Fact or Fiction: We only use 10% of our brain

If you’ve ever wanted telekinetic powers, you’ve probably wished you could unlock the unused 90% of your brain. We have believed for a long time that we are only using 10% of our brain power. But does 90% of our brain really remain unused, or are we already using our brain’s full potential?

Our brains are powerful, but can we unlock their full potential? – Image Credit: Laura Dahl, flickr

The Frankenstein Effect

There have been many different theories about how this myth evolved. Many theories state the myth was popularised by Professor William James, an influential psychologist from the 1900s. Professor James wrote, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources”. But how this turned into “we only use 10% of our brains” is still unclear.

However, Professor James only popularised the myth. This means the myth must have been around before the 20th century. And for this, we can thank Luigi Galvani.

In the 1700s, Galvani was conducting experiments on frogs. He used an electrical charge to make frog legs move. He described this phenomenon as “animal electricity” – a life force present in all living things (think Star Wars and The Force). However, Galvani did not show that electrocuting the brain had any effect. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, continued his work into the 1800s.

Aldini connected metal wires to the brains of dead criminals and found he could activate their muscles. This research actually influenced Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. But unlike Dr Frankenstein, Aldini could only activate muscles some of the time (perhaps only around 10% of the time), and he definitely did not create a self-walking monster.

So, Aldini found that we only use 10% of our brain, right?

Well, not quite. He found that perhaps 10% of the brain is used, but only to control movement, and only in a corpse. Not exactly spectacular results, unless you are Frankenstein’s monster.

Frankenstein’s monster might have only used 10% of his brain for movement, but even he would have used 100% of his brain – Image Credit: Adam, flickr

So why has this myth persisted for so long?

One reason this myth has lasted for over 200 years is that it is often easier to blame a physiological disability rather than acknowledge our shortcomings: If we fail at something, it is much easier to think it is outside our control.

Another reason this myth persists, is that it is often used by ‘psychics’ to explain their psychic powers. They believe the reason they have psychic abilities is because they can access the 90% of normally unused brainpower.

Psychics and fortune tellers do not have access to any more of their brain power than the rest of us mere mortals – Image Credit: Gameshow Room, Wikimedia Commons

But in reality, everyone uses 100% of their brain.

It is true that at any given time, not all of our brain will be active. But with the help of medical imaging, researchers have shown, that over a 24-hour period, we use 100% of our brain. Studies using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), are identifying which areas of the brain are active during different tasks. In fact, you can even watch the brain during an MRI scan, so you can see for yourself how much of the brain is active.

It would be nice to think we could someday access an untapped part of our brain. But the reality is, we are already using 100% of our brain, even during our sleep.

If you were hoping you would develop telekinetic powers or be able to control other people (like in the movie ‘Lucy’), don’t hold your breath. You are already using 100% of your brain power, so it seems unlikely for us humans to unlock super powers with our brain.

4 Responses to “Fact or Fiction: We only use 10% of our brain”

  1. Debbie says:

    Thanks Luke, Raveena and Ellen!
    It’s interesting to see how scientific research can influence fiction authors/movie makers. This topic has been of interest for a while now, so it was fun looking into and discovering where the myth originated from. But sorry to break the news that we probably won’t get super powers any time soon, I guess we’ll just have to find another way!

  2. Ellen Rochelmeyer says:

    Aw slightly disappointing. But thanks for breaking the truth to us gently! Great post 🙂

  3. Raveena Grace says:

    I really like this article, the headings and subheadings were super catchy and I always wondered what the history was and whether there was any truth around that myth. I also thought using the Frankenstein analogy was really clever. I’m glad to know we do use 100% of our brain.

  4. Luke Hickinbotham says:

    I guess I must find an alternative to my dream of becoming a psychic then 🙁 Really interesting to read though. Having read Mary Shelly’s classic quite recently I can see how this research would’ve influenced her writing.