The movie Lucy, now out in theatres, portrays a woman who accidentally ingests a powerful drug that gives her superhuman mental powers, including telepathy, morphing into different forms, and time travel.
The premise behind this movie is the enduring myth that humans use only 10% of their mental capacity, and if people were able to increase their brain power over 10%, they would gain superhuman cognitive and physical abilities. This premise works great for an entertaining sci-fi movie, but it’s also complete nonsense from a neuroscience angle (see below).
At the same time, this 10% brain myth also speaks to the human need to strive for something better, and for mastery over their world. As Thomas Edison said, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” Edison’s quote also contains a positive outlook on life – that people can improve themselves, simply because they desire to.
On to the facts about using our brains and percentage of mental capacity:
Fact 1: Humans Use All of Their Brain Regions to Function
Take a look at these brain diagrams:
We use our temporal lobes to process language and speech, our occipital lobes to process what we see, our cerebellum to coordinate our physical movements, and our frontal lobes to reason, plan and take action every day. If any one of these brain regions go “offline”, such as during a stroke, the results can be pretty devastating. Bottom line: humans use 100% of their brain regions.
The second part to this fact is our brain’s white matter (the internal wiring) that connects these brain regions together, creating a coherent “whole” system that we use every day:
Our brain’s internal wiring is just as important as how many neurons we have. In fact, brain injuries such as concussions can disrupt the integrity of this wiring, leading to long term cognitive and emotional problems. See this page, and this article for more detail on how concussions can damage the brain.
Fact 2: All Human Brains Can Be Trained For New Abilities
This is usually called learning new things – such as learning a new language, learning to ride a bike for the first time, or learning to become a better poker player. All of this relies on the process of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to add, grow, and change internal connections between neurons and groups of neurons, to reflect the new information that has been processed and stored in our brain.
An important point here is that people never lose their ability to learn new information and skills – humans have an innate ability to learn across the lifespan.
Interested in testing your brain? Try these free online tests:
- Digit Span Test, Visual Block Test, Cognitive Function Test
- Online Brain Health Assessment
- Memory Health Tests (opens in new window)
So sit back and enjoy the movie Lucy, but keep in mind that you are using all of your brain regions and internal wiring to see, hear, feel, and remember this entertaining fantasy!