Top 10 Myths About the Brain


1
You Only Use 10 Percent of Your Brain
Why use only a fraction when you could use the whole glorious thing?
Why use only a fraction when you could use the whole glorious thing?
Don Farrall/Photodisc/Getty Images

We've often been told that we only use about 10 percent of our brains. Famous people such as Albert Einstein and Margaret Mead have been quoted as stating a variation of it. This myth is probably one of the most well-known myths about the brain, in part because it's been publicized in the media for what seems like forever. Where did it come from? Many sources point to an American psychologist of the early 1900s named William James, who said that "the average person rarely achieves but a small portion of his or her potential" [source: AARP]. Somehow, that was converted into only using 10 percent of our brain.

This seems really puzzling at first glance. Why would we have the biggest brain in proportion to our bodies of any animal (as discussed in the sixth myth in our list) if we didn't actually use all of it? Many people have jumped on the idea, writing books and selling products that claim to harness the power of the other 90 percent. Believers in psychic abilities such as ESP point to it as proof, saying that people with these abilities have tapped into the rest of their brains.

Here's the thing, though; it's not really true. In addition to those 100 billion neurons, the brain is also full of other types of cells that are continually in use. We can become disabled from damage to just small areas of the brain depending on where it's located, so there's no way that we could function with only 10 percent of our brain in use.

Brain scans have shown that no matter what we're doing, our brains are always active. Some areas are more active at any one time than others, but unless we have brain damage, there is no one part of the brain that is absolutely not functioning. Here's an example. If you're sitting at a table and eating a sandwich, you're not actively using your feet. You're concentrating on bringing the sandwich to your mouth, chewing and swallowing it. But that doesn't mean that your feet aren't working -- there's still activity in them, such as blood flow, even when you're not actually moving them.

So there's no hidden, extra potential you can tap into, in terms of actual brain space. But there's still so much to learn about the brain. You can start by clicking on some of the links below.

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Sources

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  • Augustine, George J., et al. "Neuroscience." Sinauer Associates, 2001.
  • Arthur, Charles. " Ecstasy link to damage of the brain 'misleading' the public." The Independent, April 18, 2002.
  • "The Brain." Time-Life Books, 1990.
  • "Brain Plasticity, Language Processing and Reading." Society of Neuroscience Brain Briefings, July 2000. http://www.sfn.org/index.cfm?pagename=brainbriefings_brainplasticitylanguageprocessingandreading
  • Brown, et al. "Congenital and acquired brain injury." Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Volume 89, 3 Supplement 1, March 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18295647
  • Chabris, C.F. "Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'?" Nature, 400, pgs. 826-827.
  • Chudler, Eric. "Brain Facts and Figures." Department of Bioengineering, University of Washington. http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/facts.html#brain
  • "Do we really only use 10 percent of our brains?" Scientific American Ask the Experts, March 8, 2004. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=do-we-really-use-only-10&page=2
  • "Drugs and the Brain." National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2, 2008. http://www.nida.nih.gov/scienceofaddiction/brain.html
  • Dunham, Will. "Heavy marijuana use shrinks brain parts - study." Reuters, June 2, 2008. http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN02271474
  • Goode, Erica. "Mozart for Baby? Some Say, Maybe Not." The New York Times, August 3, 1999 p. f1.
  • Goodwin, Fred. "How We Learn." The Infinite Mind Radio Program, April 26, 2000. http://www.lcmedia.com/mind0016.htm
  • Grant, Igor, et al. "Non-acute (residual) neurocognitive effects of cannabis use: A meta-analytic study." Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, Volume 9, Issue 05, July 2003, p 679-689.
  • ­Hillman, Harold "An unnatural way to die." New Scientist, October 27, 1983, pg 276-278.
  • ­­Kershaw, Alister. "A History of the Guillotine." New York : Barnes & Noble, 1993
  • Kushner, David. "Mild Traumatic Brain Injury." Archives of Internal Medicine, Volume 158, Issue 15, August 10, 1998. http://archinte.highwire.org/cgi/content/full/158/15/1617
  • MacNabb, Carrie. "Brain Science 101." University of Minnesota Health Talk, October 20, 2005. http://www.healthtalk.umn.edu/topics/brainscience/home.html
  • The Mozart Effect. http://www.mozarteffect.com
  • Radford, Benjamin. "Does alcohol kill brain cells?" LiveScience, December 26, 2007. http://www.livescience.com/mysteries/070518_brain_alcohol.html
  • Radford, Benjamin. "The Ten Percent Myth." Snopes.com, July 21, 2007. http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/10percent.asp
  • Roach, George. "The 10 Smartest Animals." MSNBC.com. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24628983/?pg=1#SMARTESTanimals_science
  • Ray, C. Claiborne. "Q & A: Brain Folds." The New York Times, Friday, October 31, 2000.
  • Vance, Packard. "The Hidden Persuaders." New York: D. McKay Co., 1957.
  • "Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome." National Institutes of Health: MedLine Plus. August 4, 2008. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000771.htm
  • The Whole Brain Atlas. http://www.med.harvard.edu/AANLIB/home.html
  • Williams, Geoff. "Myth Buster: Ten Percent of Your Brain." AARP Bulletin Today, June 26, 2008. http://bulletin.aarp.org/yourhealth/healthyliving/articles/myth_buster__ten_percent.html
  • Woolsey, Thomas A. "The brain atlas : a visual guide to the human central nervous system." Wiley, 2003.
  • Yucel, Murat, et al. "Regional Brain Abnormalities Associated With Long-term Heavy Cannabis Use." Archives of General Psychiatry, Volume 6, issue 3, June 2008.

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