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Do we use only 10% of our brain? March 1, 2009

Posted by ethnicgenome in Intelligence (General).
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Turns out that no, we do not. It was so obvious too. If it was possible to become 10 times more intelligent (and have an IQ of 1,000 or more) simply by “using the whole brain”m wouldn’t you think that someone would do it?

This is an explanation I found on the Straight Dope to a question posted by someone called Eugene.

Ten percent, Eugene? You think the average person nowadays is in the double digits? Some days I think you’d find more brain wave activity in a tub of yogurt. You think I’ve had ten thousand tubs of YOGURT asking me for the three words that end with -gry? But seriously. The 10 percent statistic has been attributed to the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910). I haven’t been able to confirm that he gave a specific percentage, but he did say “we are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources” (The Energies of Men, 1908). The anthropologist Margaret Mead supposedly said we used 6 percent. Similar numbers have been mentioned by various lesser known parties.

Whatever the source, such figures have no scientific basis except in the most limited sense. Serious brain researchers say that while we perhaps don’t use our brains as efficiently as we might, there’s no evidence we have vast unused abilities.

Admittedly no one has ever tested all the tens of billions of neurons in a given brain. You’ve certainly got a few spares; otherwise no one would recover from a stroke. But attempts to map out the cerebral cortex, the center of the higher mental functions, have not found large areas that don’t do anything. The general view is that the brain is too small (just three pounds), uses too many resources (20 percent of body oxygen utilization though it accounts for just 2 percent of weight), and has too much to do for 90 percent of it to be completely comatose.

Obviously not all the brain is in use at once. At any given time about 5 percent of the neurons are active, the only sense in which the old saw is even close to true. (Good thing, too, or you’d have the equivalent of a grand mal seizure, a mental electrical storm in which all the neurons fire continually.) The parts of the brain are highly specialized, and some areas are more active than others depending on the task at hand. But all the parts do something, and it seems safe to say that over time you use pretty much all your brain, just as most people use all their muscles to some degree.

In fact, muscles are a useful analogy. While we probably don’t have much extra capacity in the sense of unused neurons, it’s possible we have untapped potential. Studies with rats suggest that just as muscles grow stronger with exercise, so does the brain. Rats raised in stimulating environments had thicker cerebral cortexes, larger neurons, more connections between neurons, more glial (support) cells, and so on. In other words, good books, snappy conversation, and a regular dose of the Straight Dope may make you smarter. But don’t get your hopes up. Skeptics say what the rat studies prove is not that an enriched environment will make you smarter, only that a deprived one will make you dumber.

But wait, you say. What about memory? Obviously we accumulate memories; obviously also the brain is finite and has some limit to its capacity. What percentage of memory capacity do we use? We don’t know enough even to hazard a guess. Old people find it harder to learn, but that’s probably more due to deterioration and rigidity (which may or may not have some neurological basis) than a lack of capacity.

Some popular beliefs about brains do have a basis in fact. Though the question is still disputed, it’s possible that after age 30 you do lose 100,000 brain cells a day (or at least some large number). Studies suggest that between early adulthood and age 90 the cortex loses between 10 and 30 percent of its neurons. The remaining neurons develop more cross connections with other cells, presumably to help pick up the load. Booze probably snuffs a few brain cells, too. At any rate it kills nerve cells in rats. All in all, not very encouraging. Not only do you not have great neural reserves, what you do have is drifting away like dandelion seeds. Even for me. I shudder. Someday say somebody will ask me, why do we park in the driveway and drive in the parkway, and I’ll think, hey, that’s FUNNY.

Cecil Adams



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