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The 10 per cent myth
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

A grayish-pink, jellylike ball with many ridges and grooves weighing about 1.4 kilogrammes, only two per cent of your body weight, is what is known as our brain.
Located at the upper end of our spinal cord, it has total control of our functions.
An urban legend has been circulating for a century that humans use only 10 per cent of their brain. What a tragic waste that would be for the human race.
Fortunately, it is merely a popular folklore that people like to believe even when not based on any scientific fact. Two thirds of the world's population are perfectly happy with their beliefs in myths and untruths regardless of scientific evidence! This is one of them.
However, it cannot be dismissed as a simple superstition. It needs to be investigated, at least for the sake of the history of humankind.
How and why this myth emerged is unclear. There are several sources, among which is a 1907 article published in Science where famous author and psychology William James, argues that humans only use part of their mental resources. He did not specify the percentage.
In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote in his popular book How to Win Friends and Influence People, still in print today, that his Harvard professor, the same William James, would always repeat the phrase, “An average man only develops 10 per cent of his latent ability.” He took more liberty in his classroom than he did in a scientific publication.
Though this observation may be true, to a certain extent, it certainly helped propagate the myth that 90 per cent of the human brain is as good as dead, which is not true.
There is also the possibility that the confusion arose from the fact that neurons make 10 per cent of the brain cells, hence the misconception and the myth.
In fact, the brain never stops working. It is more or less like a computer and a chemical factory, located at the upper end of the spinal cord and functions constantly.
Even when we are tired, the brain keeps going, non-stop, tic-toc, tic-toc and if it stops, we stop.
There are still many mysteries regarding brain functions and thousands of scientists worldwide are working hard to decipher them.
Understanding of memory, consciousness and thinking is regarded as elementary, especially brain diseases.
Decades of research into brain mapping suggest that no functions of the brain are unused.
Using MRI and similar methods, researchers have shown that most of our brain is in use most of the time even when we are resting or sleeping. Percentage varies from person to person and task to task, and there are distinct regions for different kinds of information processing.
However, such an intriguing idea as unexplored brain portions inspired many an author and filmmaker to delve into this domain. Scientific buffs were only too willing to accept the premise, be it fact or fiction.
Book after book, followed by film after film tried to exploit the provocative theory and the consequences of using the rest of the 100 per cent. Imagine humans with 90 per cent more brain than the rest, not a bad idea. Movies like Flight of the Navigator, Dark Fields, White Night, of Jim Butcher's series The Dresden Files among others, all operated under the notion that the rest of the brain could be accessed through the use of drugs.
The most recent film, produced in 2014, is Lucy.
The name was not chosen casually but carefully. It was the name given to the 1974 discovery in Ethiopia of the remains of a hominid who lived 2.9-3.8 million years ago. Some anthropologists refer to her as the Mother of Mankind, but is fondly known as Lucy.
Lucy depicts a character who gains increasingly godlike attributes once she surpasses the mental 10 per cent with the use of drugs. Were that possible how much more dangerous would our world be?
No doubt drugs alter brain function. Psychiatrists treat mental illness with certain drugs. They produce a feeling of well-being, reduce tension and often heal brain injuries. Overdoses of certain drugs also kill us.
We have not touched on certain brain disorders or illnesses. They are many. Medical science is hard at work to find a cure for those disorders, but the brain is the most complex organ of the human body.
Let us be patient.
Meanwhile, instead of pondering on the 10 per cent of brain use, a theory which has been debunked over and over by numerous scientists, let us instead concentrate on the importance of brain cells.
The brain has 100 billion cells (neurons) and a trillion support cells (glia).
After age 20 we lose about a gramme of mass per year. Nothing to worry about because the brain renews itself through a process called neurogenesis.
As we age the blood flow to nourish those cells is reduced, which means we are not making new cells. Although studies show that older people make as many new neurons, the difference was the blood flow to nourish those cells. The result is fewer new neurons. The pool of cells is still there but not as active as in younger brains.
The grey matter shrinks but neurons do not die with normal ageing. They undergo more subtle changes. If anything, we develop new cells that continue, including the memory centres of our brain.
If we exercise and remain intellectually engaged, we have already used more than 10 per cent of our brain.
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“I think therefore I am.”
Renee Descartes (1596-1650)


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