Do I only use 10% of my brain?

It's an idea which has been around for over a century, it is believed by over 65% of the general public and by over 40% of science teachers, the idea has appeared in movies, is often quoted by motivational speakers and is repeated over and over again throughout the world of personal development.

What makes the idea so attractive is the thought “If right now I’m only using 10% of my brain power, just imagine what I could do if I unlocked the other 90%”

This kind of line, has been used to promise all sorts of cognitive enhancement, everything from plausible improvements in your memory or problem solving abilities, through to the more extreme claims of being able to develop mental superpowers like mind reading and telekinesis.

But where did this idea come from? Is there any truth to it, and if not, how much of our brains do we actually use?

Origin of the 10% claim

The idea first appears around the late 19th to early 20th centuries. At this time many notable intellectual figures, including both American psychologist William James, and Albert Einstein were suggesting that most people only use a fraction of their mental potential.

During the 19th century Neuroscience began to emerge as a distinct field of study. In these early days of neuroscience, a lack of understanding made it appear there were regions of the brain which didn’t serve any obvious function. The evidence certainly supported the idea that only 10% of our brain has clear, distinct, definable functions. We have since learned that these apparently useless areas in fact have highly specialised or subtly inter-related functions, which just wouldn’t be as immediately obvious as those regions which controlled things like sight, language, or movement.

Because we can’t be certain what the original source of the 10% claim is, we don’t know in what context it was made. We don’t even know the exact words that were used; for instance although they are very similar and could easily be misquoted or confused; the sentences; ‘we only use 10% of our brain’, and ‘we only use 10% of our mind’ or ‘we only use 10% of our cognitive potential’, all carry different meanings.

Let’s start of by taking the claim ‘We only use 10% of our brain literally.

If you look at our brain activity at a single snapshot in time, there is actually some truth to this. Only between (1%) and (16%) of the neurons within our brain are actually firing at any given time, so 10% is about right for an average. But that is slightly misleading, you wouldn’t say you only use 10% of your house, just because you only happen to be in one room at a given time, or that you only use 10% of your body because you aren’t using every single muscle at the same time.

Besides this kind of low level activity within any given region, but distributed out across the entire brain, is actually the most efficient way to transfer the most amount of information, using the least amount of energy. It is a principle known as ‘sparse coding’.

Neuroimaging techniques like PET scans and fMRIs show that there is some level of activity in almost every area region of the brain, every time we do something that involves even a modest level of engagement like; reading, talking, listening to music, or even just walking around. There is even significant brain activity while you are asleep.

You see, every part of your brain has a function, some are needed for processing language, others control your personality, or store memories, so although you don’t use all 100% of your brain at any one time, over the course of an entire day every part does get used.

You can also see this makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Despite only making up between 2% and 3% of our body weight, our brains use on average 20% of all the energy we get from food. That is a big energy overhead to meet, if 90% of our brain was just along for the ride, natural section would either have ensured that trait got lost along the way, or else that we died out long ago in favour of other hominids who could perform the same cognitive feats but needed much less food each day to keep them going.

10% of your Mental Potential

So what about the more metaphorical version of the claim, along the lines of ‘We only use 10% of our mental potential’. Although precise numbers here are much more difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, there is a much stronger case to be made.

Memory experts aren’t usually born with their remarkable abilities, but rather they train and build up their minds. This training has a measurable physical effect within the brain too. A well known study involving London cab drivers; who are required to memorise the locations and routes between every street in London, showed they develop a larger hippocampus – the area of the brain which deals with memory in response to this demand.

Expert speed readers are able to process written information at rates more than 10 times faster than the average person, without losing any comprehension. As with the memory experts, the degree of improvement is proportional to the amount of time spent developing the skill.

Performance tests of mental discipline, focus and attention, conducted with long term meditators, show significant improvements in these cognitive skills compared with non-meditators. At the extreme end of this scale, while protesting some Tibetan monks have been able to remain focused sat in meditation while setting themselves on fire.

We could consider many more examples; polyglots who speak 20 or more languages, musicians with perfect pitch hearing, lucid dreamers who can consistently remain conscious while asleep. People who have dedicated themselves to learning or developing any mental skill show remarkable levels of performance in the associated psychological and cognitive tests.

It is clearly possible to significantly expand your existing mental capacity and even develop entirely new cognitive abilities.

Now, what if we were to imagine some hypothetical person, who took it upon themselves to develop not just a single skill or area of interest, but all of the abilities mentioned here to the extremes which experts within their individual skills have already done. And if we took this person as the benchmark for the kind of mind it is possible for a human being to achieve. Then it certainly seems like a reasonable assumption to say in comparison to such a person, most of us in our current states are only operating at around 10% of our full cognitive potential.

So as is so often the case, the truth of the 10% claim, depends on exactly how the question is interpreted. In its most literal form, no we definitely need and use all of our brains to live out a normal life. But we can see it another way, as a reflection on our potential, as a challenge, and something to rise to.

As a final thought, there is potentially one more way to consider the question. If we return to our hypothetical super-expert; it is also seems entirely plausible given the physical neurological changes within the brain that would necessarily accompany the development of expertise in this array of skills, that such a person would have either a measurably greater average activity level, or measurably greater maximum activity capacity within their brain compared with an average person. So do we only use 10% of what our brain could be? That question is still open.


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