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Myth: We only use 10 per cent of our brain

Myth: We only use 10 per cent of our brain

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

Those among us who have a crappy ad blocker or has none at all on their computer sees them popping up now and again: ads for homeopathic substances that claim to help you use your brain capacity to the full. After all, we now only use 10 per cent of our brain. If you were to expand that, you would not only become smarter but you would also develop a paranormal gift.

Neuroscientist Job van den Hurk sighs: “That just gives you the itches, doesn’t it?” It is an old myth, dating from the end of the 19th century, but it keeps cropping up from time to time. “It all started with the famous psychologist William James. Together with his colleague Boris Sidis, he carried out research into intelligence. Sidis’ son was extremely clever. According to tests, which were unfortunately not saved, he had an IQ of 250. He went to university when he was eleven years old. How can he know and remember so much in so many different fields, the psychologists wondered. James once mentioned at a congress that maybe it was because he used a larger part of his brain than ordinary people did.”

This was an assumption, not a conclusion, but the idea just took off. Certainly when some years later it was ‘confirmed’ through research. “Neuroscientist Jean Pierre Flourens cut off slices of bird brains and saw that, despite their reduced cerebral cortex, they still managed to flutter, totter, pick food and display breeding behaviour. He concluded from this that information is stored in the brain in a distributed way – which is correct, but not as distributed as he thought – and that when part of the brain fails, another part takes over. In many cases, this can indeed happen, but unfortunately not always.”

So, Flourens did not conclude that we only use 10 per cent of our brain. “But people who remember James’ statement, saw this as additional evidence. Of course it is complete nonsense.” Van den Hurk sums up why.  “Firstly, if this were true, brain damage would rarely have consequences, which is not the case, and it usually affects functionality. Secondly, MRI scans show that when people are sleeping, the whole brain continues to work. Thirdly, scientists have localised functions in the brain; there is no single part that does nothing. And finally: we see that when certain links in the brain are infrequently used, they disappear. If we were to only use 10 per cent of the brain, the other 90 per cent would die off after a while.”

Abundantly obvious proof. So, why does the myth live on? “Of course it is a very attractive idea. If we only use 10 per cent now – what could we achieve if we were to use the full capacity?”

This is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths

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