Imagine if at the current evolutionary stage, humans only have access to a fraction of our brain capacity. And pushing past this boundary would allow us to become mentally super-human, enabling us to solve complex mathematical problems in a matter of seconds and learn new languages in a brief moment.
These are the promises of the ‘10% Brain Theory’ and it’s these promises that made it so alluring to us. I mean, who doesn’t like having the potential to be something more, right?
Origin of the Theory
The numerous sources of origin does not come as a surprise, given that this is a shared characteristic of most urban legends. However, the most promising and distinguished root comes from the reserve energies theories by Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis in the 1890s.
Simply put, what William James argues with his theory is that everyone has a reservoir of energy that is not used under normal circumstances. For example, in weight training, if you are ‘training to failure’ (this is when you train to the point your muscles reach fatigue and you can’t do another rep), but according to William James if due to some reason you are forced to keep on going even after reaching your limit, you will tap into that reservoir of energy and you will feel as if you are doing your first rep. He calls this ‘second wind’ and says it is possible to reach third and even fourth wind.
This extra source of energy that ‘reserve energy theories’ talk of is not only referring to physical energy but also mental energy, that we are able to strain our minds further than we actually allow ourselves to.
However, William James and Boris Sidis can only be credited with introducing the idea that people doesn’t achieve their full mental potential, which is rational thinking, because for instance, some of us are too lazy to even employ our full mental effort to the simplest of tasks. The true culprit would be the American writer Lowell Thomas, who wrote in foreword with a falsely precise percentage in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie the following: ‘Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability’. Dale Carnegie’s book published in 1936, went onto become one of the best-selling books of all time, with over 30 million copies sold. So that explains how this legend became so famous, so effectively.
The idea that people only use 10% or some other small percentage of our brain is absurd to say the least. The human brain is built up so that different areas have different functions, for example the area of the brain called ‘Occipital lobe’ has the function of interpreting vision (color, light, movement and etc.). And these different parts of the brain are not isolated, they are constantly connected and communicating with each other.
Modern brain scanning technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that no matter the action, all areas of the brain are active even if they are not engaged, it’s only in case of serious damage that an area of the brain can go passive.
Yes, I know it’s disappointing, it would have been cool to be able to kick ass with your mind like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy (2014), but sometimes we need a wakeup-call to separate reality and Hollywood myth.