No, for the Umpteenth Time, Your Brain Isn't Hiding Superpowers From You

By Eric Wolff | August 20, 2009 4:15 pm

How many times have sci-fi shows inflicted this situation on us:

Character X: Oh my god I can read minds! And move things with my brain! And start fires! And I’m suddenly becoming hella smart!

Scientist character responsible for explaining things:  Aha! Normally we only use 10 percent of our brains, but Character X is accessing the rest of his brain! Now s/he has super powers!

Me, watching: ARRGG!

Using even a pretty cursory knowledge of neuroscience, one thing is clear: We use our whole brain. We use different sections of it for motor control, for higher thought, for fight or flight reactions, and so on and so forth. When neuroscientists and their many colleagues test the brain to see which parts are doing what, they’re looking at the whole brain, not just 10 percent. So every time the meme pops up in even my favorite shows, I kind of go a little nuts. But I’ve always wondered: Where does this meme come from?

Frankly, there is no clear understanding of the source.  Maybe some people think we have a bunch of neurons that we’re not using, or that we can only use 10-percent of our brain at a given moment. Or maybe they’re looking at all that white matter in the pictures of brains, all that stuff that cushions the the gray matter, and wondering what that stuff does. But Discover blogger and columnist Carl Zimmer has a piece this month that offers one possible  explanation for the phenomenon:

In the mid-1800s researchers discovered cells in the brain that are not like neurons (the presumed active players of the brain) and called them glia, the Greek word for “glue.” Even though the brain contains about a trillion glia—10 times as many as there are neurons—the assumption was that those cells were nothing more than a passive support system. Today we know the name could not be more wrong.

So, roughly 150 years ago, scientists studying the brain wrote off 91 percent of our brain as mere glue for the more important neurons that do the actual thinking. We now understand that they were wrong, but this strikes me as the sort of fact that can seep into the general culture and then become very difficult to dislodge.  The fact that psychics and TV shows through the years have propagated the myth surely can’t help.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading Zimmer’s whole piece, as it is filled with his usual erudition. In short, he describes how scientists are making headway on solving the riddle of the glial cells. Among other tasks, they provide scaffolding for neurons, they insulate neurons, and they act like a kind of brain janitor, pruning dead or useless cells. Zimmer even cites Spanish neuroscientist Alfonso Araque who believes that certain glial cells assist with thinking and not just maintenance tasks for the lordly neurons.

And now that this idea is, once again, scientifically dispensed with, a plea to the writers and producers of sci-fi shows and movies who care about actual science: No more of the 10-percent-of-our-brain myth, please. There’s plenty of real mystery to support plots without using bogus ones.

MORE ABOUT: Carl Zimmer, The Loom

Comments (23)

  1. farciliptus

    You have ruined my dream with your evil science!

  2. Chris

    some people only DO use 10% of their brains. we call them republicans!

  3. Brian

    What, Carl, no! You cannot take one of the shibboleths of sci-fi and shoot it out back!

    I remember a short story by one of the science fiction greats (Heinlein? Asimov?). It concerned a sort of high tech door-to-door salesman who had the ability to transport himself great distances instantly. There was a rule that he couldn’t contact less advanced civilizations but he was careless and wound up on Earth. He wound up selling a device to a mother and her infant. In a classic case of cultural misinterpretations, each completely misunderstood the other, getting only the sales transaction right.

    Anyhow, the device upgraded the mind of the infant, “tapping the unused 90%”. The story ends with the salesman leaving and the mother going back to her routine. The child starts crying but for a completely novel reason. The youngster has just calculated the odds and realized that it will take him 20 years to become absolute ruler of the world!

    I just did multiple searches and cannot find either the author or the story name. I remember the story line though.

  4. I don’t know the specific story you’re referring to, but this meme is freakin’ everywhere. The one that set me off most recently was Eureka, as I try to catch up with the first season, but it’s hardly fair to single them out.

    Of course, now I want to find the story you describe, because it sounds pretty good.

  5. My superpower doesn’t come from my brain. By virtue of being an audio engineer and actively listening to things for most of my professional life, I can perform feats of aural understanding that just about everyone around me insists are super-human. Obviously, I don’t actually have any comic book like powers; I’ve simply trained one of my senses to work on a level that most people don’t ever shoot for.

