ANCIENT DILEMMAS: WHAT PERCENTAGE OF OUR BRAIN DO WE USE?

three-sphinxes-of-bikini
Salvador Dali – Three sphinxes of bikini (1947)

This series will elaborate on ancient dilemmas and may or may not find an answer. Beware, it can even raise more questions than it can answer. This is the second part of the series which started with the previous dilemma. 

Where it all began

It all began when Marie Jean Pierre Flourens, the first to prove the mind is located in the brain instead of the heart, had his theory on the ‘silent cortex’. In the 1820s he zapped the cortex of the brains of rabbits and pigeons to find regions responsible for movement, memory and mood. The regions that did ‘nothing’ were marked as the silent cortex and were mapped as such. 

In 1914, William James stated humans are not using all their mental, physical and spiritual capacities. For instance, as we all might have experienced, when running there is a point at which we want to stop because we are tired. When you force yourself to go trough that ‘dam of tiredness’, a ‘second wind of energy’ will be reached and you get results you did not know you could ever achieve. James also extends this logic into mental processes. He believes you will come to the point mental tiredness makes place for new inspirations, when you force yourself enough. Your mental processes will reach a new, higher equilibrium where you will achieve more and tire on a later moment. According to James, this phenomenon is analogical to the human sleep. A lazy adult will need approximately the same amount of sleep as a scientist. The scientist adds much more value to society with the same amount of sleep. The latter uses more of his capacity. 

Magical thinking

Until here, there is no problem about the theories as explained above. The problem started when these ideas became concretized and popularized and evolved into the idea of nowadays, that we would use only 10 percent of our brains. What made us think so? And isn’t it funny how our brain lets us believe such a thing about itself? 

The human brain likes to fill in gaps of information. And it likes magic. Magical thinking is the belief that one’s thoughts can effect the world or that you can change something by just thinking about it. This is a form of cognitive bias. Another cognitive bias is the confirmation bias, which is the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. Accordingly, one may discredit information that does not support their view. 

The fact we did not know a lot about the brain, and we do still not, leaves room to think our brain might do much more than it does already. Although there are only a few sources stating this, we seek confirmation to match our lack of knowledge. 

What is love? (baby don’ t hurt me, don’ t hurt me, no more.. ) 

Love is one example of magical thinking. Why and how would, among billions of people, one come across another that is best for him? Statistically it is near to impossible but love makes us think magic. It lets one think he reached that statistically nihil chance and found the one.

What about Einstein?

To conclude, agreeing on James’ theory does not equal believing you only use ten percent of your brain. With current fMRI studies, it is proven that biologically, all of the human cortex is working even if it is not all at the same time. Moreover, the brain would dysfunction if all neurons fired at once. There are some inhibitory processes involved as well, which balances out the activity according to the information processed. We do know we use all of our brain in biological terms. Draw an analogy to other organs and it becomes completely logical. Would you ever think your guts or liver is only using ten percent of its capacity? No? Then why would the brain do? 

What I also believe, and what I think James meant, is that the human brain is capable to learn and train, probably a lot more than we do with it. Its ability to form new connections and make new associations seems to be infinite. Thanks to his book my neurons formed some nice new connections for which I thank him. And that is exactly what is found in Einsteins brain, he did not have a larger brain nor used more of his brain than any normal person would do. He had more connections between his neurons. Confirmation bias corrected.

 

Main references:

MJP Flourens – Recherches expérimentales sur les propriétés et les fonctions du système nerveux dans les animaux vertébrés (1842)

W. James – The energies of men (1914)

C. Jarett – great myths of the brain (2014)

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