A recent study revealed that two-thirds of the American public believe we only use 10% of our brains, and that is just one of our most widely held “neuromyths,” according to a recent account in The Wall Street Journal. Ironically, “the teachers who knew the most about neuroscience believed the most myths.” (See, “Using Just 10% of Your Brain? Think Again.”)

Other myths include the belief that rich environments stimulate the brain and that we each have our own styles of learning. Patently false, psychologists and neuroscientists refer to that first belief as the “10% myth.” But where did it come from? And why do people continue to believe it?

They must be thinking abut the unconscious, where an extraordinary amount of mental activity does go on out of awareness. To be sure, the full brain is actively employed, even if its activity is not available to consciousness. But it can easily seem to lay people that unknown or unconscious means inactive or dormant.

New information from the senses is constantly being taken in by he brain, though most of it is discarded. According to one psychologist, the brain is capable of processing only 40 of the 11,000,000 bits of information it receives from our senses each second. To be retained, the new bits of information need to be assimilated to memory, while responses are being automatically generated. Indeed, research has shown that the brain has usually initiated a response to a stimulus before we actually believe we are “deciding” to respond. In other words consciousness lags behind behavior.

According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, only 5% of our ideas reach consciousness. But that does not matter as much as we might think, since our brains are actively monitoring the world and adapting to it automatically and unconsciously all the time. The value of consciousness is largely thought to be that it provides a second opportunity to reconsider our responses, to reflect, to inhibit, and to plan.

So our brains are not being under-utilized as the “10% myth” implies. We are just unaware of what it is doing. Moreover, we are not in control of its responses, though we can often override the behaviors it sets in motion.

But there is an additional factor, I suspect, behind the popularity of the “10% myth.” It encourages us to think that we could be more powerful and effective as individuals if only we tried harder, strategized better, or could figure out a technological solution to overcoming our limitations. The fact is that there actually is a way we can be more thoughtful and effective, but that is through cooperation and collaboration, though interacting with others, rather than through enhancing our individual brains. If we deliberate among ourselves, reflect, discuss our thoughts and seek advice, our thinking is expanded, corrected and enlarged.

So the “10% myth” is a way of holding on to our faith in the power of the individual, our myth that other people are an impediment to achievement and success. The myth suggests that we all have all we need in ourselves, even if we never get to use it.

About the Author

Ken Eisold, Ph.D.

Ken Eisold, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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