luc besson’s new film lucy, starring scarlett johansson, opens tomorrow in theaters across the country. it is based on the immortal myth that we use only 10 percent of our brain. johansson’s character is implanted with drugs that allow him to access 100 percent of his brain capacity. subsequently, he gains the ability to learn Chinese in an instant, beat up bad guys, and launch cars with his mind (among other new talents). Morgan Freeman plays neuroscientist Professor Norman, who built his career around the 10 percent claim. “It is estimated that most human beings use only 10 percent of the brain’s capacity,” he says, “Imagine if we could access 100 percent.”
I just so happen to have written a book on brain myths (great brain myths; out this November). I thought I’d use what I learned to give you a 60-second explanation of the 10 percent myth.
No one knows for sure. One popular theory is that journalist Lowell Thomas helped spread the myth in his preface to Dale Carnegie’s best-selling self-help book on Winning Friends and Influencing People. Thomas misquoted the brilliant American psychologist William James as saying that the average person specifically “develops only 10 percent of his or her latent mental capacity.” In fact, James had more loosely referred to our “latent mental energy.” Others have claimed that Einstein attributed his intellectual talent to being able to use more than 10 percent of his brain, but this is itself a myth. Another possible source of the 10 percent myth is neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield’s discovery in the 1930s of the “silent cortex,” areas of the brain that appeared to have no function when he stimulated them with electricity. we know today that these areas are functional.
no, the 2011 film limitless, starring bradley cooper, was based on the same idea, except the exact figure was put at 20 percent. Cooper’s character takes a pill that allows him to access 100 percent complete. Both the 1991 movie Defending Your Life (thanks to a voice in the desert for pointing this out in the comments) and Flight of the Navigator (1986) include claims that most of us use a fraction of our brains. the myth is also invoked in the heroes of television series, to explain why some people have special powers.
apparently yes. For example, in 2012, a survey of school teachers in Great Britain and the Netherlands found that 48 percent and 46 percent, respectively, endorsed the myth. Last year, a US survey by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research found that 65 percent of people believed the myth.
There is certainly no truth to the idea that we only use 10 percent of our neural matter. modern brain scans show activity throughout the organ, even when we are resting. minor brain damage can have devastating effects; it’s not what you’d expect if we had 90 percent capacity available. Also, consider the situation when the neural tissue representing a limb is rendered redundant by the loss of that limb. very quickly, neighboring areas recruit that tissue for new functions, for example, to represent other regions of the body. this shows how quickly the brain uses up all the available neural tissue.
For many people, the 10 percent myth sounds feasible and appealing because they see it in terms of human potential. many of us believe that we could achieve so much more – learning languages, musical instruments, sports skills – if we just put in the effort. it’s easy to see how this translates into the shorthand idea that we use only 10 percent of our brain’s capacity or potential.
certainly bothers many neuroscientists. there are so many widespread misunderstandings about the brain that it is extremely useless for scientists to spread more nonsense to millions of viewers. other people I’ve talked to are more optimistic that the public will realize that the claims are not to be taken seriously. I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed myself despite the silly premise.
I haven’t seen lucy yet. I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether it’s a good movie despite the bad science, and if so, does that justify further propagation of the 10 percent myth?