It has been a widely circulated myth whenever subjects of IQ, human potential or psychology are discussed that we only use 10% of our brains. This myth has informed much of popular culture over the years. However, it is completely wrong! We actually use all of our brain all the time. So how did we come up with this 10% notion?
A likely origin to the ’10% myth’ could be attributed to psychologist William James, the father of pragmatism. William James was speaking about human potential, stating that due to the cultural constraints and other ailments, not everyone lives up to their full ‘potential’. Here is the full quote which lead to the misunderstanding:
‘Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checks. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.’
Notice there is no mention of both the 10% percentage and also of the brain’s overall function. What he was in fact saying was that we often don’t feel fully energised, both physically and mentally. That’s it. But of course, popular culture loves to hijack science and twist in in more captivating ways, even if it is a completely false understanding.
The ten percent myth was particularly useful for certain branches of self help. Most notably, it was popularised in a foreword to Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. But it also had certain ‘spiritual’ usages as well. The idea that we have this massive reservoir of brain potential waiting to be unlocked struck many people as evidence for the paranormal.
It also informed many books, films and other forms of media throughout the years. One of the more recent movies is ‘Lucy’, which stars Scarlett Johansson. In it, the titular character Lucy takes a drug which slowly unlocks more of her brain. This leads to her becoming a literal superhero and even ‘transcend’ her physical body and ‘less developed’ brain.
However, neurological and scientific evidence shows, clearly, that we use all of our brains all the time. Yes, even when we’re asleep! Different brain areas have different functions. There are areas which work specifically for you to recognise faces, other areas for you to find patterns, etc. If one part shuts down, the entire brain suffers.
Here is neuroscientist Adrian Owen addressing this ten percent myth in his book ‘Into the Grey Zone’; ‘There is no sense in which we only use 10 percent of our brain, just as there is no sense in which my mind ‘clears’ when I relax’. What instead happens, is that the brain enters different states of consciousness. But all of it still works!
Owen worked with comatose patients, trying to see if he can establish communication. And he did do so through fMRI. The brain is complicated, but myths like these only serve to either confuse us more or as fictional writing prompts. We might use 100% of our brains, but our brains are also not the perfect thinking machine… even at full functionality.