Do I really only use 10 percent of my brain?

 

Dear Dr. Phil,

There is a new movie that says I am only using 10% of my brain. Is this true? If so, did Albert Einstein really use more than 10% of his? My teacher said Einstein used lots more.

Thanks, Bob from Newark, NJ

 

Dear Bob from Newark, NJ,

This is a question that I am asked often. I say that with amazement, because the idea that nature is forcing us to carry around the excess weight of 90% of our brain that we never use, seems unbelievable to me. However this myth has prevailed for years.

You use all 100 percent of your brain.

In the movie, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freemen proclaims that people only use 10 percent of their brain. Freeman is a great actor but not a neuroscientist, but due to his stage presence and authoritative voice, I will be asked about the “10 percent of your brain myth” all summer.

You use all of your brain throughout the day, everyday. Even when you appear not to be doing anything, the electrons in your brain are constantly firing at different rates.

If you are not using your pinky finger on your left hand, the corresponding brain tissue that controls that finger is ready to go. It may not be firing right this instance, but it is on standby if you need it.

How did the myth start?

In a book that I highly recommend, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, the writer of the preface, Lowell Thomas, a trusted journalist, misquoted psychologist William James. Dr. James said that people often use only 10 percent of their brain’s latent (not yet developed) potential. This became interpreted to mean 10 percent of their brain -- period. I do not know for sure, but this may be how my headache began.

I once talked to a self professed psychic who was convinced that her gift came from her ability to use more than 10 percent of her brain. When I told her she used all of her brain, she was modest and told me that she hoped to someday, after she practiced and expanded her psychic skills.

The 10 percent of the brain myth has been used a lot in Science Fiction. And, other than bothering my sensibilities, it probably doesn’t matter much. But sometimes myths have real consequences.

Teachers and the 10 percent myth

I do have a concern about medical myths when they are being passed on by professionals. In a study out of England and the Netherlands, “researchers surveyed 242 primary and secondary school teachers who were interested in the neuroscience of learning.” What they found surprised me. The report states, “Results showed that on average, teachers believed 49% of the neuromyths, particularly myths related to commercialized educational programs.”

So I will “happily” spend my summer telling people about the fallacy of the 10 percent of the brain myth. If you can help me spread the word, thanks. I doubt we can kill this myth, but maybe we can lower its viral spread by say, 10 percent.

Let me end today with my favorite quote from William James, the man who is often called the father of American psychology, “Everybody should do at least two things each day that he hates to do, just for practice.”