    This is the fundamental idea behind the 10% of the brain stories. It’s a storytelling shorthand for the fact that most people come nowhere near to reaching their full potential at anything.

    I’m glad that the myth, itself has been debunked but that doesn’t mean that those kinds of stories aren’t valid.

  6. Mark

    I remember reading somewhere that the source of this myth is that only 10% of neurons in the brain are firing on average at any one time. Unfortunately I can’t locate any corroboration for this – it may just be more folklore, or a mere speculation of the writer in question. Are there any neuroscientists around willing to provide information?

  7. Douglas

    Isn’t using 100% of your brain called a seizure?

  8. khan

    Brian, I recall that story. F&SF magazine?

  9. khan

    I once saw Pat Robertson say that when a person is ‘born again’ he gets the other 90% of his brain.

  10. Hey, Chris, it’s just Republicans who only use 10% of their brains, it’s all politicians. The other 90% of their brains are using to fill their pockets with money!

  11. SkeptikSnarf

    well this shatters my dream of acending into energy like the acients did in Stargate SG1

    SG1 and Atlantis were ripe with this myth far more then Eureka was. for Stargate it was one of there main plot devises

  12. In a cognitive science class way back in college, a professor mentioned a study that had been done on rats and maze learning. The rat was taught to run a maze, and then the researcher “cauterized” roughly 10% of the surface of the rat’s brain. The rat ran the maze again, and another 10% was cauterized, etc. etc. The rat still managed to get through the maze after 90% had been eliminated, which my prof claimed was the source of this particular myth.

  13. Ian

    Why are you using the word ‘meme’ when it seems the phrase you’re meaning is ‘belief’?

  14. Sara

    1 : an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)

    2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable

    3 : the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture
    – meme pool (n.) : all memes of a culture or individual
    – memetic (adj.) : relating to memes
    – memetics (n.) : the study of memes

    4 : in blogspeak, an idea that is spread from blog to blog

    5 : an internet information generator, especially of random or contentless information

    (Etymology : meme : derived from the Greek mimëma, ‘something imitated’, by Richard Dawkins in 1976)

  15. So you mean it’s not true that we use 10% of our brains and Einstein was so brilliant because he used 20? 😉

    Thanks for debunking the myth!!!

  16. Kakarot

    I use 100% of my brain,

    People call me GOKU.

    Beams, flying, sensing people, abnormal strength, faster than a bullet or light. I’m a Sayajin.

    100% brain right there.

  17. tetartos

    In there is a pretty good explanation of the 10% meme/myth.

    My understanding is that the myth came from the observation that the more important part of the human brain is the cortex – as if we are using “just the surface”. So the plausible next thought is “what if we could use even deeper areas of the brain!!!”

    Since the cortex occupies approx. 77% of the brain’s volume, I think that 10% is just a convenient figure meaning “a relatively small proportion”.

  18. I always hate it when the movies continue to distribute disinformation like that (not to sound like a conspiracy theorist or anything). I end up shouting scientific facts and references at the tv. It’s like my own, screwy version of MST3K.

    The worst for me is that movies and tv commercials continue to operate under the assumption that dogs cannot see colors.


  19. Morgan

    I’ve often seen it attributed that this whole thing is a misquote of Einstein. He has stated that human beings use 10% of their Potential. But The Glial Cell mystery sounds like it might be what info gave him the nice round idea of 10% and could also be why people were taken to misqoute him that it was brain power and not potential.

  20. NeuroRat

    My understanding for the 10 percent idea was always that it came from the early days when researchers were first studying the brain by inserting electrodes into various areas and then observing how the subject responded, and they found many brain areas that didn’t appear to do anything. They called these “silent areas,” and theorized that they must be parts of the brain that we didn’t use. Of course today we know that’s not true; the so-called silent areas are active in behind-the-scenes functions, which can be seen on high-tech brain scans. In a biological sense, we must use all our brain tissue or it wouldn’t have developed (brain tissue has a very high energy cost to maintain).

    Anyway, that’s my understanding. It could be wrong.


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