10% Confusion, 90% Bulls**t


Recent pop culture has seen an unorthodox use of the idea that “humans only use 10% of their brain.” Movies like Lucy with Scarlett Johansson (uhhh do you think she will marry me?) or Limitless with Bradley Cooper are founded on the idea that we haven’t even come close to achieving our full potential and that, perhaps through some miracle substance, we could unlock a plethora of hidden power in the human brain previously inaccessible to us.

Unfortunately, for all the people out there who think that Adderall 2.0 is going to improve their IQ drastically, this concept is a complete and utter myth. While the origins of this myth are often debated, many attribute this concept of unused brain potential to the 19th century Harvard psychologist William James. The famous social philosopher Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” even alludes to William James in some of his work.

Why has this particular myth been so pervasive throughout the 20th century and into the new millennia? I have to admit… it is a quite an alluring concept when you get a D on your orgo final to go and tell your professor, “I haven’t even reached my full potential yet, just wait for the other 90%” with a smug look on your face. Unfortunately, however, that kind of argument would probably only work with philosophy professors. Apart from being a great excuse for our own inadequacies, the proliferation of this myth has probably also leveraged the vast unknowns of the human brain. So perhaps there is a little bit of confusion when people hear this concept, but let me try to clear the water.

The three major divisions of the brain, the forebrain in bubble gum pink, the midbrain in lemon yellow, and the hindbrain in fire orange.

The three major divisions of the brain, the forebrain in bubble gum pink, the midbrain in lemon yellow, and the hindbrain in fire orange.

Let’s start by defining what “brain use” is and briefly look at a map of the brain. For the purposes of this article, brain use will be defined as any area of the brain that is strongly associated with a particular function or set of functions for normal behavior. In general, there are three major divisions of the brain; the forebrain, this is what people classically think of when they think of the brain (the big oval blob with a bunch of folds); the midbrain which is the part of the stem of the brain that is just underneath the forebrain; and the hindbrain which is the distal part of the brain stem (Figure 1). There are, of course, further divisions of the brain based on functionality, location, cellular architecture, and developmental relationships. A quick google search of “brain map” yields results employing all of these different divisional strategies.

The overwhelming functionality of the brain dictates that the organization its functional areas be highly complex, making even the simplest maps of the brain almost too difficult for any one human to fully comprehend. That being said, every last inch of the brain can be attributed to a particular function or a set of functions. For example, the hippocampus can be associated strongly with forming new spatial and conscious memories of life events. The amygdala is strongly associated with emotional responses that humans possess. The “primary motor cortex” is the center for initiating and controlling almost every body movement that we carry out in a given day.

I could go on and on and on and on and on until we’ve covered every last little division of the brain that we know of today. But that is outside the scope of this article, the point is that every last part of the brain is used for something.

The confusion about how the brain works comes not from the location of it’s functional divisions, but rather from questions about how different pathways of information processing are integrated to give us the conscious experience we face every day. In fact, the mysteries facing modern neuroscience research are quite opposite of trying to unlock “unknown potential”, they are rather centered around finding how the brain has managed to become such a powerful device, performing many complex tasks involving multiple areas at once and integrating them into a seamless experience for the human user.

The brain is extremely proficient at storing memories, which is the result of much more brain activity than just 10%. Photo credit: Jon Tyson

The brain is extremely proficient at storing memories, which is the result of much more brain activity than just 10%. Photo credit: Jon Tyson

For example, the hippocampus stores memories that are made during the day and, in a separate process, transmits the memories into other parts of the forebrain for long term memory storage. These two functions are associated with distinct levels and patterns of electrical activity within the hippocampus but is undetectable by our own conscious experience.

Furthermore, while some areas of the brain might be strongly associated with a particular function, it is becoming more clear now that interactions between several brain parts are necessary for any given action. For example, while the basal ganglia are traditionally thought of as being the center for fine tuning motor control, it is well known that degradation of certain parts of the basal ganglia in Huntington’s disease are highly linked to the precipitation of depression and other alterations in the psyche of affected individuals.

At the end of the day, anyone studying neuroscience might laugh when someone says, “we only use 10% of our brains.” They laugh not out of condescension for the speaker, but out of pity for themselves knowing that their coursework will require them to know the map of the brain in great detail, and, unfortunately for our GPA’s, that map is completely full. The unknown potential in the brain doesn’t reside in improving our own intellect, but rather applying what we learn about the way the brain works to improving machine learning algorithms or artificial intelligence that aids us in virtually every aspect of todays society.

See our article “Your brain is a computer” to read more on why computers are learning more from brains than brains are learning from computers.



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