Humans
4:14 pm
Sun July 27, 2014

Sorry, Lucy: The Myth Of The Misused Brain Is 100 Percent False

Originally published on Sun July 27, 2014 5:52 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

If you went to the movie theater this weekend, you might've caught the latest Scarlett Johansson action movie called "Lucy." It's about a woman who develops superpowers by harnessing the full potential of her brain.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCY")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: I'm able to do things I've never done before. I feel everything and I can control the elements around me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's amazing.

WESTERVELT: You've probably heard this idea before. Most people only use 10% of their brains. The other 90% of the basically dormant. Well, in the movie "Lucy," Morgan Freeman gives us this what-if scenario?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCY")

MORGAN FREEMAN: What if there was a way of accessing 100% of our brain? What might we be capable of?

DAVID EAGLEMAN: We would be capable of exactly what we're doing now, which is to say, we do use a hundred percent of our brain.

WESTERVELT: That is David Eagleman.

EAGLEMAN: I'm a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine.

WESTERVELT: And he says, basically, all of us are like Lucy. We use all of our brains, all of time.

EAGLEMAN: Even when you're just sitting around doing nothing your brain is screaming with activity all the time, around the clock; even when you're asleep it's screaming with activity.

WESTERVELT: In other words, this is a total myth. Very wrong, but still very popular. Take this clip from an Ellen DeGeneres stand-up special.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAND-UP SPECIAL)

ELLEN DEGENERES: It's true, they say we use ten percent of our brain. Ten percent of our brain. And I think, imagine what we could accomplish if we used the other 60 percent? Do you know what I'm saying?

AUDIENCE: (LAUGHTER).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOMMY BOY")

DAVID SPADE: Let's say the average person uses ten percent of their brain.

WESTERVELT: It's even in the movie "Tommy Boy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOMMY BOY")

SPADE: How much do you use? One and a half percent. The rest is clogged with malted hops and bong residue.

WESTERVELT: Ariana Anderson is a researcher at UCLA. She looks at brain scans all day long. And she says, if someone were actually using just ten percent of their brain capacity...

ARIANA ANDERSON: Well, they would probably be declared brain-dead.

WESTERVELT: Sorry, "Tommy Boy." No one knows exactly where this myth came from but it's been around since at least the early 1900's. So why is this wrong idea still so popular?

ANDERSON: Probably gives us some sort of hope that if we are doing things we shouldn't do, such as watching too much TV, alcohol abuse, well, it might be damaging our brain but it's probably damaging the 90 percent that we don't use. And that's not true. Whenever you're doing something that damages your brain, it's damaging something that's being used, and it's going to leave some sort of deficit behind.

EAGLEMAN: For a long time I've wondered, why is this such a sticky myth?

WESTERVELT: Again, David Eagleman.

EAGLEMAN: And I think it's because it gives us a sense that there's something there to be unlocked, that we could be so much better than we could. And really, this has the same appeal as any fairytale or superhero story. I mean, it's the neural equivalent to Peter Parker becoming Spiderman.

WESTERVELT: In other words, it's an idea that belongs in Hollywood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.