10% of our brains, eh?

I love Greg Dean’s webcomic, Real Life.  It has some moments of true hilarity in it, and I find the characters enjoyable enough that I’m thrilled to see each new comic pop up in my RSS feeds.  But today’s comic contains a howler which I just can’t let pass. If you don’t want to go read it, the fun is in the final panel where one of the characters says “Hey, it’s not like you were using the other 90% of your brain anyway.”

Now, if you’re literate about neuroscience in any way, this will immediately strike you as stupid;  the myth about human beings using only 10% of their brains is wrong, and that’s been known for decades.  But to be honest, I could have let this go and just read the comic, until I came across a posting in the Real Life Forums by Greg himself, as part of an exchange with another person who commented on this problem:


Kovac wrote:gaghWhy would you contribute to the myth that humans only use 10% of our brains?

It is for the purpose of a joke, but it just isnt worth it x

Allow me to quote Scientific American, so you foreigners can quit being such dicks about it. (Seriously, I’ve recieved another e-mail from someone else today telling us Americans to quit being so ignorant. Is this just a pet peeve of everyone on the other side of an ocean from us, or something?)Anyway, as I was saying:

Scientific American wrote:Another mystery hidden within our crinkled cortices is that out of all the brain’s cells, only 10 percent are neurons; the other 90 percent are glial cells, which encapsulate and support neurons, but whose function remains largely unknown. Ultimately, it’s not that we use 10 percent of our brains, merely that we only understand about 10 percent of how it functions.

NOW. While I will grant you that the concept that “we only use 10% of our brains” is silly, it’s also been used for DECADES as the basis for a lot of fun “what-if” style storytelling. Powder and Phenomenon are two excellent movies that come to mind which deal specifically with this idea. So, I think what I’m saying is, quit being such a fucktard about something so INSIGNIFICANTLY POINTLESS as this, and just try to enjoy the fucking comic.  I’m sorry if I’m getting a little on the offensive here, but this pedantic bullshit just pisses me off. Especially when it’s passed off in the guise of “Gee, you Americans sure are stupid.” (I know you didn’t do that specifically, but that was the tone of the other e-mail I recieved, and it stuck in my craw a little.)


Uh, wow.

Here’s a couple of points in response, Greg:

  • Really – you’re going to base your argument on the past usage of science in media?  Seen a lot of 50-foot tall women in the talkies lately?  How about books about a guy who goes to the moon by being shot out of a cannon?  Even Marvel is smart enough to keep up with advances in our knowledge, if you’ve seen the re-write of the Spider-man origin in the Ultimates universe (from a radioactive spider to a genetically altered one).
  • To people who don’t know any better, you’re propagating the idea that there is some locked-away 90% of our brain that would turn us into magical super-heroes if we could only access it.  This is a lie, Greg, and it is part of a real issue;  scientific literacy in the United States, where you’re from, is shockingly low. This makes you part of the problem.

Scientists like me struggle every day to correct the misconceptions of science in the public’s view, so you’ll have to forgive us if hearing that we should just shut our yap – because you’re too lazy to come up with a plot point that doesn’t depend upon a thoroughly discredited idea from well over a century ago – is a problem for us.  And if it’s such an insignificant point (as you say to us ‘fucktards’), why can’t you just get it right?

Oh, and Greg, as for your quoting of the Scientific American article:  way to cherry-pick.  The “ultimately we only understand 10% of how it functions” bit is a rhetorical closing at the end of the article.  I prefer this quote from the middle of the piece:

Adding to that mystery is the contention that humans “only” employ 10 percent of their brain. If only regular folk could tap that other 90 percent, they too could become savants who remember π to the twenty-thousandth decimal place or perhaps even have telekinetic powers.

Though an alluring idea, the “10 percent myth” is so wrong it is almost laughable, says neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Although there’s no definitive culprit to pin the blame on for starting this legend, the notion has been linked to the American psychologist and author William James, who argued in The Energies of Men that “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” It’s also been associated with to Albert Einstein, who supposedly used it to explain his cosmic towering intellect.

Emphasis mine.  Or how about this one, from the same article?

Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period. “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Even in sleep, areas such as the frontal cortex, which controls things like higher level thinking and self-awareness, or the somatosensory areas, which help people sense their surroundings, are active, Henley explains.

p.s. Greg, I’m Canadian, not American, so consider my pedantry  to be a message from your own side of the ocean.


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