The underused brain? It's all in the mind: Film-makers' much-loved idea that we only use 10 per cent of our grey cells is a fiction

People like to believe the myth so they can blame their shortcomings on supposed useless parts of their own brain, claims academic

In a sombre and authoritative academic tone, Morgan Freeman's latest movie character delivers the following line: "It is estimated most human beings only use 10 per cent of the brain's capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 per cent. Interesting things begin to happen".

As a conceit for the director Luc Besson's new sci-fi thriller Lucy, this often-quoted idea has obvious Hollywood potential. It also drove the plot of the 2011 thriller Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper. But according to leading neuroscientists, the idea that we only use a fraction of our brain's computing power is nothing more than an urban myth.

Lucy, which is released next month, stars Scarlett Johansson as a woman who is kidnapped and implanted with a drug that unleashes her untapped brainpower, allowing her to control time, execute bad guys with worrying ease, and deliver some vicious beatings.

But according to Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, the idea that we only use a small percentage of our brain "doesn't make any sense".

"It's impossible to work out how much of our brain we are using quantitatively. However, it is definitely much more than 10 per cent," Professor Sahakian said.

The 10 per cent figure, she explains, is purely "artificial" and was first widely circulated in Dale Carnegie's 1936 best-selling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. It is thought that Carnegie simply made up a figure, to substantiate a point in his book.

Smarten up: Bradley Cooper in Limitless Smarten up: Bradley Cooper in Limitless The erroneous percentage could also come from a misunderstanding about how most of our brain cells work. According to neuroscientists, 90 per cent of the cells in our brains are support cells, called glial cells, which provide nutrients to the other 10 per cent, which are the neurons. Neurons are the cells which produce thoughts. In short, they are our grey matter.

Professor Sahakian does agree that we don't always use our brains to their full potential, however: "Most of the time we are operating far below our maximum brain capacity due to various factors, including tiredness." She points to a recent study of school-age children which found "their maths and reading improved with exercise".

She added: "It is not just the brain's productivity improving; the brain is also doing better."

Sahakian also explains how so-called "smart drugs" could play an important role in the future. She said, "Currently, we can enhance our cognition with smart drugs, we can enhance our alertness, attention, memory and executive functions such as planning and problem solving. In the future, we will have drugs that can produce even greater enhancements with no, or low, side effects. It is highly likely that at that time, smart drugs will be in common use."

Johnny Depp in Transcendence Johnny Depp in Transcendence The "10 per cent" myth is apparently still widely held among the American public, with a survey last year by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research finding that 65 per cent of Americans believe it to be true – 5 per cent more than believe in evolution.

According to Barry Gordon, a neurologist at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, people like to believe the 10 per cent myth so they can blame their shortcomings on supposed useless parts of their own brain.

News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Media baron Rupert Murdoch owns News Corps and 20th Century Fox
theatrePlaywright David Williamson is struggling to find a big name to star as the media mogul
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?