Science Corner: What really happens when you get to 100%

A poster for the film Lucy; the title character is seeing cell phone transmissions as visible lines of data.

Lucy strives to use 100% of her brain. (Photo copyright Universal Studios)

If you’ve encountered any of the marketing for the film Lucy, you know it is premised on the old canard that humans only use 10% of their brains. Even if it were true, and it isn’t, it doesn’t automatically follow that accessing the other 90% would enable one to see wireless data signals as shiny columns of letters or consciously control the length and color of your hair. But the appeal is understanding. We all want to believe we possess untapped potential; it allows us to believe a better life is just around the corner.

It turns out, though, that we should be trying to use less of our brain, not more. At least, that’s the implication of a new study of the brains of elite athletes. To perform a basic activity fundamental to their sport, the top athletes used as little as 10% of the neural resources that amateurs needed for the same task. Presumably, this frees up those resources to coordinate more complicated combinations of movements, or to analyze game situations, or plan elaborate goal celebrations.

In other words, the brain isn’t an unclaimed lottery ticket, waiting to change our lives overnight. It needs to be trained through deliberate effort, just like any other part of our body, to realize the utmost of what it is capable of. Now, where have I heard that before?

This is what using 10% of your brain can look like.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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