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How Much of Our Brain Do We Use? Facts & Myths

By Remy Meraz May 2, 2024

How Much of Our Brain Do We Use? Facts & Myths

Introduction: Unraveling the Brain Usage Myth

Debunking the 10% myth

It's a piece of trivia almost everyone knows: humans only use 10% of their brains. Sparked by misinterpretations of neurological research and popularized by motivational speakers like William James and movies alike, this myth suggests that vast regions of the brain lie dormant, awaiting activation to unleash potential. However, scientific evidence completely contradicts this claim. Neuroimaging, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, shows that we engage nearly every part of the brain, even during simple tasks.

Setting the stage for a comprehensive understanding

Understanding how much of our brain we actually use requires unpacking layers of neuroscience, debunking longstanding myths, and examining the brain's complex functions. The human brain is a highly efficient organ, with each region specialized for different functions—from processing sensory information and coordinating physical action to fostering complex cognitive processes and emotional responses. This introduction aims to clarify these misconceptions and provide a factual basis for appreciating the full capacity of our brain's potential.

In this blog post, we will explore the real science behind brain function, highlight how neurologists like Barry Gordon have refuted the 10% myth, and discuss the true extent of our mental potential. Prepare to learn not just how much of our brain we use, but how we can optimize our brain's health and cognitive performance for better overall health and productivity.

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How Much of Our Brain Do We Actually Use?

Exploring the origins of the brain usage myth

The myth that humans only utilize 10% of their brains has permeated public consciousness, often cited in movies, books, and motivational speeches to suggest vast untapped mental capacities. This statistic was mistakenly derived from early 20th-century scientific explorations and misquoted comments by psychologist William James, who spoke figuratively about mental potential. The misinterpretation was further embellished by the media and even some educators, not based on any scientific research but rather as a metaphorical expression to motivate people to harness their latent abilities.

What scientific evidence tells us

Contrary to the popular myth, scientific research using advanced imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) provides clear evidence that nearly all parts of the brain have a function and are active over a typical day. Peer-reviewed studies have documented that brain cells and regions interact even during simple tasks, and there is no part of the brain that lies completely dormant. This includes the cerebrum which handles complex cognitive tasks, the cerebellum which manages physical coordination, and the limbic system which processes emotions—all crucial for a fully functioning human being.

Neurological research has conclusively shown that damage to even a small area of the brain can have profound effects, affecting everything from motor skills to memory and personality. This demonstrates the utilization of much more than the purported 10%, with brain scans revealing activity throughout various brain areas during numerous tasks, from sleeping to complex problem-solving. Thus, the human brain's capacity is not only about the percentage used but the diverse functions it performs, showcasing it as the most complex organ in the human body.

What Percentage of Our Brain Do We Use?

The realities of brain function and utilization

The question of what percentage of our brain we use has intrigued scientists and the public alike for decades. Modern neuroscientific research using technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and brain scans has debunked the myth that we use only a small fraction of our brain. In reality, all parts of the brain have known functions. The extent of brain utilization varies depending on the task being performed, but it is extensive and comprehensive across daily activities. Brain function is dynamic and context-dependent, involving a vast network of neurons and supportive cells across the entire brain, which coordinate to process sensory information, manage physical actions, engage in complex thought, and maintain physiological homeostasis.

Neurological research and findings

Neurological studies have shown that the brain’s activity is ceaseless, even during sleep. Brain scans consistently reveal a symphony of activity throughout the entire brain, contradicting the notion that large portions remain unused. Every region is involved in processing complex cognitive functions, regulating emotions, and executing motor responses. This continuous activity supports brain health and overall mental capacity. Even in cases of damage, such as from brain injuries or strokes, the affected functions and the areas responsible for those can often be pin-pointed, which would not be possible if 90% of the brain were inactive. This evidence not only illustrates the brain's comprehensive use but also highlights the resilience and adaptability of brain regions through mechanisms like neuroplasticity, which allows the brain to compensate for damage and enhance functionalities over time.

How Much of Our Brain Do We Use? Facts & Myths

Do We Use 100% of Our Brain?

