We Use Way More Than 10 Percent Of Our Brains

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, December 31, 2013
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“Aristotle taught that the brain exists merely to cool the blood and is not involved in the process of thinking. This is true only of certain persons.” —Will Cuppy, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody

In A Nutshell

We’ve all heard that we only use about 10 percent of our brains. It’s an attractive idea: After all, we can blame our untapped brain power for our unrecognized potential. The problem is that it’s a myth; we already use pretty much 100 percent of our brain every day, and its amazing abilities are channeled into everything from deciding what’s for dinner to keeping our hearts going. The myth may have simply surfaced from a misunderstanding that we only know the function of about 10 percent of our brain cells—the others are still working, we’re just not sure how.

The Whole Bushel

It’s fun to think about what we would be capable of if we could harness all that untapped brain power. Telekinesis, maybe, or inventing the next great advance in technology. Seeing the future? Reading minds? After all, we only use about 10 percent of our brains now, and just look what we’re capable of. Right?

Not so much. With the help of medical technologies that allow scientists to monitor electrical activity in the brain, it’s been found that we use almost all of our brain on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not.

Different parts of the brain control different things. The temporal lobe processes hearing, speech, and language, while the cerebellum controls movements that we think are automatic, such as minute adjustments that allow us to keep our balance. The prefrontal lobe is the part of the brain that allows us to think ahead, make judgments, and weigh options.

That’s more than 10 percent right there.

And that’s not even taking into account the sections of the brain that are in constant communication. The prefrontal lobe works closely with the limbic system. While the limbic system is the more primal part of the brain that is responsible for our emotions, the prefrontal lobe helps us regulate those emotions and channel them in to a more proper response (ideally). The brain’s neurons are constantly firing electrical energy through our brains.

So where did the myth come from?

The definite source isn’t easily identifiable, but there are some likely culprits. In his 1908 book The Energies of Men, American psychologist William James made mention of the fact that we only seem to be using a small part of our mental resources.

Perhaps even more intriguing as a possible source for the myth is Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon from the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University. Penfield was researching a technique for curing epilepsy that involved damaging the part of the brain responsible for causing seizures. In order to determine whether or not this would be a viable treatment, he knew he had to see what other parts of brain function were controlled by the same part of the brain.

Because there are no pain receptors in the brain, Penfield could poke around in the brain of a fully conscious person. He found areas that were connected to stimulating memory, auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, and other noticeable functions. And he noted that about 10 percent of the brain could be connected to a “detectable event.”

But that’s still not taking into account the undetectable events that happen in the brain all the time, like communication between the left and right side.

Another possibility for the source of the myth comes from what we know about how the brain works. The brain is made up of neurons—which carry electrical information and impulses—and glial cells. About 10 percent of the brain is neurons, and the rest is a high percentage of these glial cells. These glial cells support the function of the neurons, but beyond that, science isn’t really sure what they do.

And science certainly hasn’t been able to tell is where the human consciousness is, leaving that mystery so far defined as a collaborative effort between brain cells.

Because we’re only really sure about what 10 percent of the brain’s cells actually do—the neurons—it’s also possible that the myth has been perpetuated by that number (and perhaps further perpetuated by the comfort we try to find in blaming our biology for our shortcomings).

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: Do People Only Use 10 Percent Of Their Brains?
Psychology Today: Consciousness and the Brain
NC State University: Brain Development

  • Andy West

    I don’t, and if I ever have I assure you it wasn’t deliberate. I’m quite happy running on empty.

  • Hillyard

    This is a myth that was debunked long ago, however some of the comments here and on LV make me wonder if some people get by using 1% of their brain. Good article.

    • RichardJames1953

      **cough cough Sarah Palin cough cough **

    • Hadeskabir

      I could make a vast list with the names of people, who make comments here, who seem to be using 1% of their brain.

  • https://soundcloud.com/arjan-hut Arjan Hut

    The whole movie Limitless was based upon the notion that we only use a certain percentage of our brain.

    “With the help of a mysterious pill that enables the user to access 100
    percent of his brain abilities, a struggling writer becomes a financial
    wizard, but it also puts him in a new world with lots of dangers.”

    • Hadeskabir

      That was a good movie, but one thing that bothered me was the fact that the people who took those pills had a huge personality change. That shouldn’t happen, because our personality is molded by our life experience and biological character traits. But I guess the brain is so mysterious that we haven’t begin to grasp it, so I will shut up.

      • will parker

        Limitless was about drugs and the abuse of drugs.

  • Rich

    Sick article as always! Love your page!

    I always thought that the “10% Rumor” referred to the part that is used specifically for conscious thought and potentially for memory. That may still be accurate based on what we actually KNOW about the brain. I don’t think anyone really meant that 90% of our brain is useless. If they did, I would probably not give said person much merit anyway lol

  • Rivethead

    Seeing the future?
    Telekinesis?
    Reading minds?

    There’s absolutely no intelligent, logical reason to believe that crap exists even if we did only use 10% of our brains.

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