Neuro-Myth #4

By Dr. Dan Pezzulo posted 06-28-2012 10:35


We only use 10% of our brain - really???

One of the most persistent and widely spread brain myths states that we only use 10% of our brains. What a shock, if we think of the 90% of our brain potential, that we don’t use! Users of an Internet forum tried to explain this phenomenon: “Sure that we do not use all of our brain”, writes one of them, “because then we could not learn new things, as all of the brain capacity would be already used”. Another person, on the contrary thinks: “we only use a part of our brain, the rest serves as a reserve. We continuously lose brain cells. That means: In the course of our life we use all of them!” Apart from these explanations, the 10% myth is used in advertisement campaigns. Most often it is found in connection with certain new-age brain jogging products, which promise the access to huge unused brain areas- but the sellers profit most from these products.

Other people try to extend their brain capacity by making use of various methods. Thus it has been stated that: “In the traditional Asian meditation techniques the remaining brain percents are used for extending consciousness and as a spiritual exercise”.  Consequently, we could learn from Zen monks and yogis to use all of our brain. And for those who won’t go along with meditation, they could acquire a heightened brain capacity more easily: through drugs like cannabis. Just imagine what could be reached through the extension of brain usage: Thought transmission, extremely high intelligence, as well as telekinesis. The truth, however, is less fantastic. There is absolutely no scientific evidence, which confirms this myth, not even to some extent. Various theories on the origin of this myth exist, but there is no significant evidence to suggest that we only use 10 or any other specific or limited percentage of our brains. On the contrary, all existing data shows that we use a 100% of our brains.

Where does this myth come from?

Today it is difficult to determine from whom this myth stemmed, and how it could have spread so widely. However, it can be traced back to the late 19th century in advertisements and brochures for self-help. Not to mention that, Albert Einstein once said to a journalist that he only used 10% of his brain, as an answer to a question concerning his intelligence. This quotation of Einstein, however, has never officially been recorded. The myth then became famous through Dale Carnegie’s best-seller “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” and through Uri Geller, who explained his “spoon magic” by better usage of the brain.   While no brain scientist has ever spoken about 10%, researchers still contributed to the 10% myth. The ignorance, which ruled at the beginning of brain research, could have contributed to the myth. In the 30s, the researcher Karl Lashley explored the function of certain brain areas with electric shocks. These showed up no effects in many brain regions. Hence, he concluded that these regions did not have any function. Thus, the term “silent cortex” was created. Today, however, this thesis has turned out to be wrong. Another possibility for the origin of this myth is the ratio of glia cells to neurons in the brain, which is 10:1. Glia cells “only” support neurons in their functioning. But it is the neurons that are used for information processing, and thereby for our thinking and feeling.  Possibly, the success of the myth can be ascribed to our hope to overcome human constraints. How great would it be, if there were such an enormous, unused reservoir for us to tap!