The Irony of Believing Humans Use Only 10% of Their Brains

Hamlet: “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.” (1.2.76)

How completely high was I?
I was off by a thousand miles

“Heavenfaced,” The National

“Write a nonfiction book, and be prepared for the legion of readers who are going to doubt your facts,” explains Barbara Kingsolver in her High Tide in Tucson. “But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true.”

As I flipped through my cable movie options last night, knowing that the beginning of each month brings new films to watch, after watching Birdman, I noticed Lucy airing. I recalled that the film had mixed reviews at best, but I am a science fiction fan so I decided to give it a try.

Lucy relies heavily on the claim that humans use only 10% of their brains, and the film weaves together the main character Lucy with a neuroscientist who studies and speculates on humans using more of their brains—a good bit of “hypothesis” and “theory” language tossed around there—as well as what many may view as a documentary approach that includes cuts to not just realistic but real-world scenes.

For good measure, the film also plays with evolution—Lucy as the first human.

Viewers, then, are faced with a few challenges. First, is Lucy a good film? And related, is Lucy good science fiction?

But if we pull back from simply examining medium and genre (which I find to be very compelling discussions, by the way), we must consider Kingsolver’s dilemma as a writer.

Before scientists had even viewed Lucy, the drumbeat began pretty heavily:

Now I suppose a perfectly good response to this is, “Come on! It’s only a movie.” And I think that is what Kingsolver was pushing against: when is fact, fact, and when is fiction merely fiction.

Yet, as Christian Jarrett explains, the film speaks to a powerful misunderstanding widely embraced by people today:

Does anyone really believe this myth anymore?

Apparently so. For example, in 2012, a survey of school teachers in Britain and The Netherlands found that 48 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively, endorsed the myth. Last year, a US survey by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research found that 65 percent of people believed in the myth.

The larger problem beyond Lucy as good or bad film/science fiction is that, ironically, despite the 10% myth being completely refuted by scientists, humans have a powerful capacity for choosing what we believe to be true while almost entirely ignoring evidence to the contrary—and often in ways that are detrimental to us all.

Lucy‘s nod to evolution is no small matter here as the U.S. is unlike most of the so-called advanced world in rejecting and misunderstanding evolution. This is a subset of the fact that the public in the U.S. resists a tremendous amount of science and knowledge while clinging to ideology and mythology.

The consequences of the belief culture have been waved before us and the world recently as the Charleston shooting has resurrected “Heritage, Not Hate” among those unable to see the facts of history behind hollow sloganism.

While believing a false statistic such as humans use only 10% of their brains or perpetuating discredited legends such as The Beatles wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as a paean to LSD may seem trivial (please, just let us enjoy our films and music), as the cultural clash over the Confederate battle flag reveals, clinging to the corpse of unwarranted belief ultimately erodes the very promise of the human brain, our capacity to think and then to act—although Kurt Vonnegut has mused that the too-big human brain may, in fact, be our problem, not our solution.

Journalism and education policy remain crippled by flawed approaches to science: the 10,000 hour rule, “grit” narratives and research, and the “word gap”—all of which are uncritically embraced and as misguided as thinking humans use only 10% of their brains.

Once again, for example, only a week ago, Education Week published a piece beginning:

In 1995, the researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of their groundbreaking study that found 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their age-mates from professional families. This difference has been called “the 30-million-word gap.”

Not true, however, this study that will not die because it claims something people want to believe, something that seems true.

There is a democracy to belief that builds a wall against our idealized trust that human knowledge is progress, that to commit to universal education, for example, can lift us all above human misery.

Lucy as a film sputters, but when Lucy explains her expanding mind to Professor Norman, this moment about the essential nature of being human, fully human, confronts the tension between knowledge and knowing the self and others. I think the film has some small nods to empathy and compassion beyond the reductive view of science as quantifying, science as certainty.

How much of our brains we use seems pointless if we remain a species characterized by closed minds, unable or unwilling to build on evidence to form new ideas, unable or unwilling to check our existing ideas against evidence.

As Lucy’s mind expands, she recognizes and demonstrates for the viewer a cold, robotic thing, drained of desire and passion.

I am left, then, leaning toward Vonnegut’s view that the human brain is our problem, not our solution.

For Further Reading

Cycling to Extremes, Chris Case

Don’t Stop Running Yet!, Larry Creswell

9 comments

  1. howardat58

    The article criticizing the Hart and Risley study,
    Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas
    Pathologizing the Language
    and Culture of Poor Children
    is excellent, well worth a read, and should become part of any advanced statistics course.

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Recently I read about a study of the brain where they scanned the brain 24/7 with a portable device that can be worn on the head like a football helmet. That study discovered that we use 100% of our brain but not all at the same time. Depending on what the person was doing, different areas of the brain would light up in different combinations but over time every area of the brain was used to accomplish a variety of functions from reading to walking.

    They discovered that the brain operates this way to conserve energy becasue the brain uses up a lot of our bodies energy and it would be asking too much to use 100% of the brain 100% of the time.

    The brain represents three percent of the body’s weight and uses 20 percent of the body’s energy.”

  3. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

    Very interesting.

    Really love this line: “erodes the very promise of the human brain, our capacity to think and then to act”

    In my studies of film and culture, I run into these things regularly.

  4. Pingback: Separating fact from myth | Norah Colvin
  5. Norah

    I really enjoyed this article, Paul, and am intrigued by this thought: “How much of our brains we use seems pointless if we remain a species characterized by closed minds, unable or unwilling to build on evidence to form new ideas, unable or unwilling to check our existing ideas against evidence.”
    This idea of perpetuating myths and including them in fiction is an interesting one. I have explored it, and had some very interesting discussion, in a few posts on my blog. I have referenced this post in a new one just published http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-wa
    You have mentioned a few other education myths which I will come back and explore later.
    Thank you very much for discussing this issue. You have added some interesting links and highlighted a few other points of interest, including your consideration that the US public rejects and misunderstands evolution and resists science. Wow! That’s some statement. Is it fact or myth?

    • Lloyd Lofthouse

      According to Gallup in 2014, 42% of U.S. citizens believe Creationist view of human origins.

      “More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.”

      http://www.gallup.com/poll/170822/believe-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx

      According to the first Gallup chart, 73% of Americans think God was involved in human evolution in some way, and only 19% think God had no part in the process—but back in 1982, only 9% thought God had no part in the process.

      Scary!

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