The old ‘only using 10% of your brain’ myth

We often hear and have heard it misquoted – you’re only using 10% of your brain and how would you like to use the other 90 percent? But what do they mean by this; was this the real quote? Did Einstein say any of this and was he really quoted to have said that we only use 10% of our brain?

The short answer is that the 10% is largely a misused figure and there are many explanations for the figure. For instance, 10% of what we call ‘the brain’ consist of neurons – there are other cells. Early studies did demonstrate that with any firing of neurons, only 10% lit up, but that is within any one period of time. Over a few minutes with different functions being carried out, a different profile is found. Might it be true that we only use 10% of our capabilities? Surely this figure would vary with different people. How do you measure our capabilities?

One could say that we use things as we need them – take the Internet. In August 2012, Amit Singhal, Senior Vice President at Google and responsible for the development of Google Search, disclosed that Google’s search engine found more than 30 trillion unique URLs on the Web, crawls 20 billion sites a day, and processes 100 billion searches every month, yet the average person might do 1 – 20 searches, or even a few hundred or more per day depending on their job, but the average user probably cannot do more than a few hundred in one day. Does that mean that they are not utilising the Internet very well? There’s 30 trillion unique URLs or so that they didn’t visit.

Similarly, we use parts of our brain as required, depending on the task and focus at the time. We can only view one or a few pages at once and assimilate and make sense of the content in chunks. If you have an interesting life, your variety of thought may be just like the Internet too where 16% to 20% of queries that get asked every day have never been asked before.

Another analogy – an electrician or plumber’s truck, stacked with tools and consumable items – Do they use all of them at once, while doing the same job? Rarely, and with only maybe two people and 4 hands, only a few items at a time. Over the course of a week, they may get to use a higher percentage of their gear.

Only using 10% myth significance

If you get nothing else about this, consider these thoughts:

  • We use a low percentage of our brain because we have an organ that can do many things, but rarely would anyone want to do those things all at once. It’s capacity is based upon it’s variety of capabilities, not it’s capacity for doing things all at once.
  • Anyone trying to sell a training or technology that proposes higher usage of your brain should be considered with a level head as this might only be hype. So, if you hear them say, what are you doing with the other 90%?, then you can ask them to show you a context where it would be necessary to concurrently exercise at a high level while digesting a meal, and at the same time reflecting on a conversation from a few days ago, while thinking outside the box about a problem they’re having at work, while writing a poem to a partner, and calculating their tax refund to date on the fly, singing a song that they need to read the words for and using their body in specific new way – like using their less dominant hand for constructing a model ship.

The following references and excerpts should give you some insight into the potential origins, the makeup of the brain and other considerations on this topic.

That tired Ten-Percent claim pops up all the time
The Ten-Percent Myth, Ben Radford, Volume 23.2, March / April 1999

Someone has taken most of your brain away and you probably didn’t even know it. Well, not taken your brain away, exactly, but decided that you don’t use it. It’s the old myth heard time and again about how people use only ten percent of their brains. While for the people who repeat that myth, it’s probably true, the rest of us happily use all of our brains.

Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a Research Fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, managing Editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and author or co-author of five books and hundreds of articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. He is also a columnist for Discovery News and

Humans use 100 percent of their brains–despite the popular myth
Thomas Cleland, Assistant Professor, University of California, San Diego (UCSD), in biology
Where did the “10% myth” first come from? It isn’t clear. It might be because less than 10% of the cells in our brains are actually neurons (nerve cells) – the rest are called glial cells. Glial cells perform all kinds of different tasks, from insulating the brain’s “wires” to maintaining the brain’s chemistry to helping regulate the many connections among neurons (called synapses) in which memory can be stored. Glial cells aren’t neurons, but they are certainly being used! The myth could also have arisen because much of the brain is fairly adaptable, allowing people (especially young people) to recover most of their capabilities even after losing parts of their brains to injury, cancer, or surgery. This isn’t always true, however; it is harder for older adults to recover function after brain injury, and we know that even small amounts of brain damage (such as strokes) in just the wrong places can be devastating.

In the 1980s, University of California, Berkeley professor Marian C. Diamond persuaded Thomas Harvey to give her samples of Einstein’s brain. She compared the ratio of glial cells in Einstein’s brain with that in the preserved brains of 11 men. (Glial cells provide support and nutrition in the brain, form myelin, and participate in signal transmission.) Dr. Diamond’s laboratory made thin sections of Einstein’s brain, each 6 micrometers thick. They then used a microscope to count the cells. Einstein’s brain had more glial cells relative to neurons in all areas studied, but only in the left inferior parietal area was the difference statistically significant. This area is part of the association cortex, regions of the brain responsible for incorporating and synthesizing information from multiple other brain regions. More facts about Einstein

Do We Really Only Use 10% of Our Brains?
Every once in a while I hear someone say “we only use 10% of our brain.” In the movie “The Secret,” they say we only use 5% of our brain. I don’t believe it. Where did this come from? – Secret Identity
Dear SI,

The idea that we only use 10% of our brains is alluring. Why, just imagine what we could do if we somehow switched on the other 90%. Telekinesis! Mind reading! Time travel! Forging an army of zombie slaves! Who wouldn’t trade their crystal balls for powers like those?

Sadly, the myth has been pretty thoroughly debunked. It is true that, at any given time, we only use portions of our brains. Brain imaging bears this out. But that doesn’t mean that we have vast, untapped reserves of psychic abilities.

The most apt analogy is muscle. We don’t use our entire brain at once any more than we use all of our muscles at once. But follow someone around for a day or two, and eventually they will use just about every muscle and every part of the brain – the good folks at the DMV notwithstanding. ….Read on

Do we really use only 10 percent of our brains?
Barry L. Beyerstein of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver explains.

