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Myth, busted: You only use 10 percent of brain

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Actually, 90 percent of your brain is not just languishing, it turns out.

Good news for all those who ever had a teacher or a parent say “If you would just apply yourself you could learn anything! You’re only using 10 percent of your brain!”

All those people were wrong. If we did use only 10 percent of our brains we’d be close to dead, according to Eric Chudler, director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington, who maintains an entertaining brain science website for kids. “When recordings are made from brain EEGs, or PET scans, or any type of brain scan, there’s no part of the brain just sitting there unused,” he said. 

Larry Squire, a research neuroscientist with the Veterans Administration hospital in San Diego, and at the University of California San Diego, pointed out that “any place the brain is damaged there is a consequence.”

Damaged brains may have been where this myth originated. During the first half of the last century, a pioneering neuroscientist named Karl Lashley experimented on rodents by excising portions of their brains to see what happened. When he put these rodents in mazes they’d been trained to navigate, he found that animals with missing bits of brain often successfully navigated the mazes.

This wound up being transmuted into the idea humans must be wasting vast brain potential. With the rise of the human potential movement in the 1960s, some preached that all sorts of powers, including bending spoons and psychic abilities, were laying dormant in our heads and that all we had to do was get off our duffs and activate them.

“That’s a case of something one often sees, of taking something from the world of psychology and in trying to make the idea concrete, bringing in the mechanisms of biology,” Squire explained. “It’s fair to say we can all do better, and we have room for improvement through practice and developing skills, but that has nothing to do with the idea that we use only 10 percent of our brains.”

The brain, Chudler said, isn’t like a disc drive with some set amount of capacity. It’s a dynamic maze of wiring where new connections can be created in response to new stimuli, or lost with disuse. And much of it is constantly occupied not with intellectual thinking, but running our systems.

“That’s why the brain is such an expensive organ,” he explained. “It requires 20 percent of our blood supply, and it’s a real energy hog.” If we used only 10 percent of it, the brain wouldn’t require such high maintenance.

“Besides,” he pointed out, "why would our brains have gotten bigger through evolution if so much of it were going unused?”

 Brian Alexander is co-author, with Larry Young PhD., of "The Chemistry Between Us: Love Sex and the Science of Attraction," to be published September 13.