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The Morgan Freeman Fallacy: How Much of Your Brain Are You Using?

August 15, 2014

 

“It is estimated that most human beings only use ten percent of their brain,” Morgan Freeman intones in the movie Lucy. Central to the plot is what happens when a freak accident occurs and a person, in this case, Scarlet Johansson, gains access to more and more of her brain: as that percentage grows, she can operate a handgun with no prior training, teach herself “Chinese” (although you’d think she’d know it’s called Mandarin), psyche out police dogs, change her appearance at will, and even manipulate the world around her.

 

“What happens when she reaches 100 percent?” a man asks in the trailer as exciting music plays in the background.

 

“I have no idea,” says Morgan Freeman solemnly.

 

So just what does access to 100% of your brain look like?

 

No spoiler alert necessary. In the real world, using all your brain at once allows you to unlock special skills like: read a street sign, remember someone’s name, prepare your own food, do your taxes, or wash the dishes while humming a song.

 

Of course, that doesn’t make for blockbuster cinema. No one would pay to watch Scarlet Johansson file her W2s.

 

Okay, maybe someone would, but my point remains: the notion of 90% of our brains as untapped wilderness is nonsense.

 

From a biological perspective, carrying around that three pounds in our heads is costly: maintaining your brain takes up 20% of your body’s oxygen, and 20% of its energy. It also requires a pretty big skull to protect it, rendering human childbirth especially painful and—for most of our history—dangerous. In terms of evolution, it’s hard to imagine a race of ten percenters surviving against any competitors that weren’t lugging around all that deadweight in their heads.

 

Neuroscientists will tell you we are taking advantage of the full landscape of gray matter.

 

Neuroplasticity, the ability to wire and rewire our brains, is where the action is. Your brain’s physical ability to grow larger may be constrained by that protective bunker called your skull. Still, the flexibility of your brain’s wiring system leaves plenty of room for forging a near-infinite number of connections, ideas, and thoughts.

 

Stephen Hawking, Neil De Grasse Tyson, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg don’t succeed thanks to some key to the secret folds of their gray matter, but the trails they blazed by organizing and reorganizing their wiring system.

 

If neurons were Legos, the great thinkers of history would have some amazing structures on display—pieced together from building blocks that they assembled in surprisingly new ways.

 

So where does this “we only use 10% of our brains” myth come from? Like all good urban myths, pinpointing the origin is tough. Some attribute it to a statement Einstein is purported to have made. Some say it is the result of early brain scans, where the relatively primitive machinery failed to detect most brain activity.

 

In the movie, Scarlet Johansson gains martial arts skills, telekinesis, stunt driving, and the ability to reverse time. Short of actual wizardry, no amount of brain wiring can make that happen. The real question Lucy asks is, “What happens when a movie uses 100% of its special effects budget?”

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