Every Tuesday I am going to address one specific myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory or piece of pseudo-science. This time we are going to take a closer look into one of pop culture’s most valued myths: humans use only ten percent of their brain.
I always liked the idea of being capable to achieve true greatness. Many people told me over the years, how smart and eloquent I was and that I’m destined to change the lives of millions. Well, nice prep talk, bro. Currently, I’m sitting in my room in a rented flat writing for random internet people I don’t even really know. It seems, I’m as far away of changing the lives of millions as one can possibly imagine. But that’s alright. Apparently, I haven’t unlocked my TRUE potential, yet.
Somehow there are a lot of people out there, who are convinced of the idea, that we, as humans, use only ten percent of our brains. And because of this 90% uselessness we carry around, we can achieve almost anything, as soon as we turn the 90% junk into 100% awesomeness. So even if my life currently seems to be fucked up, broke and useless – that’s only because of my unused abilities. I just need to find the trigger to magically unlock the 90% greatness and somehow, I will be a god-like creature no one is able to stop. Jeez, Luc Besson even directed a movie (1) about this insane idea.
I was, of course, not the first one to realize that. @suesa wrote about this months ago - but since I'm an egocentric prick, I didn't bother to look it up. Deal with it.
But, as I already told you once, one of life’s most undervalued lessons is disappointment. So, of course, nothing about this idea is true. Sadly. I know.
The Life of Brain
How came this idea to life?
To answer this, we have to travel a few decades back in time. The 1890s, to be exact. It was around this time, when the psychologists William James and Boris Sidis came up with the theory (which had much to do with the young William Sidis), that people only use a small part of their full mental capabilities (2). Later, the writer Lowell Thomas wrote the far-reaching sentence (3):
Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten per cent of his latent mental ability.
And the damage was done. Misinterpreted scientific claims are not something which are an exclusively new appearance of modern times.
It seems indeed like an attractive concept, so it doesn’t surprise me, that it’s still around after so many years.
The problem with this idea is, that there are still so many people who believing it. Even the ones, who should know better are spreading this myth. According to Richard E. Cytowic there are 2/3 of public and nearly half of the science teachers clinging to this very wrong concept about mental capabilities (4). I ranted a while ago in a chat about institutional education and that a special certificate does not immunize you from spreading bullshit – apparently, there is at least some truth to my claims. Anyway.
It can actually be really dangerous to hold on to this belief. The neuroscientist Sophie Scott was attending a first aid course and the instructor told the class, they shouldn’t worry too much about head injuries, because 90% of the brain is not doing anything (5). Wow. That’s heavy. So fucking wrong and so fucking dangerous. Our brains are incredibly sensible when it comes to injuries. Even small ones can lead to serious health issues and disabilities. If you ever attend a first aid class and your instructor is telling you to ignore head wounds – call bullshit on that.
Thankfully, we have scientific advances to teach us more about brain functions. It is clear, most of the brain is active all the time (6). In a study about medical myths Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman and Dr. Aaron E. Carroll stated, that even with a detailed probing of the brain it was not possible to identify the claimed not-used 90 percent (7).
You can look at this from another perspective as well: your brain weights about three percent of your total body mass – but it uses 20 percent of its energy. Doesn’t this seem to be quite odd, if you would only use 10 percent of it? This would be an incredible waste of energy and it’s extremely useless if you think about it from an evolutionary point of view. The process of natural selection would have simply wiped out such inefficient brains. Evolution doesn’t care about hidden potential – if you can’t use it, it’s useless to hold on to it and therefore it needs to die.
Think about neurological diseases like Parkinson: it affects only very specific brain areas, so not even close to damaging 90% of the brain – but the consequences are quite severe nevertheless.
The brain has some amazing regenerative capabilities, but this shouldn’t fool you into thinking, that there is some hidden potential waiting to be unlocked.
I know, how amazing the idea of having unimaginable potentials somewhere hidden in our brain sounds. Trust me, I would not stop searching until I found a way to access them. But unfortunately, we have to accept the sad truth, that there is no Philosopher’s Stone inside us waiting to be found. The only way to get smarter and achieve more, is constant self-development and re-evaluation.
Reading, asking questions, working out, enough sleep, a healthy diet – all of those things can already be done by you without the help of mysterious hopes and imaginary powers. Sure, it takes constant effort and sometimes a lot of discipline, but it’s the only proven way to ensure growth. In a few years we will probably have the opportunity to enhance our brains with technical gadgets to push our mental capabilities far beyond the imaginable – but until then you need to find other ways to achieve greatness.
Getting rid of the bullshit in your life can be a first step in doing so. One of the best ways to help you with that, is reading my articles (feel free to disagree, I’m always open for debates). Maybe I am able to change some lives after all.
We will see.
Feel always free to discuss my ideas and share your own thoughts about the things I’m writing about. Nobody is omniscient and if we all walk away a bit smarter than before, we’ll have achieved a lot.
Thanks for reading and stay smart.
Make sure, to check out #steemstem for more science related content.
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