Civilization, Whither Art Thou

Commentary on Society and Civilization

Do We Only Use 10% of Our Brain?

A new movie, Lucy, has taken some immense liberties with a common misconception about the brain.  The "10% of brain myth," as many call it, has murky origins.  There are many claims to the origins, some blatantly incorrect such as the attribution to Einstein, but regardless there is no actual scientific evidence of this claim whatsoever.  I have my own take on how it may have taken some form today with fMRI studies and maybe PET.  These commonly seen images of the brain with some colors interpolated over it are told to people to represent areas of activity in the brain.  Now in the most clear examples, which are the ones you want to post in articles to the lay person, there are very few areas lit up.  This makes sense.  Instead of having to say, the such and such area in the superior frontal gyrus is lit up which demonstrates blah blah blah, you can just say, the areas that are lit up appear to represent such and such function.  Easy.

Now you can go and read the Wikipedia article on the 10% myth, and I think it's pretty good.  But here I want to give an analogy of the brain and brain activity to help show how the entire notion of the 10% brain thing is more or less idiotic.  Here it is.

Imagine you want to build a house, the whole thing.  What would you need?  Aside from the raw materials and a design you would need tools and people to use those tools.  So, what's the first thing you need to do to build a house?  Build a foundation, yes?  You need specific tools to build a good foundation.  Not included in those tools would be things like electrical wiring, lights, paint brushes, paint, siding, roofing, ect. ect. ect.  After the foundation you start to build the frame.  You need certain tools for that job.  Eventually you'll need the plumbing, the electrical wiring, the siding, the roofing, the flooring, the windows, the woodwork, and everything else.

Clearly, you aren't using every person and every tool simultaneously.  And even if you tried, it would result in a huge mess.  That is how your brain works.  Each part of your brain, which has a quite complex architecture (pun intended), has a unique function (as far as we neurobiologists can tell).  In fact, you can just think about this and it makes some sense, given you have some very elementary knowledge of the brain.

You have memories I assume.  How those memories are actually stored is extremely complicated and yet to be fully understood; but, it would be impossible for all those memories to be stored in a single cell.  In fact, it seems that memory isn't really even stored in one location in the brain, but that's getting away from the point.  The crux being that if those memories are in multiple cells and/or locations, then if you used all of them at the same time you'd experience every memory all at once (this is a simplification of course).  That would be crazy.  

What about another example?  There are famous gyri in the brain called the primary motor and primary somatosensory cortex.  In those areas you experience all superficial sensations of touch, pain, temperature, vibration as well as control all voluntary motion.  Imagine that each little portion of those two gyri was firing off all at the same time.  You would simultaneously feel pain, cold, hot, light touch, deep touch, vibration, ect. ect. ect. on every part of your body and at the same time every muscle in your body would try to be moving.  This would of course result in catastrophe.  Disregarding mechanics, you'd die shortly from this experience.

I hope it is very clear that just like building a house, performing a task requires certain parts of the brain and yet not others.  If you want to play the piano from memory, you must remember the piece you want to play, feel the keys, use certain muscles and not others.  And such is it so with all things in life.  

Thus, not only is the 10% of the brain myth incorrect, it is not even thinking about the brain in a way that makes any sense.  We clearly aren't "using" 100% of our brain at any given time because just as it makes no sense to beginning roofing the foundation of a house it makes no sense to use a part of our brain responsible for a memory of our father when we really want to remember the phone number of the girl we met last night.  There may be a time when we figure out how to enhance the brain; and in some ways we already have (see memory and caffeine) by finding and creating drugs.  But until we truly understand the how the brain is wired, it will be almost impossible to figure out how to drastically rewire it to give the superhuman abilities seen in Hollywood films today.   

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