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The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

Posted February 23, 2009 12:01 AM by Galina

We've long been told in school, on television, and through advertising that humans only use ten percent of their brains. You can walk up to just about anyone on the street and reiterate this claim without sounding (too) crazy. Usually, your audience will have heard of this assertion, even if they don't quite believe it (and just want you to go away).

The Origin of Specious

So the first question is: where did this urban legend originate? No one really knows for sure, but it has been attributed to several possible sources. In 1908, the psychologist Williams James wrote in The Energies of Men that "we are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources." James wrote at length about the undeveloped potential of the brain, so perhaps this myth grew from "10 percent of the brain's potential" to "10 percent of our brain."

The myth of the underutilized brain has also been attributed to Albert Einstein, who is said to have used it to explain his own formidable intelligence. The famed anthropologist Margaret has also been described as the source of the 10% myth. Finally, this claim is mentioned in the preface written by Lowell Thomas to of one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends And Influence People.

Psychics, Not Physicists or Physicians

The bottom line is that no one really knows where this myth came from. So why has it been so prevalent for so long? For decades, psychics have used it explain their powers while lamenting that everyone has intuitive gifts that they fail to use to their full capacity.

People also want to believe the 10% myth because of what it implies. Heck, who wouldn't want a dramatic increase in brain power? If we could only tap into that other 90%, maybe we too could develop psychic powers or become mathematical geniuses! Plus, if we're now only using 10% of our brains, we have a nice simple way to explain away our intellectual shortcomings.

This is Your Brain on Truth

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that we do indeed use 100% of the gray matter between our ears. Brain imaging technology clearly shows that even though certain simple functions only require small parts of the brain at a time, complex functions or thought patterns definitely use many parts. Even though every part of the brain isn't firing at every minute of the day, most regions are continually active throughout the day (and at night.)

Certainly, the brain has localized functions (e.g., right-brained vs. left-brained capacities), but the 10% myth takes the localization idea to the extreme. It implies that the 90% that we "don't use" is unnecessary. So, if the 10% myth were true, removal of or damage to the 90% unused part would be minor - or completely go unnoticed.

As head trauma patients, stroke victims, and Parkinson's sufferers would tell you, this is obviously not the case. Losing a whole lot less than 90 percent of the brain due to trauma or disease can have disastrous consequences. Researching the effects of head injury has shown that there doesn't seem to be any area of the brain that can be destroyed by a stroke or head trauma without leaving the victim functionally impaired.

So the next time you hear people say that they only use 10% of their brain, you can either take the high road and set them straight, or simply ask them "So which part of your brain don't you use?"

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#1

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/23/2009 3:58 AM

Good stuff.
I was out for a walk yesterday and as I glanced towards a patch of scrub I was suddenly reminded of where I lived as a kid, yet there was no obvious visual cue.
I think there is an awful lot of of brain/vision system which we ignore.
A lot of people just don't bother to really look and see what they are looking at.
The eye of the hunter gatherer is presumably finely tuned to seeing movement and recognising collections of 'similar things' or patterns.
If one berry or nut is good to eat then many berries or nuts is even better...isn't that why we like to collect things?
How many times have you heard people say they have no sense of direction?
maybe if they looked, or listened to that part of their brain which was yelling 'that tree is familiar' or 'hey the sun was behind you 10 minutes ago' then they wouldn't get lost.
How many of us engineers have screwed up on occasion because we didn't listen to the 'little voice' saying 'that's not right'.

Listen to your brain.... eh? What's that brain? 'More tea and toast?'
Ok I'm on to it.
This post was bought to you by direct from Del's brain...

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#6
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Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/23/2009 11:38 PM

This post was bought to you by direct from Del's brain...

Del's brain or Cat's brain.

Curious to know, how much brain cat uses?

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#2

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/23/2009 7:37 AM

True, we use 100% of our brain. There is no neuronal appendix in the brain. That was one of the first things our anatomy instructor uttered in class.

However, there is a limit on the number of neurons or synapses that can fire at any one time. That limit is set by the amount of blood flow and subsequent generation of energy (ATP) that can feed the brain. Physiologically we have evolved to that limit now.

The electrical energy output of the brain is about 10 to 25 Watts; enough to dimly light a light bulb. Fitting to say that we are all dim witts after all.

Nice post.

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#11
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Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/24/2009 8:45 AM

... or dim watts.

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#3

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/23/2009 12:25 PM

If we only used 10% of our brains, I would fear that it would be very inefficient. I must say that when I heard of this 'fact' that we only use 10% of our brains, I thought it might have been derived by the confusion that arose because there hasn't been too many facts about our brains. The brain is the gray area of our bodies. It only makes sense that there would be myths flying around regarding it.

Very good read though! It made sense of why this myth is still alive today.

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Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/23/2009 1:34 PM

The brain is the gray area of our bodies.

Teee heee... rolls around on floor

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#5

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/23/2009 11:11 PM

As less as possible off course, we must conserve energy!

I read an interesting book that maybe the information in our brain is stored holographically that was a very interesting read.

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#7

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/23/2009 11:50 PM

School (w/out a good teacher), television and advertising are all mostly crap. Nuff said?

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#8

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/24/2009 12:45 AM

The version I heard was that Einstein responded to a stupid question about how much of his brain did he use, with a sarcastic throwaway line "only 10%", it wasn't meant to be taken seriously.

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Re:

02/24/2009 4:11 AM

What Part of Your Brain Don't You Use?

The shoe shopping area
Del

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#10

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/24/2009 6:29 AM

I don't use the part I killed as a kid due to Excessive Alcohol use. Other than that my mind is like a steel file cabinet. The memories are there it just sometimes very hard to open the rusty drawers.

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Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

02/24/2009 8:56 AM

What Part of Your Brain Don't You Use?

The big part?!?

That doesn't mean it won't function, I just don't use it.

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#13

Re: What Part of Your Brain Don’t You Use?

03/15/2009 3:58 AM

I'm attempting to conserve the less that 10% just in case it might come in handy some day; therefor I deem a topic such is this to be unworthy of further discussion...here or elswhere.

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