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Here’s why you should stay away from your brain’s potential

Paul Davies
1 Jun 20157 minutes read

When you have a voice like Morgan Freeman, you can make people believe anything you say.

I believed it when he told me to ‘get busy living’ in the Shawshank Redemption, when he relayed that poor Gwynny had lost her head in Se7en, and even that there was a flood coming when he played God in Evan Almighty. However, in the recent Luc Besson sci-fi hit — Lucy — he leapt way over the mark when setting up the premise of the movie — that we only use 10 percent of our brains.

“It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of their brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access 100%. Interesting things begin to happen.”

Morgan Freeman, playing Prof. Norman in 'Lucy'

It’s an appealing idea that plays to everyone’s inner desire that they have the potential to be more than the person currently fixated on the screen, single-handedly working their way through a monster bucket of popcorn. We love the idea that we could be more intelligent, more creative and more successful if only we could harness the locked-off parts of our brain. Unfortunately, the idea that we only use 10% of our brains is a myth and not only that, if it was true then it wouldn’t be a good idea to unlock everything anyway.

So where did the idea come from? Possibly the father of psychology himself — William James — started the whole thing in his 1907 treatise, The Energies of Men, when he claimed “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” This was repeated with more modern thrust by Lowell Thomas in a 1936 foreword to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability.” This is a powerful statement to begin a self-help book but helping book sales is not a good basis for a scientific belief — but believe it people do. In 2012 a study quizzed primary and secondary school teachers in the UK, with 48% believing that we only use 10 percent of our brains (26% said they didn’t know) (Dekker et al, 2012).

In reality, there is no secret cupboard in your brain waiting to be unleashed, every nook and crannie is utilised. Thousands of studies using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) show that we use all parts of our brain. Granted, we don’t use it all at once, but that wouldn’t make us super-human, it would drive us insane. When you hear anyone mention that we only use 10% of our brain, replace the word ‘brain’ with ‘car’ and you can see how ridiculous the idea is. Imagine what it would be like to harness 100% of your car — it’d be awful. Driving along with the windows going up and down, the lights flashing on and off, the radio on, the CD on, the seats going back and forth and so on. We should stop berating our brains for holding us back from being super-humans and instead thank them for letting us get on with things our conscious brain can handle.

Interestingly, this is one interpretation of Morgan’s claim that could be valid, that we can’t consciously access many parts of our brain. When I give talks about the psychology of design, a section that always generates interest is when I bring out Yorick — my life-size human skull and brain. Yanking Yorick into pieces reveals that the part of the brain most people would recognise — the squiggly pink (but in reality grey) bit — is only the shell of our brain. The Cerebral Cortex makes up the overwhelming mass of our brain matter and houses many, many invaluable functions — memory, speech, sight, hearing, touch, smell and much more. Importantly, this is where we live — this is our consciousness, where that little voice in your head lives (you have one of those too right?). Your whole sense of self comes from the cortex, but delve a little deeper and you’ll find two further areas of interest. Sat snugly beneath the cortex, the mid-brain and hind brain sit quietly controlling many aspects of who we are, aspects that lie outside of our awareness but which play a surprisingly important role in how we make decisions.

Don’t believe that you don’t have access to parts of yourself? Well, tell me what your blood pressure is right now. Tell me your body temperature. How’s your lower intestine doing? Why did you have that nightmare last night? Why don’t you like spiders? Why do you like marzipan? How did you sense that something in your living room had changed but didn’t know what? None of these things are controlled from our conscious brain, so we just don’t have access to them.

So whilst the idea that we only use 10% of our brain is an utter myth (if you still don’t believe me, Google it and you’ll be able to read reasoning from far more academic minds than mine), we absolutely have parts of our brain where we don’t have conscious access. So maybe we could open up the neural pathways and have full awareness of all our body’s functioning? If you could control these, then you could see the possible benefits: feeling in pain, turn off your dorsal posterior insula; forget recreational drugs, just flood your nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex with dopamine; save money on holidays and sun beds, turn up your melanin synthesis to give yourself that instant St Tropez look. Sounds good eh? But imagine being constantly flooded with all the information that your body handles on your behalf — body temperature, muscle tension, pupil dilation, digestion, cell growth. I get unnerved every now and again when I become conscious of my tongue (go on, think about your tongue for a minute and then see how weird it feels). If we were aware of everything happening within us we would go mad long before we could reap the benefit. Of course, having awareness doesn’t mean these areas will suddenly be in our control. I’m currently sat on a train writing this, it’s 27° outside and I’m sweating. I’m aware of the fact, but there is little I can do about it.

So this time Morgan, you’re wrong. Our brains have evolved to be the best they can be and we should stop accusing our little grey cells of holding us back and seeking cheap neural tricks that can lead us to self-improvement nirvana. Much like there will never be an easy way to get the perfect body you want; there will never be an easy way to get the perfect intelligence either. So back to the books it is then.