You Can’t Use 100% of Your Brain and Why That’s a Good Thing


you cant use your brain and why thats a good thing

The human brain is both intricate and mysterious, that’s why there are so many myths regarding its functions. Let us take a closer look at the capacity of the human brain, how you cannot use 100 percent of your brain, and why this is a good thing.

In Part 1 of a deep dive, we look at how much of your brain you actually use.

Key Points:

A popular claim that humans use just 10 percent of their brains is far from accurate—but that doesn't mean we use 100 percent of them, either.
Animal studies have found that more than 20 percent of neurons studied serve no identifiable purpose.
Some researchers have estimated that more than 60 percent of the brain consists of "neural dark matter," or neurons that have no apparent purpose and seem unresponsive to common stimuli.

“Animal life on earth goes back millions of years, yet most species only use three to five percent of their cerebral capacity.”—Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) in the 2014 film Lucy

The film Lucy is famous—or maybe infamous—for advancing the idea that we humans use only a small fraction of our brain tissue. Through a variety of sci-fi inventions, the film’s namesake main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is able to radically increase her brain usage from what it claims is a typical value under 10 percent ultimately up to 100 percent.

The “10 Percent Of The Brain Myth,” As It Is Called, Has A Long History.

And Lucy Director Luc Besson freely proclaims that his film is a fantasy based on little if any science.

The film certainly makes its own case that expanding activity beyond natural levels, let alone experiencing a 100 percent brain, comes with serious downsides, including what it portrays as increasingly ruthless behavior on the part of Johansson’s character. As we will see, there are good neuroscientific reasons to stick with our natural allotment of activity—and possibly to aim for less.

Yet many serious writers have used the film as a foil in order to debunk the 10 percent myth. They explain that, no, in fact, we use almost all of the brain, and we do so all the time. An eminent neurologist from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was quoted in Scientific American as saying:

“We Use Virtually Every Part Of The Brain…[Most Of] The Brain Is Active Almost All The Time.”

Related: 5 Science Backed Ways To Improve Your Memory

The reality is that this claim is also inaccurate: I’ll call it the 100 percent myth. In fact, the 10 percent figure is a useful reference point for understanding how your brain works and for conceptualizing the actual patterns of activity happening in your head.

Now, it is probably true that, over time, we use more than just 10 percent of the neurons in our heads. However, the total is probably well short of 100 percent. The “probablies” here have to do with the fact that it is very difficult to make high-resolution measurements of activity in lots of neurons in an awake animal. Even non-human animals like mice are difficult to record, and in humans, the precise recording is nearly impossible.

Until recently, only a handful, a few dozen, or, more rarely, a few hundred or thousand neurons, could be measured at once with precision. However, neuroscientists are making significant progress.

In 2020, a large team led by Saskia de Vries of the Allen Institute for Brain Science published a blockbuster paper that made precise estimates of large-scale neural activity patterns in the mouse brain.

They measured activity across numerous areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and were able to record detailed activity in an astounding 60,000 neurons. As they recorded, the animals were able to run freely on a rotating disc. Animals were shown a variety of natural images and movies, giving a strong semblance of normal, active life for a mouse.

Related: The Three Parts Of The Mind: How It Affects Your Decisions And Your Life

It’s worth giving a little more detail about the methods of this study because they help illuminate a misleading argument in support of the 100 percent myth.

You might think that, in a brain of hundreds of millions or billions of neurons, 60,000 is still not a huge sample. In the mouse, it constitutes less than 0.1 percent of the brain—and mice are obviously a lot smaller and less sophisticated than us.

Why Not Use Brain Imaging Instead?

This gives us the attractive color images of whole brains “lighting up”—and it can be done in humans.

The issue is that brain imaging techniques like fMRI lack the necessary precision. They summarize activity over large numbers of neurons, and over comparatively long stretches of time.

In a typical fMRI experiment, each data point describing “activity” corresponds to the neural responses in a cube around 1 millimeter on a side. Each of the thousands of cubes that compose the brain contains hundreds of thousands or millions of neurons. The firing of these neurons is blurred together within each cube, and often further blurred by combining cubes comprising an anatomical brain region such as the amygdala.

Spiking is also summed up over the course of a second or so. This may seem like a short period but neurons operate much faster: on the millisecond scale. This means that they could fire hundreds of times in an almost endless variety of patterns, and all of this detail is invisible to the brain scanner.

Yet imaging data are often taken as evidence for the 100 percent myth: “Look!” it is argued, “almost every little cube is active, and the whole brain is ‘lighting up!’” Here again, we have a flawed argument.

