Deep down, we all want to be superhuman and become smarter, faster, or stronger than we know ourselves to be. Perhaps this longing to be more than we are has allowed certain stubborn – and completely incorrect – myths about the human brain to fester in popular culture. The premise of the 2011 film Limitless is built around the most stubborn of these; in the movie, Bradley Cooper plays a down-on-his-luck writer with no money or marketable skills to speak of. The character’s luck changes in a moment, however, when an old friend introduces him to a seemingly magical drug that allows him to push beyond his human neurological limitations and use 100% of his brain. Suddenly, Cooper’s character finds his charming, intelligent side; he finishes his previously doomed book in a night and goes on to become a highly successful investment banker and politician. By the end of the movie he has it all: the girl, the money, and the promise of fame.
This, of course, is nonsense. The film’s plot hinges on the (pseudo)scientific “fact” that ordinary humans only use 10% of their brains at any given time – thus implying that by engaging 100% of our minds, humans can achieve genius-levels of intelligence and success. However, this pervasive misconception is just that: a misconception. The idea makes a good movie – but in reality, there is no secret, locked area of the brain that could springboard us to superhumanity.
Full understanding of some facets of consciousness and memory still eludes us, but we do know that every area of the brain has a purpose and a use. Think of it this way – why would we develop brains ten times larger than necessary? The concept itself is illogical. In truth, the parts of the brain engaged at any given moment simply depend on the person’s action at hand; the collection of neural regions you would utilize to watch a movie, for example, differ from those engaged when you go out for a jog. Anyone who does even a cursory bit of research realizes that the 10% myth is 100% false – so why does it stick around?
While we don’t know for sure where this particular urban legend first took root, it’s likely that it began in the mid-1930s when journalist Lowell Thomas misquoted William James‘ vague writings on human potential into the specific 10% figure in the foreward to Dale Carnegie’s popular self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Believing in the authority of the source, readers immediately took the unsupported percentage as fact and began circulating it as such. The myth also relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the brain’s structure and makeup. The brain consists of “gray” and “white” matter. Neurons, or “thinking” tissues make up the former, while the latter serves a primarily supportive function. No matter how hard we try, we cannot turn white matter into gray and create more neurons – it simply isn’t possible! For better or worse, we’re human; superhumanity doesn’t lie in a quick pill or a neurological test. However, I don’t think that lack is anything to regret – we may not be “limitless,” but humans still have incredible latent potential that often goes unrecognized.