So, cool idea for a movie – if we used 100% of our brains we could eat a mountain for breakfast, and memorize The Tale of Genji while brushing our teeth, and get from Seattle to Stockholm in a single bound. Except that we couldn’t, because we already do, and we can’t.
The fact is, people use all of their brains. Brain imaging research techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) clearly show that the vast majority of the brain does not lie unused. Although certain activities may use only a small part of the brain at a time (for example, watching reality TV shows), any sufficiently complex set of activities will use many parts of the brain.
Hey, when I watch reality tv shows, I use all my brain – wondering which contestant is going to cut off her thumb and bleed all over Bobby Flay.
So where did this 10 percent myth come from? Psychologist Barry Beyerstein of Simon Fraser University researched the urban legend for a chapter in the book “Mind Myths: Exploring Everyday Mysteries of the Mind and Brain” (Wiley, 1999), and traced the tall tale back to at least the early part of the 20th century.
In some cases people misunderstood or misinterpreted legitimate scientific findings, but the myth was really popularized by the self-help movement. Self-improvement writers such as Dale Carnegie, author of the classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (first published in 1936, by Simon & Schuster) and groups such as those promoting transcendental meditation and neurolinguistic programming referenced the myth. They promised to teach people methods of getting ahead in life by tapping latent brainpower.
And all those strange people on off-season PBS? The monologists who pace around a stage telling the audience how to manage their money or be healthier than god or exploit their brain’s plasticity – are they still saying there’s 90% lying around unused? I don’t know because when they’re on I always change the channel to something with Bobby Flay in it.