Monday, July 28, 2014

The Science (Fiction) of the 10 Percent Brain Myth

Science Fiction movies hardly ever employ valid or good science, but lately a string of movies have come out of Hollywood that build off the myth that we only use ten percent of our brains. A few years ago Limitless played off this myth, and more recently Transcendence and Lucy. However the complexity of the brain is based on the fact that it is a vast network that works as a whole to be able to do what it does. One could just pass this myth over as silly if it wasn't for the fact that the majority of Americans actually believe it to be true. A study last year from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research concluded that 65 percent of Americans accepted the 10 percent myth as fact. Unfortunately, even when Mythbusters proved this myth was not true, they still conceded by saying we only use 35% of our brain, which is also not true. No doubt the internet has done much to spread this myth, along with the equally mythical right brain/left brain dichotomy, but one could also point out that a common feature in all the films mentioned is that when we are able to use all the functioning of our brain, we almost have god-like qualities. It is a secularists dream of self-deification realized. It is no wonder that the origins of this myth lie in thinkers who are popular among New Agers, which is a belief system centered on self-deification and realizing the god within us all.

With Lucy’s arrival in theaters, The Atlantic’s Sam McDougle looked at the persistence of the 10 percent myth, from its origins amidst the work of famous early 20th century psychologist William James, who theorized that “humans have unused mental potential,” to its understandable appeal in society today. He writes:

"The 10 percent claim is demonstrably false on a number of levels. First, the entire brain is active all the time. The brain is an organ… In fact, the entire premise of only ‘using’ a certain proportion of your brain is misguided. When your brain works on a problem — turning light that hits your retina into an image, or preparing to reach for a pint of beer, or solving an algebra problem — its effectiveness is as much a question of ‘where’ and ‘when’ as it is of ‘how much’... Still, the appeal of the myth is clear. If we only use 10 percent of our brains, imagine how totally great life would be if we could use more… And that’s why the 10 percent myth, compared with other fantasies, is especially pernicious. It has a distinct air of scientific plausibility — it’s a zippy one-liner with a nice round number, a virus with obvious vectors in pop-psychology books, easy to repeat at cocktail parties."

The rest of McDougle's article can be read here.

A Wikipedia article also offers further information refuting this myth, and how it perpetuated in modern culture, here.