Go to any party, sit in a classroom, or stand near an office water cooler where employees congregate, and you’re eventually going to hear the statement: “You know, human only use 10% of their brains.”
It’s a philosophical quip that has made its round in social circles. Whenever someone wants to point out some truly amazing fact, or comment on humanity’s lack of cerebral skills, or get some message across to an audience, somebody is bound to bring it up.
There’s a “slight” problem with this saying: There’s no proof that this statement is true. In fact, there’s no scientific evidence for it.
The saying is a myth. Today’s knowledge of the brain can debunk this statement. Many in the field of neuroscience have discovered that 100% of the brain is being used for various activities such as motor skills or critical thinking. Still, the brain is extremely complex and the understanding of it is far from complete.
There are some cases that may lend credence to this statement. It’s often reported that patients have had portion of their removed, but managed to keep most, if not all, of their cerebral functions. Still, in many cases, it appears the brain merely reorders its functions instead of transferring many of it to “unused” portions of the brain.
It is known that damage to the brain – even a small portion of it - can have devastating effects on the person. Strokes can affect the part of the brain that controls motor function. Even drug abuse can affect impairment, cognitive thinking or memory. People labeled as having traumatic brain injury (TBI) - which are caused by any blow to the head – will have permanent brain damage affecting a series of functions.
Is it possible the statement came at a time when only 10% of the brain’s function was understood by researcher? That’s impossible to answer. Then again, the origin of this saying is impossible to pinpoint and has remained elusive over the years.
“Neuroscience for Kids” a website created by The University of Washington, detailed several likely sources. One may have been a misquote of Albert Einstein’s speech. Another suggestion was a misinterpretation of 19th century French physiologist Pierre Flourens’ research.
The work of scientist Karl Lashley in the 1920s and 1930s has been suggested as a starting point. According to the University of Washington website, Lashley “removed large areas of the cerebral cortex in rats and found these animals could still re-learn specific tasks.” As compelling as it sounds, there’s no evidence he came up with the 10% measurement.
There’s some suggestion that the statement didn’t come from a scientist. The American writer William James may have written something closely resembling the famous saying in 1908. He wrote in the book, Energies of Men: “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” Again, how this may have lead to the saying with its exact numerical finding is a mystery.
Whatever the case may be, this statement managed to catch on with many people, including those in the media and in the educational field. There are dozens of advertisements espousing this myth to the populous.
The statement sounds nifty and has an “intellectual” ring to it. Ironically, it’s not scientifically supported.
“Do We Use Only 10% of Our Brains?” Neuroscience for Kids (retrieved 2011): http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/tenper.html