Home Science Common Misconceptions Immaculate Misconceptions: “We only use 10% of our brains”

Immaculate Misconceptions: “We only use 10% of our brains”


 NEW feature dedicated to absolute obliteration of the
common scientific and technological myths!
Think pseudoscience meets Einstein. 

Ever sat down and stared really hard at a spoon, trying to make it bend by using only your mind? Because after all, we only use a tiny proportion of our brains, if we could only harness their full potential we could master telepathy, move objects, and do everything else that X-men can do.

If only this was the future of our cognitive abilities, the telekinetic movement of cheerios. (Matilda, 1996)

The reason we are so easily duped about our brains is because even neuroscientists still know relatively little about them – for instance, 90 percent of the brain’s cells are glial cells, whose function is still pretty obscure. Having said this, the idea that we only use 10% of these neuron power-houses is even more laughable than UKIP’s views on gay weather. Although we might only use 10% for a few moments when we’re just sitting around relaxing, it’s likely that we’ll use the full 100% of your brain over the course of a day.

This is because we need all the different parts of our brain to do different things. Take your average night out, you might use the frontal lobe to plan your trajectory through town, then the parietal lobe to orientate yourself towards the appropriate bar, wondering why the occipital lobe in charge of visual processing has unreasonably decided to make everything spin. If you can do all this only using 10% of your brain, maybe you are Magneto.

Image credit: Serendip Studio

We’re unsure where the 10% myth came from; some blame William James, others blame Einstein (if in doubt blame the
Germans). How it grew popular is an easier guess: mankind’s love of science fiction and being overly optimistic about our own
potential is hardly news. If someone tells you that your brain could outwit Einstein if you can learn to use all of it, who are you to tell them otherwise?

Sadly there are no hidden powers locked away in our minds. But all is not lost, our brains are wonderful things that can adapt and expand. Neuronal circuits can rewire themselves, so that brain-damage patients can use new areas to perform old actions. Mental exercises like meditation can lead to a greater thickening of the cerebral cortex, developing our ability for qualities like empathy and compassion.

So the bad news is that try as you might, you probably will not be able to bend the spoon. The good news is that, if you practice, you might be able to feel sorry for it.

Isabelle Rogerson



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