The myth that won’t die

‘The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%’.

So reads the tagline of Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman starring science fiction thriller ‘Lucy’. Well, I may have one answer to this dilemma: act in smarter movies.

In the movie, Scarlett Johansson stars as the eponymous character who is tricked (very painfully) into becoming a drug courier who ends up having the drugs inside her body system instead of the receiver’s mail drop, and turns into a vengeful metahuman with mental capacities that would put whizs like Einstein and Hawking to shame. Sounds good?

Only one problem – her brainpowers are rapidly scaling from ‘normal’ 10% to full throttle, the point which even the best mind before and after Johansson in the movie, Morgan Freeman, cannot imagine to explore.

Now, I’m not here to condemn the movie entirely. Its visual treat is worth feasting, and it has Scarlett Johansson in her Black-Widow-gone-berserk mode and my personal favorite and always reliable Morgan Freeman (seriously, the man can do no wrong even when it comes to lecturing on pseudo-scientific gobbledygook). It’s just the premise that is knotty.

By Yoni S.Hamenahem (Yoni S.Hamenahem) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
An average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. He forgot to use the rest 90% after reading Chuck Norris jokes
What would happen if your brain-levels really maxed out at only 10%? You won’t be sitting comfortably in your armchair and reading this article – you’ll be in coma, if not dead already.

The 10% brainpower myth (or 20%, in case you have seen Bradley Cooper’s Limitless) has captured the public fascination ever since it came into existence. The idea of harnessing one’s untapped potential and pulling off the impossible feats like Chuck Norris does before breakfast is a source of occasional inspiration in everyone’s normal lives, constant harassment in the classrooms, and regular cash cow for the Hollywood and the telemarketers promoting Aderall as brain-enhancing drug.

It is ambiguous as to where exactly this myth came from. Some attribute it to the father of modern cognitive science and inventor of anesthesia, Jean Pierre Flourens, while others claim it came from Harvard psychologist William James. Some even drag in Einstein’s name. However, the one fact that all neuroscientists agree is unambiguous is this: we do use 100% of our brain.

Banal as it may sound, our brain is truly the most magnificent and complex organ of our body. From tapping your foot out of boredom to building satellites and space stations floating around earth, brain is your command and control center. Scientists are still struggling to figure out how it invokes consciousness, the sense of feeling alive and capable of intelligent thoughts. An average human brain weighs roughly the same an average egg of an ostrich does (3 pounds, if you’re a mathaholic like me). Elephants and whales have brains bigger than ours, but even they can’t play Doodle Jump on iphones.

brain photo
You might wonder why our brain has wrinkled shape. It is because as human beings started becoming smarter, the quantity of brain tissue also increased and had to be squeezed within limited space of our skulls.

Although our brain occupies a very small share of our body’s real estate (only 2% of our entire body), it happens to be just as greedy as the real estate agents. For instance, it consumes every one of your four breaths and takes up near-about three-fourth of glucose in your body. If we really used only ten percent of our brain, then it makes no sense that the rest of our ‘unused’ brain should just freeload most of our body nutrients, oxygen, and blood sugar for no reason at all. Evolution would’ve seen to that and reduced our brain size further to stop its partying. Every single breath counts, after all. Don’t believe that? Just ask a patient of asthma.

Another 10% myth debunking proof comes from the observation of brain itself. Our brain is made up of something called neurons, which, in layman terms, are like the bricks from which the house of brain gets shaped. There are about 100 billion of these neurons in our brain, and they form a complicated network through which they communicate with each-other by passing electrical and chemical signals, thus generating electrical activities in our brain. Neuroscientists use sophisticated techniques and technologies like Electroencephelography (EEG) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to map those activities (the complicated-sounding names of these tools should give you an idea of their complexity), and nary a single part of our brain appears dormant when examined by these tools. It happens that at a particular point in time, some portion of the brain may be inactive while the rest of it is breaking its back (figuratively, of course), but the roles of these parts do not stay fixed for too long. The activities spill throughout the brain from one region to another like sea waves, but never for a moment are they all completely still, even when we’re sleeping.

‘But what do these activities imply?’ you interrupt. ‘You’re talking too much in abstract terms. Talk English!’

Okay, okay. Sorry I got carried off. But one thing you should know is that these activities are not completely random. These electrical storms rise in various parts of our brains because those parts have specific functions. For example, whatever image enters your eye is translated into meaningful objects by the occipital lobes (located at the back of head). For making sense of all the sounds and words you listen and utter, your brain has temporal lobes (located above the ears), and they further have subparts, like Broca’s area (which grants you the power of speech) and Wernicke’s area (which grants you the power of hearing). Although I could go on and on about each part of the brain and what it does, but I think I’ve made my point.

Image copyrights belong to Twentieth Century Fox
One person’s pi is another person’s pastry (copyright of 20th Century Fox)

Before I proceed further, you hold up here a STOP sign and raise an objection: what about all those mental calculators who can actually multiply large numbers faster than a calculator? Or what about those prodigies who can memorize the value of pi upto thousands of digits? Or what about folks winning chess championships when they’re just 15? What about Einstein? If we all are already using 100% of our brainpower, how much are they using?

The figure remains the same – 100%. But the main difference between these natural born geniuses and us plebians is related to their brain physiology. For example, when Einstein’s brain was analyzed in 1999 (almost 44 years after his death), it was revealed that his brain was slighter smaller than an average person’s, but the parts of his brain related to mathematics and spatial reasoning (the parietal lobes) were comparatively bigger. Similar thing happens with other geniuses and prodigies; they may excel in a particular field and fail in the rest because of overdevelopment of a particular portion. Some of the popular figures throughout human history recognized as savants are even believed to be autistic. (Einstein was also smartypants only in mathematics and bummer in all other subjects during his school time). For a generalized overview of the major differences between a normal brain and a genius brain, refer to this article.

Copyrights of this image belong to Marvel Entertainment
‘Nope, not quite there yet…’ (copyright of Marvel comics and Marvel Entertainment Inc.)

So does that mean we the people are not so special? Does that mean you have to be like the rain man to win jackpot of life? Does that mean we won’t be reading minds like professor X or moving stuff like Magneto? Not necessarily true (except for the last question). Remember that there’s quite a long list of people from all eras (including ours) who were neither autistic savants nor mental calculators, yet became highly successful. The only quality that distinguishes them from the others was their dedication to whatever direction they had chosen and pursued. Genius is a key only a few possess, but perseverance is the master key that lies within everyone’s reach.

In the wake of Lucy’s release, numerous websites have come forth to dispel the 10% urban legend. Yet it has acquired a near-immortality status despite being dealt death blows countless number of times, not in the very least by the hands of science itself. Perhaps there is even more subtle psychology at play here, in our denial to believe in facts and desperately believe in myths instead.

Until the time we and our filmmakers do not come to accept the truth, however, I’m afraid we’ll continue to see more misguided-and-misguiding works like Lucy for the foreseeable future.


1) Gizmodo article on 10% myth after Lucy’s release

2) Howstuffworks’ article on genius and brain

3) Difference between normal brain and genius brain

4) Article on the neurological roots of genius, originally published in Scientific American [doc]

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