Related: The 3 Methods Of Mastering The Mind

The reality is that the change in the activity of a given voxel—when it “lights up”—is quite small: it corresponds to a change in imaging signal of just a few percent at most. “Lighting up” can be caused by a relative handful of neurons inside a given voxel being highly active. This situation could, at a given moment, leave many if not most neurons quiescent and therefore result in much less than 100 percent activity. Nor can you tell if there are some neurons that never fire.

At the much finer-grained resolution achieved by the de Vries team, who used advanced invasive imaging techniques that require surgically exposing brain tissue, we can see what’s really going on. They found that almost a quarter—23 percent—of neurons in the visual brain didn’t respond to any visual stimuli. Stimuli included a diverse assortment of natural scenes from around the world as well as natural movies, including clips from the 1958 Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil. They also tried a wide variety of artificial images of alternating blobs and stripes.

It was all to no avail for the 23 percent—these neurons would spike every once in a while, but not in any systematic way. They didn’t care about motion, brightness, contrast, or seemingly anything else. If 23 percent of our own visual neurons don’t have an identifiable purpose, can we really say we “use” them?

It’s possible these quiet neurons would have responded to some special picture or movie that they weren’t shown. And despite being nominally “visual” neurons, some might respond to other types of stimuli such as a strong mouse-relevant odor or a loud sound. But as best as we can tell, almost a quarter of the neurons in this critical brain system are doing little if anything we can discern.

This pattern is by no means limited to the visual brain. A smaller but still impressive study recorded neurons in a part of the cortex responsible for hearing in rats. It found that only about 10 percent of neurons responded to sound stimuli. Again, the other neurons might respond to some odd sound that wasn’t presented, or to light falling on the eyes, touch on the skin, or something else.

Related: 15 Common Cognitive Distortions That Twist Your Thinking

But the magnitude of unresponsive neurons suggests that some substantial fraction of neurons is mostly quiet. Neuroscientists have known about this problem for a long time but until recently, it was standard practice to not scrutinize or, in many cases, mention “unresponsive” neurons in recording studies.

Others have made very high estimates of the number of quiet or silent neurons. Neurobiologist Saak Ovsepian used previous reports to estimate that the fraction of what has come to be called “neural dark matter” could be as high as 60 to 90 percent.

The high end of this estimate aligns nicely with the 10 percent notion explored in Lucy.

Why would the brain have so many useless neurons? Isn’t this wasteful? Evolutionary biologists have devised an explanation for the phenomenon of neural dark matter on Darwinian grounds. The idea is that, over the course of generations, neurons that never respond are no longer subject to selective forces that would otherwise penalize owners of excess neurons. Following this logic, dark neurons can’t be disposed of. Dark neurons might be called upon if the brain is damaged. They could also come in handy over the course of evolution as species enter new habitats or face new challenges.

It’s worth emphasizing that even a very high estimate of the amount of dark matter doesn’t suppose that quiet neurons are bunched together, representing large chunks of terra incognita in your head. Instead, they are interspersed with “bright” or loud neurons throughout the cerebral cortex and in other parts of the brain.

Related: The 3 Types Of Human Minds, According To Psychology – What’s Yours?

Regardless of how they are distributed, there is certainly more than a smidge of dark matter in our brains. I think that given the metabolic cost of building and running a brain—especially one of our size—our brains couldn’t exist with more than half of their neurons never being active. After all, the de Vries study showed that 77 percent of the visual neurons they measured were doing something that seems useful.

However, these neurons weren’t responding all the time, or even nearly all the time. Their responses were instead sparse. In Part 2 of this post, I will consider the idea of sparseness and what it means for the question of how much of our brain we use. I’ll also show how this question is illuminated by conceiving our brains as operating in similar ways as the internet.


  • de Vries, S. E., Lecoq, J. A., Buice, M. A., Groblewski, P. A., Ocker, G. K., Oliver, M., … & Koch, C. (2020). A large-scale standardized physiological survey reveals functional organization of the mouse visual cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 23(1), 138-151.
  • Fried, I., Rutishauser, U., Cerf, M., & Kreiman, G. (Eds.). (2014). Single neuron studies of the human brain: probing cognition. MIT Press.
  • Hromádka, T., DeWeese, M. R., & Zador, A. M. (2008). Sparse representation of sounds in the unanesthetized auditory cortex. PLoS Biology, 6(1), e16.
  • Ovsepian, S. V. (2019). The dark matter of the brain. Brain Structure and Function, 224(3), 973-983.
  • Kavanau, J. L. (1990). Conservative behavioural evolution, the neural substrate. Animal Behaviour, 39(4), 758-767.

