So men only use 10% of their brains?

Abstract: I think we need to nip this one in the bud right away…

If you nodded when you read this headline, then I’m afraid you must believe that a prince in Nigeria has left you a fortune and simply needs your banking details to make payment. You see this also an urban myth. However, it’s one that masks an insidious undercurrent of dark forces, more attractive than your typical 419 scam, yet equally primed to rob you of your money.

I overheard this gem one day while sipping a cappuccino and pondering upon the topic for my next column. Two women, flushed from a busy morning’s shopping had collapsed into chairs at the table beside me. They were speaking loudly for no other reason other than to emphasise their frustration with the attention (or not) of a male shop assistant.

It’s at moments like this that I waiver between shrugging such comments aside with a smile, leaning over to correct the delusion, or scribbling a note to write about it sometime.

Lucky for you the two ladies in question nattered on, expanding on their theory and justifying it with all manner of ridiculous anecdotal evidence gleaned from glossy magazines and unrestrained book clubs; and I started writing this column in my head.

The belief that men only use 10% of their brains is nothing more than an aberrant extension of a broader fallacy that goes something like this: “Did you know, we only use 10% of our brains?” (Note: the ‘we’ has simply grown testicles).

If you’re thinking, “yes, I’ve heard that before, and it sounds about right”, let me work backwards, and tell you why it’s most definitely wrong, then why you’ve heard it before; and finish with the flurry of a rather uncomfortable little twist.

The undisputableĀ and rather unsexy truth is that the primary function of the brain of any mammal, humans included, is simply to regulate the necessary biological functions to keep the body alive. This means securing food, constructing shelter, attracting a mate, procreating, nurturing and protecting offspring, and generally going about the day evading capture and consumption by larger mammals.

This means on the most basic level our brain controls every physical operational part of our body, both external and internal, whether it is the simple act of walking, or the critical function of our heart beating to keep us alive. Even if you’re just lying still and sleeping, your brain is still very busy.

And then there’s the brain’s controlling of how we interpret our physical environment – through our five senses. We only make sense of what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch by how the brain interprets the information it receives. Tap someone hard enough on the wrong side of the head and they’ll spit out a teaspoon of sugar saying it’s sour. This is why you dismiss the central narrative of The Matrix at your peril.

Finally, at the highest level, the brain controls how we think, how we make sense of the non-physical elements of our environment such as concepts, and how we interact with other humans. It therefore shapes our character. It defines us. The key to whether you’re a gentle, loving, caregiver of the elderly or a raging, violent psychopath chopping up the noisy neighbours lies solely within your brain.

Furthermore, neuroscience knows that all these different functions – be they basic, intermediate or higher level functions – are controlled by different parts of the brain; that they are scattered all over the brain; and also intricately connected. More importantly, they’re packed into the brain. There’s no wastage, and there’s very little room left for anything else.

So why do people still think that humans (and, yes, by extension: men) only use 10% of their brains?
The answer to that is simple: because they’re continually told so, and by people who, some think, make sense when they say it.

Unlike many myths that have emerged from a single event and somehow survived the mists of time, this is one that has been carefully nurtured over the years by numerous so-called authorities. Uri Geller, the famous psychic and spoon-bender, is one example. In his book ‘Uri Geller’s Mind-Power Book’, he claims, “Our minds are capable of remarkable, incredible feats, yet we don’t use them to their full capacity. In fact, most of us only use about 10 percent of our brains, if that. The other 90 percent is full of untapped potential and undiscovered abilities”.

Note I listed Mr Geller as “the famous psychic and spoon-bender” and not “the renowned neuroscientist”.

Therein lies the clue to the ongoing delusion. The myth that we only use 10% of our brains is actually little more than a vehicle to serve the careers of the thousands of psychics, fortune-tellers and self-help sales people who need you to believe that either they can access a secret part of the brain that you can’t; or that they can help you unlock an unused part of your brain to develop some undiscovered ability. Of course, you just need to buy their book, or course, or fancy rubber bracelet to do so.

They would also have you believe that all those functions of your brain that science knows about, are tucked away in just a small part of your brain, and that the rest – the bulk of your brain – is little more than a lump of muscle squeezing out the occasional trickle of mucus.

This is of course insulting. However, it is not entirely erroneous; and here’s the uncomfortable little twist: ironically, the only time that psychics, fortune-tellers and self-help gurus are correct when they tell you that you’re not using all your brain correctly, is when you believe them.

Originally published in The Sunday Tribune, 3 June 2012