Miseducation: Giving 10 and 100 Percent Brainpower

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, utilizing extra brainpower

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, utilizing “extra” brainpower

‘Miseducation’ is a series intended to correct falsities that are often mistaken for common knowledge. Tips provided are discouraged from being raised to maliciously correct teachers. Furthermore, OPT does not condone acts of know-it-allism.

Lucy has got some explaining to do. Tomorrow’s release from director Luc Besson is based on the idea that the title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, has harnessed the dormant brainpower that all humans possess. This is well-treaded territory in film (Limitless, Flight of the Navigator) as this premise is rooted in the common belief that the human brain only operates at 10 percent functionality. Despite it’s prevalence on the big screen, this notion that 90 percent of the brain goes unutilized is far from the truth, reminding us that science is the weaker half of science-fiction.

The brain is a stubborn mystery of biology, but it has become clear to scientists that the vast majority, if not all, of the brain is functional at any given moment. While not all brain neurons are perpetually firing, the inactivity of neurons are instrumental to biological processes. Regardless of what someone is doing, the whole of the brain is at work.

This falsity that underestimates the brain arose as a misquotation. In 1936, American writer Lowell Thomas incorrectly summarized the neurological research of Harvard psychologist William James. The research showed that accelerated education of child geniuses improved adult IQ, which could be analogously applied to the general population to posit that all humans have some amount of untapped intellectual potential. Thomas truncated this idea with poetic license, adding the precise 10 percent figure that has since survived, despite colossal scientific evidence to the contrary.

The myth remains perpetuated in popular culture, mostly because of it’s potential as a science-fiction premise. Additionally, the false statistic is circulated as justification by believers of paranormal powers such as psychokinesis. It’s not even uncommon for the fraudulent figure to fake legitimacy through a more specific statistic; some people claim matter-of-factly it’s actually closer to 11 percent. In other circles, the 10 percent finding is attributed to the likes of Albert Einstein to earn credibility.

While experts have put this theory to rest, there is no scientific way to measure human potential. We like to think of potential as being 100 percent mental, not something that shows up on a PET brain scan. If there is a movie that the brain relates to, it’s The Wizard of Oz, in that you’ve had an optimally functioning brain all along.

Do People Only Use 10 Percent of Their Brains? – Robynne Boyd – Scientific American

The Ten-Percent Myth – Ben Radford – The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

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