We’re in the middle of summer blockbuster season, and the futuristic thriller Lucy perfectly fits that bill. A fictional world run by gangs and corrupt cops? Check. Exotic flair achieved by setting the film in Taiwan? Check. (Gearing the movie for Chinese audiences? Double profits check!).
But the real sensationalistic hook for movie-goers is this: A drug forcibly implanted in former-drug mule, Lucy (Scarlet Johansson), ends up freeing her from the normal mortal bonds of utilizing just 10% of her brainpower, unleashing the force of the full hundo—which, who knew, apparently entails Matrix-like control over physics.
Now, of all of those improbable-sounding concepts, you may skip right over the 10% brainpower idea. After all, the notion that evolution has endowed humans with command only over a small fraction of our cranium is pretty set in general knowledge—not to mention played out frequently in films, including the eerily similar recent movie Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper in the superhuman role.
Alas, like so much of the concepts we treasure in life, it turns out this idea is pure myth.
The 10% Inception
The notion that we've yet to tap into our full brain potential was, it seems, first instilled by various quacky academics and popular authors in the early 20th century. In 1907, psychologist William James asserted that we use “only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources,” and the mega-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People ran with this idea, specifically explaining that "the average person develops only 10% of his latent mental ability." Along with various other spurious claims by Dale Carnegie, this concept caught on among us ever-striving humans.
Our Busy Brains
As it turns out, though, the brain isn’t actually a three-pound waste of space. (Or, more accurately, a 2.7 pound waste of space.) Rather, this energy-intensive organ is packed with neurons that are constantly serving all sorts of purposes. These neurons aren’t all dedicated to thinking, and there are a whole lot of other bodily processes to be managed.
It may seem confusing that highly-publicized brain studies refer to small sections of gray matter “lighting up” in given responses, but rest assured these procedures only measure certain types of brain activity. It’s also true that neurons technically only make up about 10% of brain matter, but that doesn’t mean the other materials (like water and fat) are suitable for cognitive purposes/telepathically moving objects.
So it’s sad but true—we don’t have loads more brainpower in our skulls, patiently waiting for us to figure out how to set it free. We’ll just have to be satisfied with being the smartest creatures to ever live on earth. By a long shot.
Image: Wikimedia Commons