Whenever I venture out of the Ivory Tower to deliver public lectures about the brain, by far the most likely question I can expect as the talk winds up is, “Do we really only use 10 percent of our brains?” The look of disappointment that usually follows when I say it isn’t so strongly suggests that the 10-percent myth is one of those hopeful shibboleths that refuses to die simply because it would be so darn nice if it were true. I’m sure none of us would turn down a mighty hike in brainpower if it were attainable, and a seemingly never-ending stream of crackpot schemes and devices continues to be advanced by hucksters who trade on the myth. Always on the lookout for a “feel-good” story, the media have also played their part in keeping the myth alive.

….One stream leads back to the pioneering American psychologist, William James, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to his voluminous scholarly work, James was a prodigious author of popular articles offering advice to the general public. In these exhortatory works James was fond of stating that the average person rarely achieves but a small portion of his or her potential. I was never able to find an exact percentage mentioned, and James always talked in terms of one’s undeveloped potential, apparently never relating this to a specific amount of gray matter engaged. A generation of “positive thinking” gurus that followed were not so careful, however, and gradually “10 percent of our capacity” morphed into “10 percent of our brain.” Undoubtedly, the biggest boost for the self-help entrepreneurs came when the famous adventurer and journalist Lowell Thomas attributed the 10-percent-of-the-brain claim to William James. Thomas did so in the preface he wrote, in 1936, to one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The myth has never lost its steam since.

Seriously, Would You Admit to Only Using 10% of Your Brain?
Mind-myth 1: Like many of the myths now seemingly fuelled by New Agers hoping to unlock the untapped, hidden forces that will unleash previously unimagined human potential, the 10% myth is a slippery customer.

Just when all the evidence has been marshalled against its original incarnation, showing that, yes, actually we do physically use all our brains, it turns out ‘human potential’ can’t be measured empirically. Apparently the unused 90% is hidden below the surface, out of sight and almost out of mind. Which is convenient….
…Mythical roots

The roots of this myth are very difficult to discern, probably because there are so many different, diffuse stories about its origin. One probably apocryphal story is that Einstein once explained his brilliance – compared to the rest of us mere mortals – by saying he actually used more than 10% of his brain (Wanjek, 2003). Despite probably being based on a misquote, the repeating of this story can’t have hurt the myth’s power.

Perhaps some of the earliest roots of the myth come from work by physiologists in the 1870s. They routinely applied electrical currents to the brain to see which muscles moved. They found that large parts of the human brain could be zapped without any corresponding bodily twitching. This led them to dub parts of the brain ‘silent’. But they didn’t mean silent in the sense of inactive, just that it didn’t make any muscles move. Of course this didn’t stop the phrase being misinterpreted.

Are you really only using 10 percent of your brain?
Kiger, Patrick. “Are you really only using 10 percent of your brain?” 19 August 2009. 30 August 2010.
For years, doctors, brain researchers and science journalists have been explaining patiently to anyone who would listen that there is no scientific basis for what they call the 10-percent brain myth. Similarly, prestigious and credible publications like Scientific American and the New York Times have sought to dispel it as well, with little effect [sources: Beyerstein, Parker-Pope]. In a non-scientific Internet poll on the Web site, for example, 52 percent of respondents believed incorrectly that humans use only 10 percent of their brains, while 48 percent correctly disagreed . The mistaken notion is so pervasive, in fact, that in a study published in the Journal of Psychology in 1998, researchers found that college psychology majors, who presumably should know better, were as likely to believe it as other students .

Scientific American, Do People Only Use 10 Percent Of Their Brains?

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior

Refutation from wikipedia is the most concise:

Neuroscientist Barry Beyerstein sets out seven kinds of evidence refuting the ten percent myth:
* Studies of brain damage: If 90% of the brain is normally unused, then damage to these areas should not impair performance. Instead, there is almost no area of the brain that can be damaged without loss of abilities. Even slight damage to small areas of the brain can have profound effects.
* Evolution: The brain is enormously costly to the rest of the body, in terms of oxygen and nutrient consumption. If 90% of it were unnecessary, there would be a large survival advantage to humans with smaller, more efficient brains. If this were true, the process of natural selection would have eliminated the inefficient brains.
* Brain imaging: Technologies such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) allow the activity of the living brain to be monitored. They reveal that even during sleep, all parts of the brain show some level of activity. Only in the case of serious damage does a brain have “silent” areas.
* Localization of function: Rather than acting as a single mass, the brain has distinct regions for different kinds of information processing. Decades of research has gone into mapping functions onto areas of the brain, and no function-less areas have been found.
* Microstructural analysis: In the single-unit recording technique, researchers insert a tiny electrode into the brain to monitor the activity of a single cell. If 90% of cells were unused, then this technique would have revealed that.
* Metabolic studies: Another scientific technique involves studying the take-up of radioactively labelled 2-deoxyglucose molecules by the brain. If 90 percent of the brain were inactive, then those inactive cells would be show up as blank areas in a radiograph of the brain. Again, there is no such result.
* Neural disease: Brain cells that are not used have a tendency to degenerate. Hence if 90% of the brain were inactive, autopsy of adult brains would reveal large-scale degeneration.

Other references

Albert Einstein Say’s:You Only Use 10 Percent of Your Brain (not), stating …American psychologist of the early 1900s named William James, who said that “the average person rarely achieves but a small portion of his or her potential” .Read on
Closer Look at Einstein’s Brain When a rare genius like Albert Einstein comes along, scientists naturally wonder if he had something special between his ears. The latest study of Einstein’s brain concludes that certain parts of it were indeed very unusual and might explain how he was able to go where no physicist had gone before when he devised the theory of relativity and other groundbreaking insights. The findings also suggest that Einstein’s famed love of music was reflected in the anatomy of his brain.Read on


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