Sci-Fi Movie Lucy is Based on the Silliest Lie Known to Neuroscience

Tuesday, 22 July 2014 - 1:44PM
Tuesday, 22 July 2014 - 1:44PM
Sci-Fi Movie Lucy is Based on the Silliest Lie Known to Neuroscience
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The upcoming sci-fi thriller Lucy is based on the idea that humans only use 10% of their brains, a statistic which 65% of Americans believe. Let's get something straight right now: this is a myth, a lie, a falsehood. In short, it's balderdash that shouldn't even need to be debunked, because it's already been debunked, time and time again. But, since Hollywood insists on continuing to make movies based on this very attractive lie (Lucy, Limitless, The Sorcerer's Apprentice), let's go ahead and debunk it again.


Every single healthy person has access to 100% of his or her brain. Neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the myth persists because it is convenient to pin one's own shortcomings on a biological "fact." "It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time," said Gordon. Similarly, although a person isn't using all of his or her brain at any given time, "evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain," says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. The 10% statistic is particularly ludicrous considering that the cerebellum and the hindbrain alone, which control the most basic bodily functions such as breathing and balance, comprise 12% of the brain. Although every single neuron firing at once would constitute a killer seizure, the brain is always using more than 10% of its neural connections.


Although it is almost impossible to say from where this misconception originated, many believe that it likely came from the self-help industry, as Lowell Thomas wrote this statistic in his foreword to his self-help bible, How to Make Friends and Influence People. This is thought to be a bastardized version of psychologist William James's assertion that humans have unused mental potential, but by all accounts the number seems to have been pulled out of thin air. It likely persists as a result of wishful thinking, and because, as stated above, the brain is only using certain parts of the brain for any specific task. When an fMRI gauges brain activity, and certain parts of the brain "light up," to the layman observer the lit up portions appear to be approximately ten percent. The observer might then conclude that the rest of the brain is "asleep," but, according to Joe LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at NYU, "the brain could be one hundred percent active during a task with only a small percentage of brain activity unique to the task." In other words, the fMRI doesn't measure all types of brain activity, only significant differences in brain activity.


If all of that's not enough, here's a Ted Ed video which confirms that yes, we do in fact use all of our brain: 


[Credit: Ted-Ed]


It seems as though we aren't the only ones who raised their eyebrows during Morgan Freeman's speech in Lucy. Here are a few choice quotes on the 10% myth and the upcoming sci-fi movie:


"Where's the 'you only use 10 percent of your spleen' myth?" -Scientific American


"My first thought was: Yes! Hollywood finally cast a black actor as a neuroscientist! And my second thought was bummer, because that neuroscientist... immediately discredits himself [with the 10% myth]." -Slate


"Often, [the 10% myth] is employed as a casual blow-off explanation for superpowers and special abilities, a cheery hand-wave to the audience that denotes, 'We don't want to talk about this, we want to get to the action.'" - AV Club


"Another major premise of Lucy is that if we were able to use more than 10 percent of the brain, we could unlock 'secrets of the universe.' Judging from the trailer, this apparently includes stopping time, making people around you fall down, and spontaneously changing your own hair and eye color." -Slate


Let's not forget these words of wisdom from the great Terry Pratchett...


"Not even the most stupid Creator would go to the trouble of making the human head carry around several pounds of unnecessary gray goo if its only real purpose was, for example, to serve as a delicacy for certain remote tribesmen in unexplored valleys. It is used. And one of its functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary and turn the unusual into the usual." - Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

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