At some point in our lives, most of us have heard the pervasive myth that average humans only use 10% of their brains. Extensive work in the scientific community has been done to dispel what was likely a misunderstanding of 19th-century research and consequent misquoting of an early 20th-century psychologist.
Yet, even today, about half the population still believes the myth. Part of this could be that it is, oddly, an inherently inspiring notion: If we have 90% capacity to tap into, how super-human and wildly different from our current pedestrian selves could we become?
Now, before you get all disheartened at the thought that you are already functioning at your full potential — keep reading! Humans have immense untapped potential; it’s just that the way there is not through using a larger percentage of our brain.
This longing to be extraordinary has fueled many books and movies over the years. Several years ago Scarlett Johansson in a movie called Lucy. This thrill-a-minute action flick focuses directly on the 100%-capacity question. You can check out the movie trailer below:
Despite Morgan Freeman’s compelling proclamations as a neuroscientist, what scientists know today is that unless a portion of the brain has been removed or severely injured, during the course of a day, we all use 100% of our brain. Dr. John Henley, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, sums it up this way:
Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period. Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain. Even in sleep, areas such as the frontal cortex, which controls things like higher level thinking and self-awareness, or the somatosensory areas, which help people sense their surroundings, are active.
Practically, this makes sense. If all of our brain’s neurons were constantly firing at 100%, we would likely be totally overwhelmed by the stimulus. Parts of the brain are more active in sleep, and other parts are firing during wakefulness and tend to slow down during sleep or periods of inactivity. And in truth, our brains need the respite, just like the rest of our bodies do.
While we might have to let go of the vision of 90% dormant brain ripe to be tapped, this for discouragement. It’s possible to embrace the reality of scientific fact and still find profound inspiration in the ability that our amazing brains have for growth, improvement, and healing. And it’s possible to use what we do understand about brain function to boost our potential individually and collectively.
One thing we understand better now than we did in the 19th Century is that the frequencies of certain brain waves in certain parts of the brain have a huge effect on thoughts, mood, choices, and behavior.
As we’ve addressed before in other articles, we can affect things like depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, and uncontrolled rage by slowing down or ramping up frequencies in certain parts of the brain.
We know that mindfulness and meditation influence brain wave function and can serve to transform the shape and performance of our brains by the ways they send energy to the prefrontal cortex. When we send energy to the higher brain areas that are linked to producing insightful problem solving, physical healing, healthy habit formation and an increased sense of happiness, numerous other benefits occur.
And we also know that even very basic lifestyle changes, like eating whole and non-toxic foods, spending time in nature and getting regular sleep and exercise, can literally change the size of our brains and create neuro pathways neurogenesis.
So, it’s not really a question of percentages. Rather, the driving question of brain capacity for the 21st Century really could be: Are we maximizing the efficiency of the 100% that we know is currently in use?
In other words: We all have an engine. With the right tools, we get some say in whether it purrs with the clean power of a Tesla or chugs like a run-down clunker. Both a clunker and a Tesla can get you from New York to California — but what’s the trip going to be like, and how long will it take to get there? It stands to reason that how we treat our bodies and our brains determines how well they work.
All these things point to an as-of-yet unknown potential for humans to be stronger, healthier, happier, more connected, more peaceful, and more capable than we’ve ever been. It speaks to the brain’s incredible ability to notice and respond to its environment.