Debunking Brain Myths: Does Our Brain Only Use 10% of Its Power?
Brain studies have come a long way, and the field of neuroscience is still one of the least widely understood among the sciences. We look at some common brain myths and break them down to see if there’s any truth there.
Our brain is our most powerful organ, and we use it constantly throughout the day. Even performing the most basic tasks requires huge amounts of brainpower. It doesn’t matter whether we’re sitting down to an office task or just reading the book of ra, our brains are at work. Many of us have probably heard the adage that we only use around 10% of our brains. But is it real?
Well, the answer, simply, is no. Brainpower extends across the whole of our grey matter – we use every part of our brains every day. So, where does this myth come from, and why is it so prevalent in our society? We break down this common idea, and a few others, to see what our minds are all about.
What’s The Myth?
The common myth is that humans only use 10% of their full brain capacity. This idea implicitly (or explicitly) suggests that the other 90% are dormant and untapped. Ideas like this are common in media and in popular culture. The character of the mad or dysfunctional genius, who uses more of their brain anatomy than others, is a stock figure. One example of this is the 2014 film, Lucy.
However, these narratives are based on a false premise. Humans do not, in fact, have hidden brainpower lurking under the surface, waiting to be unlocked. While our brain across development stores up impressive reserves, we cannot gain mental or intellectual powers by discovering hitherto unknown parts of the mind.
However, what our brains do use is pretty impressive on its own! Our brain cells and neurons fire all day long and are even active while we are asleep. They help us learn skills, form memories, and perform many tasks on autopilot and without conscious awareness. This explains why sometimes you will go through your whole morning routine withouteven noticing, or not remember your drive home from work. Your brain is at work behind the scenes!
Where Does This Brain Myth Come From?
Most scientists believe that the 10% brain myth all comes down to a misused quote from the American psychologist, William James. In his 1907 book, The Energies of Men, James suggested that humans do not often use their full mental or psychological capacity in their daily lives. However, James’s statement does not refer to neuroscience or to brain function.
Instead, James was making a social commentary, suggesting that most people do not dedicate time to learning or educating themselves – instead spending time on frivolous or shallow things. This is a very different statement from ‘humans only use 10% of their brains’ but it is, supposedly, where the belief comes from. It basically stems from a misunderstanding, or from someone taking James’s statement literally, when he really meant it metaphorically.
However, despite these dubious origins, the myth has gain surprising prevalence. This may be because it is an appealing idea. We’d all like to think that we’d be genius superhumans if we just unlocked our hidden powers.
It also explains the feeling many of us have that we are mentally capable of more, but that certain limitations hold us back. We may feel that we can almost understand deep concepts – such as the meaning of life or what happens after death – but the answer is just out of reach. However, this is a common psychological phenomenon and doesn’t mean that, by increasing our brain capacity, we would actually be able to solve these problems.
Another reason for the widespread prevalence of this myth is that, at times, psychological behavior is very difficult to understand. Many of us have, at one time or another, caught ourselves acting in ways that we cannot rationalize or explain to ourselves. We may know that something is bad for us, but do it anyway, or suddenly change a situation that benefits us.
Our psychology and emotions are intimately connected with our literal brains and ideas of the unconscious mind, or the unknown parts of our brain, which motivate behavior. This is based on the work of psychologists like Freud and, later in the field, in concepts such as our fight or flight response, which can cause unexplained anxiety. Still, today, there is much that neuroscience cannot explain about the way we think. However, neuroscience trackers in the brain can show that our whole brain is active at almost all times.
How Do Neuroscientists Measure Brain Activity?
Brain imaging allows modern neuroscientists to visually show brain activity in an entirely new way. This is a relatively new technology and is only around 25 years old. The most commonly used types of brain imaging technology are an MRI scan (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and a PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography).
These scans can show different areas of the brain lighting up under stimulus, showing where brain activity occurs. During a PET scan, this result is created by injecting a radioactive tracer element, like glucose, into the brain, and watching this tracer responding in tandem to brain function. Using scans of this type, neuroscientists have conclusively shown that our whole brain is used for various functions at different times.
Although the mind does effectively take brain breaks during rest, you still experience a lot of brain function while sleeping. People will also experience varying activity levels in the brain across the life span, especially during the aging process. However, unless specific parts of the brain are damaged, you will continue to use all parts of your brain, even when brain capacity is diminished due to disease.
What Are Other Common Brain Myths?
- Brain Training Boosts IQ
Many people believe that brain training puzzles can increase IQ. However, this is not true. Although these types of activities are often considered a brain booster, they will not increase intelligence. They may, however, help will the maintenance of cognitive reserve (the brain’s ability to build new neural connections) and can be a good way to keep the brain active.
- Your Brain Is Fully Formed Beyond Adolescence
While adolescence is a time in which we develop our adult identities, our brains are not fixed or unchanging after this point. In fact, our brains are plastic and develop all the time as we acquire new skills and build new neural pathways. Although it may be said that we achieve a brain balance after adolescence, once our hormones and bodies settle into adult routines, we can always change our brains.
- You Are Either Right or Left-Brained
As we’ve said, you use your whole brain at different times and for different functions. Therefore, nobody uses predominantly the left or the right-hand side of their brain. Contrary to popular belief, different sides of your brain also do not have anything to do with whether you are a mathematical or a creative thinker. Although different parts of the brain control different responses, creative and mathematical thinking are complex processes that cannot be simply broken down this way.
Modern neuroscience can do amazing things. It can help us determine brain age, cure brain diseases, and help with mental health problems. We are learning and developing in this field all the time, so it’s time to put old brain myths to bed.
Final Call: Are you fascinated by neuroscience or psychology? What brain myths do you want to see debunked? Share your thoughts in the comments!