Where does the 10% Myth come from?

Every animal on earth — mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, birds — has a brain. But the human brain seems to be the most interesting. Even though it’s not the biggest, it is the most complex organ. It gives us the power to think, speak, and solve problems. It’s truly an incredible organ.


It performs several functions including:

  • Regulating our body temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, and heart rate.
  • Coordinating the five senses of the body: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting.
  • Controlling physical movement when you’re walking, running, standing and even sitting.
  • It also allows you to reason, think, and experience emotions

All of these functions are controlled and coordinated by an organ that’s just about the size of a mango seedling.

The brain is wider than the sky

– Emily Dickinson

But what makes such a small organ a tough nut to crack?

According to Scott Huetel, a researcher at Duke University, the standard answer to this question is the fact that the human brain is one of the least understood things in the universe. While this is correct, Huetel says that this idea is still incomplete. According to him, the real problem in brain science is one that he calls “navel gazing”. This is because no scientist can step outside of their own brain when studying the brain.


This article will start with the basics then give you an overview of the brain.


We’ll start by examining how the brain works so that we can determine whether we only use 10% of our brains.


Let’s delve right in:

How Does the Brain Work?

Did you know that the human brain is made up of about 100 billion nerve cells known as neurones? The primary function of neurones is to gather as well as transmit electrochemical signals. We can compare this to the wires and gates in a computer.


To understand how the brain works, we need first to learn how neurones function:


Basically speaking, neurones have the same characteristics and same genetic makeup as other cells in the human body. But what makes them transmit signals over long distances is the mere fact that they possess electrochemical spaces.

Every neurone has three parts:

  • The cell body or soma. This is the part where all the necessary components of a cell including the nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum are contained. If this part dies, the whole neurone dies.
  • The Axon. This is a long wire-like projection of the cell that carries electrochemical messages along the length of the cell. They can be covered by a thin layer of sheath known as myelin. Myelin is made of protein and fat and is responsible for the transmission of nerve impulses down a long axon.
  • The dendrites or nerve endings. These are small, branch-like projections inside the cell that make connections to other cells and allow communication between neurones and other cells. They are usually located at one or both ends of the cell.

Neurones come in different shapes and sizes depending on their function. For instance, one sensory neurone from the fingertip has an axon that extends all the way to the end of the arm, while a neurone found in the brain can have an axon extending only a few millimetres.


Neurones also vary with their functions: Sensory neurones transmit signals from your body all the way to your central nervous system; motor neurones carry signals and transmit information all the way from your central nervous system to other parts of your body; while interneurons connect many neurones in the spinal cord and the brain.

My Brain doesn’t like to be quiet.

– Dan Fogler

The Ten-Percent Myth

The ten-percent myth is a popular legend that people use only 10 percent of their brain. In fact, it has been miscredited to many people, including Albert Einstein.


First off, you need to ask yourself this question — 10% of what? If it is 10% of the regions of the brain that we use, this is the easiest idea to squash. Neuroscientists have placed people inside scanners to see which parts of their brains are functioning when they think or do something. A simple action such as sitting and standing requires activity in far more than just a tenth of the brain. Even when you just speak, your brain is doing a lot.


But maybe 10 percent refers to the number of brain cells. Again, this is easy to disapprove. When nerve cells wear out, they either degenerate or die and are colonised by other cells. We simply don’t let our brain cells sit there doing nothing. They are far too valuable to sit idle. In fact, the brain drains an enormous amount of our resources. It consumes 20% of the oxygen we breathe, according to neuroscientist Sergio Della.


Yet many people still cling to the theory that humans only use 10% of the brain. This idea has become so prevalent to the extent that when neuroscientist Sophie Scott was on a first aid course, her instructor guaranteed the students that head injuries could not be so severe because “90 percent of the brain [doesn’t] do anything”. He was not only wrong about the 10 percent myth, but also about the effects of brain damage. Even the smallest of brain injuries can have adverse effects on a person’s capabilities.

Origin of the Myth

So how can an idea with very little biological or physiological justification spread so widely? Tracing its source is hard. Perhaps it was all started by William James, an American psychologist who mentioned in the Energies of Men in 1908 that humans are making use of only a small portion of their mental and physical resources. Or was it Dale Carnegie in his best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Better yet, it could be Albert Einstein that started it.


Two theories might account for this misunderstanding. 90% of the brain cells are non-neurone cells. These are the white matter, support cells that provide physical and nutritional support for the other 10 percent of cells, the neurones, which make up the grey matter. So, most probably, people heard about that only 10 percent of cells do all the hard work and assumed that we could believe that we use a tenth of the brain’s capacity. The reality, however, is that these are different cells entirely. There is no way they could ever transform into neurones.


