendency to degenerate. Hence if 90% of the brain were inactive, autopsy of adult brains would reveal large-scale degeneration. Another argument is that, given the historical risk of death in childbirth associated with the large brain size (and therefore skull size) of humans, there would be a strong selection pressure against such a large brain size if only 10% was actually in use.

Several books, films, and short stories have been written closely related to this myth. They include the novel ‘The Dark Fields,’ and its film adaptation ‘Limitless’ (claiming 20% rather than the typical 10%), as well as the 2014 film ‘Lucy,’ all of which operate under the notion that the rest of the brain could be accessed through use of a drug. ‘Lucy,’ in particular, depicts a character who gains increasingly godlike abilities once she surpasses 10%. ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’ alleges that humans only use 5% of their brains as a potential explanation of a ‘sixth sense’ in zombies. In the movie ‘Phenomenon’ (1996), a man develops super-intelligence and telekinesis due to an accidental event that stimulates different areas of his brain, resulting in a growing usage of his brain capability.

Other works involving artificial intellectual enhancement include ‘The Lawnmower Man,’ the short stories ‘Understand’ by Ted Chiang as well as ‘Lest We Remember’ (which actually features total recall, a different concept based on similar premises) and ‘Foundation and Empire’ by Isaac Asimov. These, however, do not imply that the human brain is, or should be inherently capable of, this exponential growth, while in the ‘Foundation’ it is claimed by the person using it, but he was established earlier to have no formal education. The core premise of the 1991 romantic comedy ‘Defending Your Life’ is that people on Earth only use 3–5% of their brain and spend their time on Earth conquering fear. Once Earthlings, referred to as ‘Little Brains’ conquer fear and learn to use more of their cognitive power, they graduate to a higher plane. Otherwise their soul is reincarnated and they are sent back to Earth to try again.

Some New Age proponents propagate this belief by asserting that the ‘unused’ ninety percent of the human brain is capable of exhibiting psychic powers and can be trained to perform psychokinesis and extra-sensory perception.

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