Maybe you’ve heard the myth that we use only ten-percent of our brains. Whatever that means. I’ve recently heard the number imagined as low and three-percent. Both percentages are nonsense, of course. So there’s no using either as an excuse for not being more creative, innovative, or inventive.
Why the Myth
Blame Einstein, William James, Margaret Mead, or Dale Carnegie. All of these and other well respected brains have been blamed for making statements, which have been misconstrued, suggesting greater mental power within or just beyond our reach. I don’t think we need to visit their quotes. Brain function lies outside their purview.
Unfortunately, people who do have what it takes to talk about brain function have drawn false conclusions in the early days of brain study. In the first quarter of the 20th century, psychologist Karl Lashley found that after he removed substantial parts of their brains, animals could re-establish functions they had lost and eventually behave somewhat normally. He must have assumed that much of the brain lay in reserve for this to happen.
We know better now and yet other responsible people may have mislead us unwittingly with an innocent measurement—namely, only ten-percent of our brains consist of neurons, the cells responsible for brain function. The rest consists of other kinds of cells, such as glial cells, that insulate our thinking brain cells. These other cells don’t do the thinking, but they help make it happen and they’re very active.
And then there’s this. In the video below Stephen Wiltshire draws a minutely detailed panorama of Rome after a helicopter flyover.
Does Stephen tap some fabulous portion of his brain that remains unexplored territory to the rest of us? Not necessarily. Stephen’s mind-boggling ability, though hardly understood, results from the way he uses his brain rather than from access to a secret part of it. Maybe someday we’ll understand how.
Why It’s Wrong
We do know that much more than ten-percent or our brains work at any given time. People who study, map, and observe brains in action assure us that we use all of our brain and that most of it is active almost all the time. That soggy, three-pound wad of neurons in your skull consumes about 20-percent of your body’s energy. It’s not doing that with one-tenth of its mass. Just reading this text engages much more than that.
Let’s apply some common sense. Could it really be that 90-percent of our neurons just hang around and do nothing? How could such a lazy load have survived evolution? The body’s use-it-or-lose-it principle would soon put unused brain cells out in the trash. Like our muscles, unused parts of the brain atrophy. You don’t hear much about brain atrophy, because as long as you’re alive and active, virtually no part of your noggin rests.
Consider also that you can’t damage or remove much of the brain, much less some inactive 90-percent, and not lose some mental or physical function. That’s because you use all of your brain.
Why the Myth Persists
Like the “Eskimos have 500 words for snow” myth, we like to snack on savory factoids. If they sound plausible and cool, they get passed around, especially one that serves as a good excuse for our mental shortcomings. It’s also comforting, in a way, to think that ten-fold mental superpowers are within our grasp even if we never reach them. I feel that I could do better mentally, play a better game of chess, retaliate more quickly with brilliant comebacks to smart-ass remarks, or always find my missing keys! If only I could tap that hidden 90-percent.
Blame brain scans. You may have seen brain-scan images that artificially color tiny regions of the brain to illustrate where a particular brain function takes place. In such illustrations, other active areas have been made to look inactive in order to avoid confusion. This may help sustain the myth.
Unfortunately the ten-percent myth gets unscrupulous professional help as well. No end of charlatans lie ready to sell you something to increase your brain power, memory, creativity—with no work at all! In just seven days!
Certain illusionists like to make you think they use special powers rather than tricks to bend spoons and perform other psychic-like wonders. Heck, I can bend a spoon and make it look like I’m using my mental powers, but I admit it’s an illusion. And I don’t claim to use a magic part of my brain or hawk mind-power or intuition-building kits.
You might also have seen the ads promising to help you gain success and a better life by tapping the “hidden nine-tenths of your mental strength.” Don’t waste your money. Unfortunately it’s not the quantity of the brain we put in gear that could make us smarter, it’s the way we use the brains we use.
In the end, William James may be correct in saying, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” But rather than expecting some cerebral set of floodgates to open and bathe us in the sudden benefits of a ten-fold increase in mental power, let’s continue to tax the brains we have with new creative challenges.
Peter Lloyd is co-creator with Stephen Grossman of Animal Crackers, the breakthrough problem-solving tool designed to crack your toughest problems.