Fact or Fiction: We Only Use 10% of Our Brain

Pic from pokerfuse.com.

For years, well, my entire life, at least when I understood what was really happening around me, I heard that we only use a small portion of our brain.  This information came from so called credible sources like teachers, clergy, scientists, doctors, and etc.  As a result I always thought it was true.  I mean there is that whole parapsychology thing, and what about those cool movies where some really smart guys manage to harness all of their brain power?  It’s got to be true right?  Maybe not as this contribution from Claudia Hammond writing for the BBC:

It’s amazing just how many medical myths there are to choose from, but one part of the body seems to attract more than its fair share, and that’s the brain. One of my favourite brain myths is the idea that we only use 10% of it. It’s an appealing idea because it suggests the possibility that we could become so much more intelligent, successful or creative, if only you could harness that wasted 90%. This might inspire us to try harder, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean there’s any truth in it.

First of all, it’s important to ask the question – 10% of what? If it is 10% of the regions of the brain to which people are referring, this is the easiest idea to quash. Using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists can place a person inside a scanner and see which parts of the brain are activated when they do or think about something. A simple action like clenching and unclenching your hand or saying a few words requires activity in far more than a tenth of the brain. Even when you think you are doing nothing your brain is doing rather a lot – whether it’s controlling functions like breathing and heart rate, or recalling the items on your to-do list.

But maybe the 10% refers to number of brain cells. Again this doesn’t work. When any nerve cells are going spare they either degenerate and die off or they are colonised by other areas nearby. We simply don’t let our brain cells hang around idly. They’re too valuable for that. In fact our brains are a huge drain on our resources. Keeping brain tissue alive consumes 20% of the oxygen we breathe, according to cognitive neuroscientist Sergio Della Sala.

It is true that nature can sometimes involve some strange designs, but to evolve to have a brain ten times the size we needed would seem very odd, when its large dimensions are so costly to our survival, leading on occasion to obstructed labour and the death of a mother during childbirth if no help is available.

Yet many people do cling on to the idea that we only use 10% of our brains. The idea is so prevalent that when the University College London neuroscientist Sophie Scott was on a first aid course the tutor assured the class that head injuries are not very serious because of the 10% “fact”. He was not only wrong about the 10%, but he was also wrong about the impact of brain damage. Even a small injury can have huge effects on a person’s capabilities. The first aid tutor probably wasn’t bargaining on instructing a professor of neuroscience on the course, but Scott put him right.

Head scratcher

So how can an idea with so little biological or physiological basis have spread so widely? It is hard to track down an original source. The American psychologist and philosopher William James mentioned in The Energies of Men in 1908 that we “are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources”. He was optimistic that people could achieve more, but he does not refer to brain volume or quantity of cells, nor does he give a specific percentage. The 10% figure is mentioned in the preface to the 1936 edition of Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, and sometimes people say that Albert Einstein was the source. But Professor Della Sala has tried to find the quote, and even those who work at the Albert Einstein archives can find no record of it. So it seems this might be a myth too.

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Posted by on November 13, 2012. Filed under SCI/TECH/HOME/TRAVEL. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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12 Responses to Fact or Fiction: We Only Use 10% of Our Brain

  1. James Smith Reply

    November 13, 2012 at 8:27 am

    One more myth put to rest, no? We believed it because “someone said it” not because we heard definitive evidence of it. That’s why everyone’s favorite question should be, “How do you know that?”

    It seems to be a human characteristic that we like to believe things that “sound right” or makes us feel good, no matter how absurd or obviously impossible. That seems to account for religion, the WWE, politics, and maybe NASCAR.

  2. E.A. Blair Reply

    November 13, 2012 at 9:01 am

    This has been debunked on Snopes for quite a while.

  3. Carol Maietta views Reply

    November 13, 2012 at 9:06 am

    The other possibility is that these writers saw behaviors that made them think this: “if that person was using all of their brain, there is no way they would have said or done that stupid thing”.

    Hey, I wouldn’t have a job if everyone used 100% of their brain all of the time. But really, it’s not the percent of brain at question, it’s the level of cognitive use and critical thinking that has some wondering about us only using 10%. And what about EQ (Emotional Intelligence)…what % does a brain need to function at to get that right? And now, we even talk about AI (appreciative intelligence)….hey, I think my 11th percent of brain just kicked in for another post.
    Good one Mike

    • James Smith Reply

      November 13, 2012 at 9:18 am

      Excellent points, Carol. A lot of us wouldn’t have jobs if everyone were thinking rationally all of the time. Most of the computer service calls I took were often something so obvious that most would wonder who tied their shoes for the users. 😉

      • Carol Maietta views Reply

        November 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm

        James…now you’ve done it…really insulted me to the core…I actually used Geek Squad last year after my husband died. I don’t admit that to many people. 🙂 And I only have one pair of shoes with laces.

        • James Smith Reply

          November 14, 2012 at 7:03 am

          Most of the home service calls I took were for printers. They usually could be solved by re-installing the printer software,, especially if I downloaded the latest version.

          Which brought me to question why we cold have computers that managed to be so improbably powerful but no one could seem to make a printer that was anywhere near as reliable.

          But I have also wondered why we were able to send rockets to the moon, make one-calorie soda, and fat-free yogurt but still cold not manufacture a vacuum cleaner that wouldn’t damage your hearing in the first 30 seconds of use. Screw the great philosophical questions. I want practical answers.

          Shoes that tie? I have sandals with Velcro fasteners for when I go outside. I also have a pair of shoes for serious walking with, yep, more Velcro. If you are assuming I must be retired, the accuracy of your perception never fails to astound me. 😀

          • Carol Maietta views Reply

            November 14, 2012 at 8:18 pm

            I don’t need to make assumptions, James…I am off the charts on intuition which causes some people to “fear” that I can read their minds. So, those that have that fear….I allow to believe it’s true. But those that know me well, just know it’s the curse of being highly intuitive. Why is that a curse? In another reply, I told you I believe that any strength over used can be a weakness. And every now and then, I do over use intuition. You’re intelligent, and so you can probably see how that can cause me to have bumps in the road sometimes.

            • Michael John Scott Reply

              November 14, 2012 at 10:17 pm

              Well said Carol!! Coincidentally I have an uncanny “intuition” that also puts people off. As a result I am very discreet about discussing it.

  4. bitcodavid Reply

    November 13, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Sadly, many do only use 10% of their brains. Some, I imagine, even less. If you think a kind of hot – office hot, anyway – Latina chef, carefully hand builds your Taco Bell Cantina Bowl, then you only use 10% of your brain. If you think 3000 doctors recommend 5-Hour Energy then you’re only using about 5%, and If you think retirees stand around at gas stations talking about insurance, then you’re down to about 3%.

  5. bitcodavid Reply

    November 13, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Oh, and a Fox News-blond storming down to the “Nerd-room” to chew out the number crunchers, ’cause Romney lost – well, she’s probably using 100%, but 100% of nothing is still nothing.

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