The truth about brain activation

Scientific research has refuted the myth that we use only a small portion of our brain. In fact, brain imaging technologies like fMRI and PET scans show that all regions of the brain have specific roles and are active at various points throughout the day. Every segment from the frontal lobes to the cerebellum is engaged during different tasks to process complex cognitive functions, emotional responses, and motor coordination. Even seemingly inactive areas contribute to essential regulatory roles and latent processes, underscoring that the "unused" brain is more about misunderstood functions than actual inactivity.

Common misconceptions and clarifications

The misconception that we use only 10% of our brain is not only scientifically inaccurate but also misleading, as it suggests that 90% of the brain is dormant and could potentially be unlocked for enhanced mental capabilities. This myth has been popularized by media and folklore yet stands in stark contrast to neurological evidence that shows brain damage in seemingly minor areas can have significant effects, indicating extensive use and integration of all brain regions. The entirety of the brain is essential for overall health and functionality; thus, promoting brain health through diet, physical activity, and mental exercises is vital for maintaining its optimal performance.

How Much Percent of the Brain Do We Use?

Quantifying brain usage in daily activities

The percentage of the brain we use varies significantly depending on the activity at hand. For routine tasks like walking or eating, the brain may use a smaller set of regions efficiently, while complex tasks like solving puzzles, playing music, or engaging in deep conversations utilize extensive networks across both hemispheres. Scientific American points out that every part of the brain has a known function and is used at some point during daily life, debunking the myth that we use only 10% of our brain.

The role of neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the brain's remarkable ability to adapt and reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This ability is not just limited to childhood but continues into adulthood, allowing the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust activities in response to new situations or changes in the environment. Brain research underscores the importance of neuroplasticity in utilizing the brain's full capacity, promoting mental health through physical and cognitive exercises that stimulate brain activity and foster the development of new brain cells, enhancing overall brain function and resilience.

Evidence That We Use Our Whole Brain

Neuroimaging and brain mapping studies

Advancements in neuroimaging technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans have provided concrete evidence that we utilize our entire brain. These brain mapping studies reveal that different tasks stimulate different areas of the brain, often engaging multiple regions simultaneously. For instance, language processing involves not just the traditional Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas but also extensive networks in the frontal, temporal, and even parietal lobes. Neurologist Barry Gordon from Johns Hopkins University states that while not all brain areas are firing at once, every part does indeed have a function that contributes to our cognitive and physical capabilities.

The functionality of inactive brain regions

The concept of 'inactive' brain regions is a misnomer. Even when regions appear inactive, they may be involved in complex processes such as maintaining baseline activities related to homeostasis and unconscious monitoring of the environment. Research shows that these areas can also become active when performing specific tasks that require more brain power or when other parts of the brain are compromised due to health issues. The flexibility and adaptability of brain function are evident in how regions not typically associated with certain tasks can activate in response to unique demands or injuries, demonstrating the brain’s inherent capacity to utilize all its parts effectively.

These findings underscore the holistic use of the brain, debunking myths that we only use a small portion. The entire brain's potential is integral to our health, emphasizing the importance of maintaining brain health through balanced nutrition, mental exercise, and physical activity to support optimal cognitive function and reduce mental fatigue.

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Left-brained vs. Right-brained

The myth of hemispheric dominance

The notion that people are either "left-brained" and more logical or "right-brained" and more creative is a popular simplification that misrepresents how our brains function. This myth suggests a false dichotomy, implying that each hemisphere operates independently and one can dominate over the other, influencing personality and abilities. However, human neuroscience and brain scans consistently show that this is not the case. Both hemispheres are involved in most cognitive tasks, and while certain functions have a tendency to be more dominant in one hemisphere, they do not operate in isolation.

How both hemispheres collaborate

The reality is that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are interconnected by the corpus callosum, a dense network of fibers that facilitates communication between both sides. This collaboration ensures that no task is solely the responsibility of one hemisphere. For example, language processing involves the left hemisphere, traditionally considered its domain, but the right hemisphere plays a crucial role in understanding context and tone. Similarly, problem-solving tasks mobilize regions across both hemispheres, underscoring the brain's integrated and comprehensive approach to processing information. Understanding this collaborative process is essential for promoting brain health and maximizing cognitive capacity.

