This weekend, Luc Besson’s Lucy topped the box office with more success than expected. You might say that the film performed above its potential. Coincidentally, the film is about a woman (Scarlett Johansson) who, through an unexpected side effect of being a drug mule, was able to access the full potential of her brain. This led her to various super powers, including being a genius in mathematical calculations, having the ability to diagnose medical conditions by hugging someone and controlling radio waves with her mind.
The film rests on the belief that human beings only use about 10 percent of their brain’s full potential, and the drugs that leaked into Lucy’s system helped unlock the other 90 percent. It’s not the first time this theory has been brought to the silver screen. Bradley Cooper got similar powers in the 2011 film Limitless. Both the 90s cheese-fest The Lawnmower Man and the more down-to-earth 70s drama Charley feature similar ideas. Even the character of Sherlock Holmes, seen in everything from classic Basil Rathbone films to Benedict Cumberbatch and his “mind palace” in the BBC’s Sherlock, have found a way to access seemingly limitless and unnatural brain power.
This got me thinking. We might never be able to look like Scarlett Johansson or Bradley Cooper, but could we think like their characters on screen? What extraordinary things could we achieve if we tapped into our brains’ “full potential”?
The Answer: We’d probably be the same couch potatoes as before.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but you already use 100% of your brain. The idea that we only use 10% is a myth that has been perpetuated for decades, probably partly because none of us want to realize that our full potential has led to our pathetic lives. Yeah, this is our peak, for better or for worse.
It’s unclear where the myth originated. Some people attribute its origin to Albert Einstein, who joked about why he was such an unfettered genius. Others attribute it to psychologist and author William James who speculated that we only use a portion of our full potential. However, the thing about potential is that it’s only a full version of what we can be. It is not what we are. The potential may be there, but it may take years of training and development to actually realize what we’re capable of. After all, I have the full potential to run a four-minute mile; however, I would likely die of a heart attack if I got up from the couch and tried that right this minute.
What makes the human brain unique as a portion of our bodies is that it only takes up about 3 percent of body weight but sucks up 20 percent of our energy. These disparate numbers may help in perpetuating the myth, but it’s common scientific knowledge that brain mapping has found activity in all areas of the brain.
If you don’t believe the fact that most of the human brain is essential, then try cutting out pieces of your own brain and see how long that lasts. On second thought, please don’t do that… unless your name is Hannibal Lecter and you have a hot pot handy.
What are we using it for?
Just because we use all of our brains does not mean we use it all for thinking. The only real truth to the 10% myth is that only about 10% of the brain’s cells are neurons. The rest are glial cells, which serve as a support system for neurons. The exact function of these glial cells are mostly unknown, but they are certainly in use throughout the day.
Much of the human brain is used to control processes that have nothing to do with cognitive function. Think of your brain as the CPU on your computer. It’s busy running basic processes in the system – like allocating resources, running anti-virus software, keeping your USB ports functioning, spinning your hard drive, operating the fan to maintain a safe temperature, and keeping your graphics card running properly so you can watch cute cat videos on YouTube all afternoon.
Consider what your brain is doing while you’re reading this article. Not only is it controlling your eyes and interpreting the light through your optic nerve, later decoding the symbols in your brain to make coherent language. Among many other processes, it’s also keeping your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your endocrine system functioning and your temperature regulated. That’s a lot to do while you read an article and think about Scarlett Johansson kicking ass in skinny jeans.
You probably aren’t using your feet right now, but that doesn’t mean you can lop them off – or get rid of the part of the brain that controls them – without consequence. Just because a portion of your brain is inactive at the moment does not mean it will not be used at a later time.
Even in our most dormant state, that is to say when we’re asleep, your brain is still functioning. It’s still running all the life support processes to keep you alive, but it’s actively working to rebuild and revitalize your body. Not only does your mind function to allow you to dream while you’re asleep, your brain is also releasing growth hormone, overseeing tissue repair and supplying energy to rejuvenate other parts of the body.
In fact, if 100% of our brains did not function at some point during the day, there’s plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that the unused portions would deteriorate. Similar to how muscles can atrophy from not being used, brain matter will become damaged or non-functioning if it is not used.
So is there no hope for a Limitless Lucy?
From a traditional neuroscience perspective, no. However, that does not mean that there aren’t secrets still to be unlocked in the brain. Ultimately, accessing brain potential may be more like Limitless than Lucy, leaving psychic powers, radio control, and time travel to matters of science fiction.
Brain researcher Allen Snyder has studied how to manipulate the human brain to access the abilities of savants, who have extreme genius-level abilities in certain functions. Snyder believes that savant have “privileged access” to areas of their brains that are normally cut off or overwritten for the average person. While Snyder’s research has not been conclusive, and some have reported difficulty in repeating his results, this keeps the question open.
Jennifer Horton from Discovery.com points out that “people who exhibit extreme expertise or brilliance in a limited subject area, usually at the expense of other brain faculties.” The privileged access that savants have might result in certain areas of the brain overcompensating for the damage or deficiencies in another. Still, it might prove as difficult for someone with a non-savant brain to access these capabilities as a savant suffering from severe autism to overcome the day-to-day obstacles to social interaction and emotional awareness.
Ultimately, different people think and learn differently, leading to what some consider to be different forms of intelligence, just as they have different personalities. We can train our brains to think differently, so maybe it’s not a matter of accessing a hidden 90% of our unused brain. Instead, it might be about training the brain to access and process information. That might be a way to go.
Still, I wouldn’t expect the ability to access radio signals with your mind any time soon. That’s all happening in Luc Besson’s head.