Day 869: Unleashing The Other 90% Of The Brain

originally published May 18, 2014

In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper uses a tiny pill to unlock the full 100% of his brain’s abilities, granting him superhuman reasoning skills, instantaneous deduction and an unnatural gift of foresight (though not enough foresight to keep him from making that third Hangover movie). This August, because Hollywood loves a good idea so much it’ll recycle it more frequently than an old Snapple bottle, Scarlett Johansson stars in Lucy, a story about a woman who unlocks 100% of her brain, granting her superhuman reasoning skills, etc, etc.

In all fairness, it is a fascinating concept. If we really only use 10% of our brains’ abilities, who knows what sort of untapped wonders we might really be capable of? Telekinesis? Precognition? Jedi mind tricks? Fortunately, there are dozens of books on how to mine the vast natural resources of think-gems inside our skulls. If one were to read each of them and apply their teachings, the possibilities are boundless. Within months you might find yourself switching from watching The Real Housewives of East Buffalo to watching opera broadcasts on PBS! How exciting!

The only little squirrel in the innards of this path to cerebral righteousness is the fact that we actually don’t use a mere 10% of our brains. That concept, which has often been attributed to Albert Einstein in a bold display of complete internet bullshittery, is one of our most widely swallowed urban myths.

Along with fellow Harvard psychologist Boris Sidis, William James was fascinated with the potential of the human brain. The two had worked at kick-starting Boris’s son’s IQ in a somewhat ethically-grey experiment. The kid was already a prodigy, allegedly reading the New York Times at only 18 months, and they felt that their work with the boy helped to bump him up to an adulthood IQ of 250-300. There’s no paperwork to back this up, but William Sidis graduated with a cum laude B.A. from Harvard at age 16, so clearly the kid had something.

William James told his lecture audiences that people only meet a fraction of their brains’ full potential. This is true – most of us will choose to watch televised miniature golf or seek out the ultimate online pinball game rather than study the intricacies of molecular biology just for fun. But this is likely how the myth got started. It’s one thing to say that we voluntarily opt out of flexing our think-muscles several times a day, and quite another to suggest that we have a sprawling landscape of inaccessible brain magic, just slightly out of reach.

In the foreword of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, Lowell Thomas misquotes William James, adding the ‘10%’ falsehood to the myth. The truth is, most people – even those in the field – didn’t fully understand the neurological research of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The brain is made up mostly of glial cells, and no one really knew what those cells do. It’s possible that the myth came to be accepted as fact because of the notion that we’re only using a portion of our brains at any given time.

That’s really all it takes for a misunderstanding to become an accepted fact. Neuroscientist Barry Beyerstein has identified seven specific types of evidence that completely disprove the notion that we’re each sitting on mental goldmines of mental powers and pseudo-magic. Barry’s kind of a buzz-kill – I was kind of hoping I was just a few books shy of learning how to dodge bullets like Neo in The Matrix. Just in case.

First off, if 90% of our brain is just untouched goopy sludge, then we should be able to damage any part of it and land a nine out of ten shot at seeing no ill effects. In actual fact there is no area of the brain that can be snuffed out without causing some sort of harm. Even an errant little poke can cause a jolt to the brain’s functionality. Brain scans have shown that our brains are always active no matter what we’re doing – even if we’re blindly scrolling through Reddit with glazed eyes and only the dimmest of notions that we should have gone to bed / left for work / arrived for surgery a half-hour ago, neurons are firing somewhere up there.

PET scans and MRIs have shown us that even during sleep, all parts of the brain chime in with some sort of contribution. The only way we have any shadowy corner in our skulls that does nothing is in the case of brain damage. We can also credit evolution as evidence here – given that our brains drain around 20% of the body’s energy resources, evolution would favor folks with smaller, more efficient brains. We’d be a species of tiny-headed superpeople.

Brain cells that are not used tend to degenerate, in much the same way that unused muscles turn into flabby sacks of putty. According to the myth, adult brains should be 90% decomposed hole-space. Hell, we have dispelled this 10% myth with physical evidence: the single-unit recording technique has allowed us to implant a tiny electrode into a human brain to record the activity of a single cell. If 90% of our brain was unused, we’d have noticed it by now.

This is one of several brain myths that we have glommed onto, perhaps as an incentive to propel us to become smarter and more in tune with our potentially boundless intellect, or maybe simply as an excuse for why we forgot to pick up butter on the way home from work – the reminder to do so accidentally tumbled into that murky 90%.

Researchers used to believe that we were born with all the brain cells we’d ever possess. That has been debunked also. We thought that certain functionalities of the brain could only be performed by one hemisphere or the other – also completely untrue, given that skills lost by a damaged hemisphere can be relearned by the other over time. But when it comes to the 10% myth, it’s strange that so many people still seem to believe it. It’s a great foundation for a piece of fiction, I suppose, despite the fact that it’s becoming somewhat of an overused trope.

In addition to the two movies I mentioned before, the 10% myth was an important facet of the show Heroes, right from the first episode. The Lawnmower Man, Flight of the Navigator, Defending Your Life – the myth has served as the foundation for a number of movies, books and short stories. I suppose like ghost stories, vampire tales, and the notion of spending the afterlife dancing with a  boy band, the myth remains because it fuels our imagination.

And because, like any interesting idea, the movies can recycle it ad nauseam and still sell tickets.

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