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

Cant Use Brain Good Thing

The brain has the same limitations on activity as the internet—in both systems, we can’t have all components active at once, even at a low level.

Crucially, both systems are fundamentally designed to pass messages across a vast and highly interconnected network.

I explore this parallel between the internet and the brain (and many more) in my new book, An Internet in Your Head. I will discuss some of these parallels in future posts.

Read 22 Tips to Keep Your brain Sharp and Young At Any Age 

So what level of sparseness should we aim for?

Though the de Vries study is a big step forward, we are still a long way from having a good picture of large-scale brain activity in our own brains. At present, we can’t say what the ideal value of sparseness would be for humans, let alone how to achieve it. The most we can say now is that some substantial degree of sparseness is required.

But perhaps less is more? I’ll conclude with a short passage from An Internet in Your Head:

David Field, who was my Ph.D. advisor, has taken the principle of sparse coding to heart, or to brain as it were. Given the limit of 10 percent or fewer cells highly active at a time in the brain, David likes to joke that he is trying to get his personal total down to 5 percent. He may be on to something.


  • Attwell, D., & Laughlin, S. B. (2001). An energy budget for signaling in the grey matter of the brain. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, 21(10), 1133-1145.
  • 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.
  • Lennie, P. (2003). The cost of cortical computation. Current Biology, 13(6), 493-497.
  • Levy, W. B., & Baxter, R. A. (1996). Energy efficient neural codes. Neural Computation, 8(3), 531-543.
  • Olshausen, B. A., & Field, D. J. (1996). Emergence of simple-cell receptive field properties by learning a sparse code for natural images. Nature, 381(6583), 607-609.

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: Pyschology Today
Republished with permission.
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You Can't Use 100% of Your Brain and That’s a Good Thing
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Daniel Graham

Daniel Graham, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychological Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He is the author of An Internet in Your Head, a book that proposes that we can understand the brain better if we stop thinking of it as a computer and instead see it as an internet-like communication network.View Author posts