How Much of Our Brain Do We Use? Facts & Myths

How to Improve Brain Function

Exercise Your Body

The impact of physical exercise on brain health

Physical exercise is not only vital for maintaining physical health but also has profound benefits for brain health. Engaging in regular physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which can help enhance cognitive functions and promote the growth of new brain cells. This increase in blood flow also aids in the delivery of oxygen and nutrients, which are crucial for brain health. Studies have shown that physical exercise can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease. It also boosts the production of hormones that enhance the growth of brain cells and can improve both memory and the overall ability to perform mental tasks.

Exercise Your Brain

Cognitive exercises to boost brain efficiency

Just as physical exercise strengthens the body, cognitive exercises can enhance brain efficiency and health. Activities such as reading, solving puzzles, playing musical instruments, or engaging in regular social interaction stimulate the brain and can help maintain and improve cognitive function. These activities boost neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Regular cognitive exercise can help ensure that many brain regions are being used and can help prevent mental fatigue and maintain mental sharpness into old age.

Eat a Balanced Diet

Nutritional psychology and brain function

Nutrition plays a critical role in brain health, with certain nutrients having potent effects on cognitive function and neuroprotection. A balanced diet rich in antioxidants, such as vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids can help protect brain cells from damage and reduce the risk of brain diseases. Foods like blueberries, nuts, fish, and green leafy vegetables have been shown to promote brain health. Additionally, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats provide the energy the brain needs to perform various cognitive functions. Sweet potatoes, for example, are rich in beta-carotene and other antioxidants that support brain function and can reduce the impact of brain aging.

How Much of Our Brain Do We Use? Facts & Myths

Conclusion: Maximizing Brain Potential

Integrating brain health practices into daily life

As we debunk the myth that we use only 10 percent of our brain, it's crucial to integrate practices that enhance brain health into daily life. Embracing activities that stimulate both hemispheres of the brain—such as physical exercise for the 'left brain' and creative endeavors for the 'right brain'—can foster new brain cell development, enhance brain capacity, and mitigate health problems like fetal alcohol syndrome. These practices not only support the brain's physical resources but also enrich our mental tasks and cognitive functions, ensuring that every part of the brain is utilized and maintained.

Encouraging further exploration and understanding of brain capacity

Continued exploration into how our brain works, the myths surrounding its use, and the potential of all its cells, including those affected by conditions like brain wrinkles or fewer brain cells, is vital. We must push the boundaries of popular culture's understanding and challenge the science fiction narratives that have long influenced public perception. By promoting thorough and ongoing research, we can clarify misconceptions about brain capacity and inspire everyone to achieve a healthier brain and a fuller life.

Read more about: Self Advocacy, Well-being

About Remy Meraz

Remy Meraz, co-founder, and CEO of Zella Life, is a visionary leader who leveraged corporate glass ceiling challenges as a woman of color to drive systemic change.

While leading and cultivating high-performance teams from VC-backed startups to Fortune 500, she consistently faced obstacles such as inadequate mentorship, lack of psychological safety, and non-personalized training. Taking matters into her own hands, she turned to executive coaching and NLP training. This life-changing growth experience led to breaking leadership barriers and a passion for cognitive psychology.

Motivated by her experiences, she co-founded Zella Life, an innovative AI-driven coaching platform bridging the talent development gap by enhancing soft skills and emotional intelligence (EQ) in the workplace.

Her vision with Zella Life is to transform professional development into an inclusive and impactful journey, focused on the distinct needs of both individuals and organizations. She aims to promote advancement and culture change by ensuring every professional's growth is acknowledged and supported.

Today, Remy is recognized as an influential innovator, trainer, mentor, and business leader. Under her leadership, Zella Life has delivered significant measurable outcomes for numerous well-known brands. This track record of positive outcomes garnered attention and funding from Google for Startups and Pledge LA, establishing Zella Life as a pivotal force in the learning and development arena tackling and resolving fundamental talent development issues for organizations of all sizes.