Written by: Daniel Graham, Ph.D., the author of An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works
Originally appeared on: Psychology Today
Republished with permission

How Brain You Actually Use pin
you cant use your brain and why thats a good thing pin

— Share —

— About the Author —

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Up Next

What Is The Scientifically Best Music For Studying? 6 Musical Genres Proven To Boost Study Sessions

Scientifically Best Music For Studying? Six Musical Genres

Picture this: you’re sitting down to tackle a daunting study session, armed with textbooks, notes, and a steaming cup of coffee. But wait, what’s missing? Ah, yes! The perfect playlist to accompany you on this academic journey. Well, let me make this more interesting. Do you know the scientifically best music for studying?

Believe it or not, the right music can do wonders for your focus, motivation, and overall productivity. In this article, we’ll delve into the fascinating world of music and its impact on studying.

Prepare to discover the scientifically best music for studying, as well as some surprising ins

Up Next

Unpacking Parentification Trauma: The Burden of Growing Up Too Soon

What Is Parentification Trauma? Seven Types, Effects and Healing

The excitement of childhood is beautiful, when your biggest worry was whether your favorite cartoon was on TV. Some kids don’t have a childhood as carefree. Parentification trauma becomes a real issue when a child is thrust into the shoes of a grown-up.

The child takes on responsibilities beyond their years. It’s like playing a role in a movie you didn’t audition for. This is the reality for those who’ve experienced the issue – a lesser-known yet impactful challenge that shapes lives in unexpected ways.

What is Parentification Trauma?

It might be your question, though–what is parentification trauma? The trauma occurs when a child is placed in a role that reverses their expected position within the family dynamic.

Up Next

What Is Decision Fatigue? 6 Signs It’s Shutting Down Your Brain

What Is Decision Fatigue? Six Warning Signs Of It

You know those days when you feel completely drained, mentally exhausted, and even the smallest decisions seem like monumental tasks? That’s what is decision fatigue in action.

Maybe you’ve pondered for ages in front of a restaurant menu or struggled to pick an outfit from your closet. Let’s dive in and explore to understand decision fatigue meaning, and see if it’s as real as it sounds.

What Is Decision Fatigue Meaning?

Decision making fatigue is the decline

Up Next

Is Telekinesis Real? Exploring Telekinetic Abilities Meaning, Signs And Strategies To Develop

What Is Telekinesis? Science Behind Telekinetic Abilities: Three Explanations

Have you ever dreamed of moving objects around just with your mind? Though unproven by science, the power of telekinesis has captured the imagination of scientists, psychics and fiction writers for centuries. Let’s take a closer look at what is telekinesis and telekinetic abilities meaning.

What is telekinesis?

Telekinesis meaning: Telekinesis, also known as psychokinesis, refers to the alleged ability to move objects with the power of the mind or willpower, without physical interaction. However, it is not scientifically validated.

Telekinesis, from the Greek wor

Up Next

Spiritual Meaning Of Dreams: 13 Powerful Interpretations

Spiritual Meaning Of Dreams: Powerful Interpretations

Have you ever wondered what your dreams mean? Are you getting any messages through them? And from whom? Read on to understand the spiritual meaning of dreams!

Dream interpretation has long captivated the human imagination, serving as portals to realms beyond our waking reality. From ancient civilizations to modern times, dreams have been regarded as profound sources of insight, inspiration, and guidance.

In this article, we embark on a journey of exploration into the spiritual meaning of dreams, delving into their significance and the valuable messages they may hold for our

Up Next

10 Telltale Signs Of Latent Genius: Discovering Untapped Brilliance

Signs Of Latent Genius: 10 Telltale Signs Of Hidden Genius

In a world that values intelligence and brilliance, the concept of latent genius has always fascinated us. Hidden beneath the surface, many individuals possess an untapped potential that, once discovered, can lead to extraordinary achievements. So, what are the signs of latent genius?

In this article, we will explore ten signs that indicate the presence of latent genius in a person. So, buckle up and get ready to dive into the world of extraordinary minds.

So, who is a latent genius, and what are the signs of latent genius? Let’s find out!

Up Next

Is Being Hangry Real? Science Says There’s A Link Between Hunger And Anger

Being Hangry: Research And Science Says Hanger Is Real

Have you ever felt angry, irritated, cranky, or even furious when you have not eaten for a long time and are really hungry? If your answer is yes, then this is known as being hangry. And the interesting thing is that being hangry is a real thing, and even science has evidence of this.

Key Points

Being hungry can make you feel more irritable and angrier than you otherwise would.

This phenomenon, often referred to as “hanger,” can negatively affect your mood and interactions.

If left unaddressed, hanger can also have implications for your physical health, such as malnutrition.

A driver