Using Your Brain…All of It

20 Feb

It’s a question that may be the ultimate brain teaser – how much of our brains do we actually use?

You’ve probably heard – even from presumably good sources – that human beings only use a small percentage of our brains. Some will say 5 percent. Others say 10, or perhaps 15 percent.

People actually use their entire brain, rather than the oft-quoted small portion of 5- to 10-percent.

People actually use their entire brain, rather than the oft-quoted small portion of 5- to 10-percent.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have heard that the human mind can be greatly enhanced and has the potential to develop ESP, or even mental telepathy? After all, if we are only using 5 percent of our minds, it could be inferred that we could improve the power of our brains to an almost unbelievable level. (Those of you who saw the 1970 film “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” might remember the telekinetic, mutant humans who were able to read minds, create mirages and inflict searing pain on their perceived enemies telepathically.)

But the truth is that none of those tiny percentages that are espoused in terms of how much of our brains we actually use are even remotely close to the truth.

“How much of your brain do you really use? All of it!” says Kelly Bordner, assistant professor of psychology at Southern.

Today, Wise Words looks at the myth that people use only a small portion of their brain. In Part I of this 2-part series, we examined the myth that opposites attract in romantic relationships, at least in the long run. Both subjects were among the psychological and behavioral myths explored in a course offered last fall at Southern.

Part II:

Just like muscle mass can be increased, so can the strength of our brain – just not to super human levels. For example, Bordner says that when we challenge ourselves with new material or learning a new skill, we create new neuronal connections.

“If we only used 10 percent in the first place, there certainly wouldn’t be the need to build new brain mass,” Bordner says. In other words, why bother challenging yourself with complex ideas if you could just tap into the “unused 90 percent of the brain.” And would stroke victims really need therapy to create new pathways in the brain to compensate for the damage sustained in the episode? At the very least, rehabilitation would seem to be a much easier process if you had all that “surplus brain” to work with in generating those new connections.

So, where did this myth originate? Bordner says no conclusive answer has yet been found. Some say it might have started with an interpretation of a quote from William James, who is often credited with being the father of American psychology.

In his book “The Energies of Men,” James wrote: “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” But he never used a percentage, and could have been talking generically about the benefits of reaching our mental and physical potential.

Others say the myth could have stemmed from taking comments from other philosophers and scientists out of context. Even Albert Einstein has been attributed with having made statements supporting the myth.

But Bordner says there is no evidence in modern science to support the myth.

So, the next time you hear someone say that people only use 10 percent of their brains, you might want to tell them that isn’t the case with anyone you know.

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