Words To That Effect #17 | The 10% Brain Myth (from Self-Help to Pulp Fiction to Hollywood)

Words To That Effect #17 | The 10% Brain Myth (from Self-Help to Pulp Fiction to Hollywood)

Do we use only 10% of our brain capacity? (Hint: No)

“It is estimated that most human beings only use 10% of the brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access more of our cerebral capacity?” This is the central question of the 2014 Scarlett Johannson film, Lucy. And it is not exactly an original idea. Exploring the extraordinary powers gained by accessing the untapped potential of our brains is a ubiquitous trope in popular culture. It’s the premise of the Bradley Cooper film Limitless (and the more recent TV version), and the idea appears in TV shows from Star Trek to Heroes to Fringe and beyond.

This is the 10% brain myth, the idea that we somehow use only 10% of our brain capacity, and that somehow unlocking or accessing the remaining 90% will result in vastly increased mental capacities.

Sometimes the idea is fully believed and earnestly repeated. Sometimes it is very knowingly appropriated for the purposes of a good plot. Sometimes it’s confidently asserted to back up dubious claims of psychic abilities. Either way, the idea is everywhere

So, where did this stubbornly enduring myth come from in the first place? How has it permeated our culture? And what does it say about our understanding of intelligence and the brain?

This week’s episode explores the 10% brain myth, tracing its roots in early 20th century science, the self-help movement and following its adoption into popular culture via pulp fiction magazines.

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