Popular theories—combined with recent movies such as Lucy in 2014—have given us the idea that humans are only capable of using small portions of their brains at any given time. The most common misconception is that we only use ten percent of our brainpower at a time. Let’s look into the science surrounding this myth and find out what the truth really is.
Why Ten Percent of Our Brains?
The notion that humans are only able to use ten percent of their brains at a time seems to have come from misleading ideas in popular culture and media. A 2013 study found that a startling 65 percent of people actually believed this number to be true.
The origins of this myth can be traced back to a statement from an article that American psychologist and author William James wrote in 1907:
“Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We… are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
James doesn’t mention any specifics about the exact amount of brainpower we are capable of using at a time. However, this quote is commonly thought to have helped give rise to the aforementioned erroneous assumption. The 10% idea is also sometimes associated with Albert Einstein, who is said to have used it to explain his genius—although this story has been debunked.
However, various books and movies have nevertheless played into the idea that we are using very little of our brain capacity. Which, to be fair, makes for an interesting concept. What would we be capable of if we could use 60, 80, or even 100 percent of our brains? Could we read minds? Cure cancer? Control objects?
Our desire to believe this myth may also be psychological in nature. If our inability to reach what we imagine our true potential to be is based on something outside of our control, it’s far easier for us not to feel bad or guilty about failing in that endeavor.
Whatever the reasoning behind it, though, this idea is simply not true.
How Much of Our Brains Do We Use?
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists have proven that the majority of the human brain is nearly always active, even when we perform simple tasks. In fact, our brains are even active during sleep. Although we may not be using 100 percent of our brains all the time, this imaging technology has shown that—just like with our muscles and other bodily functions—every part of our brains will have been utilized within a 24-hour period of time.
Our goal then shifts from figuring out how to use more of our brains to how to optimize its use instead—something that we can, in fact, control. Just like the other parts of our bodies, our brains need to be nourished and exercised in order to stay fit. One way to do this is by eating a well-balanced, healthy diet, which can help improve cognitive function. Also, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants are known to assist with brain health.
We can also enhance specific cognitive functions such as memory and motor skills with brain exercises like word puzzles, memory games, and language learning. While the percentage of our brains being used will remain mostly the same, their efficiency will increase during these activities, and often stay healthy into old age.