Medical Mysteries

Don’t Believe the Terrible Things Morgan Freeman Says About Your Brain

Written by Fred Hilton

The movie Lucy deals with a sweet young thing that inadvertently ingests mass quantities of some exotic drug and immediately starts getting smarter and smarter—using an ever-increasing portion of her brain capacity.

Lucy’s growing brainpower enables her to do wondrous things, including time travel. In the movie, Lucy is counseled by Samuel Norman, a brilliant neuroscientist played by Morgan Freeman. Norman solemnly intones: “It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of their brains’ capacity.”

According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Americans believe we indeed use only 10 percent of our brains. Sorry, folks, but we’re wrong. Writing in Scientific American, Barry L. Beyerstein of Simon Fraser University’s Brain Behavior Laboratory said he’s frequently asked if we really use only 10 percent of our brains.

“The 10-percent myth is one of those hopeful shibboleths that refuses to die simply because it would be so darn nice if it were true,” he said. (If you paused to look up “shibboleth,” your brain usage is increasing already.)

Dr. Barry Gordon, a professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, agrees we use all of our brainpower. “We use virtually every part of the brain and [most of] the brain is active almost all the time,” he told Scientific American. The most likely source of this myth is a statement psychologist William James made in an influential 1907 essay, “The Energies of Men.” In it, James wrote “as a rule, men habitually use only a small part of their powers which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions.”

Dale Carnegie mentioned James’ comments in the 1937 foreword to the popular self-improvement book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The foreword was written by noted author and broadcaster Lowell Thomas.

Thomas wrote: “Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average person develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability.” Like Walter Cronkite a generation later, Thomas was the most trusted man in America so the notion stuck, despite the fact it was totally wrong.

And for those of you who were too lazy to look up “shibboleth,” it means: “an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old fashioned or untrue.”

About the author

Fred Hilton

Fred Hilton spent thirty-six years as the chief public relations officer/spokesman for James Madison University in Virginia and ten years prior as a reporter and editor for The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia. He is now happily retired in The Villages with his interior designer wife, Leta, their Cadillac Escalade golf cart, and their dog, Paris. (Yes, that makes her Paris Hilton).

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