A British paediatrician known as John Lorber conducted a study to a group of patients in 1980. He discovered that their brain cells revealed something really intriguing. His patients had hydrocephalus, which means they had hardly any brain tissue, yet their brains still worked. This study showed that the brain could work even when it had no tissue. But this is not to say that every other person can make additional use of their brain. The truth is; these people had adapted to their circumstances.


This means that if we put our minds to learn something new, our brain changes. In fact, there is increasing evidence from the area of neuroplasticity to back up this theory. But this doesn’t mean that we are harnessing a new area of the brain that was not in use before. We only make connections to new nerve cells and lose old connections to nerve cells that we no longer need.


The most widely-held lure of this myth is the false idea that we can develop psychic abilities by improving and working on our memory. In fact, many people get disappointed when they hear that the 10% myth isn’t true. Perhaps this 10 percent figure is so appalling to them because it is too low and therefore offers a lot of room for improvement. We would all love to be better. And we can, in fact, be better if we try. But unfortunately, this doesn’t involve harnessing an unused part of the human brain.

Why Does the Myth Persist?

The false idea that we use 10 percent of the brain has been there since the 1900s. Not long ago, a magazine belonging to theU.S Satellite showed a simple drawing of a human brain. Below it was writing “You only use a tenth of your brain.” Another reason why the myth has persisted is the fact that it is now being used by psychics and paranormal dealers to explain the origin of their supernatural powers. They usually tell their audience that humans only use 10% of their brain and if scientists don’t know what to do with the remaining 90 percent, then it must be utilised for psychic powers.


In fact, an author Michael Clark in his book A Practical Guide to Psychic Phenomena mentions Craig Karges, a man who charges a substantial amount of money to give out his intuitive program designed to help people develop psychic abilities. Clark argues that because we only use 10 to 20% of the brain, how different would life be if we tapped into the other 80-90 percent?


Regardless of the origin of the myth, it has been spread repeatedly, both by the educated and the intentionally deceptive. It now remains false — a belief that is not backed by evidence, but it is assumed to be real due to its constant repetition. People who don’t know better will continue to repeat it again and again, just like the myth that it is wrong to swim immediately after you eat.

Evidence Against The 10 Percent Myth

Neuroscientists point out several reasons why the ten percent myth is not true:

  • Scans from brain imaging clearly reveal that almost every region of the human brain is active during fairly routine tasks such as talking, walking or even listening to music.
  • If the ten percent myth were true, those who suffered from brain damage as a result of stroke or accidents would probably not have any effect. In fact, there isn’t any single part of the human brain that can get damaged without resulting in some consequence.
  • Human beings wouldn’t have evolved large brains if they were only using a small portion of their brains.
  • Our brains use approximately 20 percent of the total body’s energy. It wouldn’t make any sense to have such a huge amount of energy being used by a tiny portion of the brain.
  • Research conducted on the brain has yet to find a region of the brain that doesn’t have a function. Numerous imaging studies done on the brain show that there is no area of the brain that is completely inactive or silent. Furthermore, detailed probing of the brain has failed to identify the non-functioning nine-tenth part of the human brain.

Can the Brain Work Despite Damage?

Researchers at the University of California found our that the working memory remains intact even if the brain structures such as the hippocampus are damaged.


The working memory is the mental ability of the brain to hold small amounts of information for a short period, usually a few seconds to a few minutes. On the other hand, long-term memory involves storing an unlimited amount of information for a potentially definite time.


The researchers went on to examine four memory-impaired patients who had sustained damage to their medial temporal lobes, a region of the cerebral cortex containing the hippocampus and responsible for long-term memory formation.


The patients were asked to briefly study an arrangement of objects on the surface of a table. They were then required to reproduce the objects relative positions on another table. The scientists discovered that when the number of objects was three or less, the subjects could easily recall them. Again, the subjects easily remembered the objects when they were placed next to each other.


But their performance unluckily collapsed when they reached the limit of their working memory. They couldn’t remember the location of the objects when there were four or more of them. This is because storing a larger amount of information involved tapping into their long-term memory functions.


These findings provide substantial evidence for a clear distinction between the working memory and long-term memory, even in the reality of spatial objects as well as spatial information. This theory can be backed by both practical and clinical studies.


It shows that patients with memory impairment caused by brain damage, including early Alzheimer’s disease, have smaller difficulty than what we may have thought before. They have full ability to hold information in their minds and ability to work on a short-term basis.


Now, it is time we put this myth behind. Even if it has lived a whole century so far, we shouldn’t allow it to live on into another century. Maybe one of the best ways to combat this myth is to tell anyone, when the legend is mentioned, “Oh, really? What is the exact part of your brain don’t you use?”

Mastering others is STRENGTH; mastering yourself is TRUE LOVE

– Lao Tzu