Great piece in The Atlantic recently about one brain myth that won’t go away.
“By now, perhaps you’ve seen the trailer for the new sci-fi thriller Lucy… Then comes Morgan Freeman, playing a professorial neuroscientist with the obligatory brown blazer, to deliver the film’s familiar premise to a full lecture hall: “It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of the brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 percent. Interesting things begin to happen.”
Of course, the idea that “you only use 10 percent of your brain” is, indeed, 100 hundred percent bogus. Why has this myth persisted for so long, and when is it finally going to die?
Unfortunately, not any time soon. A survey last year by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research found that 65 percent of Americans believe the myth is true, 5 percent more than those who believe in evolution.
…And that’s why the 10-percent myth, compared with other fantasies, is especially pernicious. It has a distinct air of scientific plausibility—it’s a zippy one-liner with a nice round number, a virus with obvious vectors in pop-psychology books, easy to repeat at cocktail parties. The myth is also part of a larger way of thinking about the brain that is characterized by misleading simplifications—like the notion that the right side of the brain is creative and the left side rational. “Those kinds of ideas self-perpetuate,” LeDoux (professor of neuroscience and psychology at NYU) told me. “It’s like saying dopamine is responsible for pleasure and the amygdala makes fear. Both are wrong.” (emphasis added)
During Explain Pain courses, there is a lecture on therapeutic metaphor. A number of different kinds of metaphors and therapeutic narratives are discussed, including “The Majesty of the Brain”. The 10% myth always comes up, but it’s not the only simplistic metaphor that is out there- the “rusty cogs brain-as-mechanical-device” metaphor is also common, as are the less than flattering “brain fart” and “half wit”- although using 50% might be better than 10%! There’s also Woody Allen’s suggestion that the brain is “my second favourite organ”.
The possible history of the 10% myth is quite interesting:
“Like most legends, the origin of this fiction is unclear, though there are some clues. According to Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton and the author of Welcome to Your Brain, the catalyst may have been the self-help industry. In the early 1900s, William James, one of the most influential thinkers in modern psychology, famously said that humans have unused mental potential. This completely reasonable assertion was later revived, in mangled form, by the writer Lowell Thomas in his foreword to the 1936 self-help bible How To Win Friends And Influence People. “Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average person develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability,” Thomas wrote. It appears that he, or perhaps someone else in his day, simply plucked the golden number out of the sky.”
Here however, there is not only the beginning of the 10% myth, but the notion (conflation?) that the brain and mind are synonymous sneaks in. Taken further, this synonymity leads to the idea that “you are your brain”, most famously characterised by Francis Crick in his statement in The Astonishing Hypothesis:
“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”
One might then wonder that if we are our brains, and we only use 10% of it, then who are we really?!
Brain myths and metaphors are often so deeply embedded that we can forget that that’s what they are. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how little we still really know about this most magnificent and majestic organ?
– Tim Cocks