Tap that latent brainpower

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.


  1. michaelraymer says

    What’s funny about the myth is how little sense it makes from a natural selection standpoint. Why would nature select such a massive, complex, resource-hungry organ like the human brain if only 10% of it were being used? Imagine how much less painful (and fatal) childbirth would be if the human brain could be 90% smaller without any noticeable loss of function. It’s just absurd to think nature gave us this giant albatross of a brain that’s only partially useful. On another note, I watched “Brunch at Bobby’s” a few times on cable before we cut the cord. It was pretty good!

  2. says

    I tend to look for something with Bugs Bunny in it, myself. Seems à propos. Insofar as the physics in that is about as probable as the neurophysiology/physiology/psychology the gurus are hawking. And generally more entertaining.

    Dunno. Seems a wonder sometimes anyone gets anything right about certain areas of life especially, there being such a sea of dodgy characters about selling improbable fad fixes for them. Things like diet especially, it’s like one of those devilish puzzles popular back in the 80s: a billion wrong answers for every right one.

  3. jonmoles says

    The commercials for this movie make me want to throw my remote at the TV, until I realize that it won’t actually hit anyone involved in the movie.

  4. Ed says

    It was a fun movie if you take it as a work of postmodern bizzaro fiction or a superhero movie without costumes.

    A Marvel Comics + Philip K Dick + H P Lovecraft + stoner philosophy remake of La Femme Nikita.

  5. sailor1031 says

    The fact is, people use all of their brains

    There goes any shred of optimism I may have had about the ability of the human race to solve its problems. We’re doomed.

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