Do we only use ten percent of our brains?

It’s tempting to think we only use ten percent of our brains. It would certainly explain the way some people behave. Alas, this common belief is all in the head.

There are a few facts that have probably bolstered, maybe even inspired, this myth. Brain cells, for instance, come in two types. Nerve cells, or neurons, do the actual thinking, feeling, craving for hamburgers and so on, and there are about 100 billion of those in the brain. But there are about ten times that many glial cells which hold the neurons together and satisfy their every whim. You couldn’t say that we aren’t using the glial cells though — the brain wouldn’t work without them.

The brain is an enormously convoluted machine (both metaphorically and literally), and it doesn’t come with so much as an owner’s manual. Neuroscientists have made great strides with the parts that deal quite directly with sensation and movement, but after a point it gets very hard to follow. The hard bits are labelled things like “association cortex”, but they might as well be labelled “here be dragons”. Just because scientists don’t understood them doesn’t mean we don’t use them, though.

Contrary to the myth, one of the things that makes the workings of the brain so hard to disentangle is that so much of it seems to be involved in even simple things. Don’t be fooled by those brain scans which show little parts of the brain lighting up one after the other. What these actually show are the parts that were more active when subject X was thinking about hamburgers, say, compared to when they weren’t. The bright patch is then declared to be the hamburger craving region of the brain. But the rest of the brain ticks along all the time.

“If we did all the things we are capable of,” said Thomas Edison, “we would literally astound ourselves.” That’s what this is really about, not the brain. If you’re still worried yours is holding you back, remember Edison’s maxim that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

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