The Morgan Freeman Fallacy: How Much of Your Brain are You Using?

“It is estimated that most human beings only use ten percent of their brain,” Morgan Freeman intones in the movie Lucy. Central to the plot is what happens when a freak accident occurs and a person, in this case, Scarlet Johansson, gains access to more and more of her brain: as that percentage grows, she can operate a handgun with no prior training, teach herself “Chinese” (although you’d think she’d know it’s called Mandarin), psyche out police dogs, change her appearance at will, and even manipulate the world around her.

“What happens when she reaches 100 percent?” a man asks in the trailer as exciting music plays in the background.

“I have no idea,” says Morgan Freeman solemnly.

So just what does access to 100% of your brain look like?

No spoiler alert necessary. In the real world, using all your brain at once allows you to unlock special skills like: read a street sign, remember someone’s name, prepare your own food, do your taxes, or wash the dishes while humming a song.

Of course, that doesn’t make for blockbuster cinema. No one would pay to watch Scarlet Johansson file her W2s.

Okay, maybe someone would, but my point remains: the notion of 90% of our brains as untapped wilderness is nonsense.

From a biological perspective, carrying around that three pounds in our heads is costly: maintaining your brain takes up 20% of your body’s oxygen, and 20% of its energy. It also requires a pretty big skull to protect it, rendering human childbirth especially painful and—for most of our history—dangerous. In terms of evolution, it’s hard to imagine a race of ten percenters surviving against any competitors that weren’t lugging around all that deadweight in their heads.

Neuroscientists will tell you we are taking advantage of the full landscape of gray matter.

Neuroplasticity, the ability to wire and rewire our brains, is where the action is. Your brain’s physical ability to grow larger may be constrained by that protective bunker called your skull. Still, the flexibility of your brain’s wiring system leaves plenty of room for forging a near-infinite number of connections, ideas, and thoughts.

Stephen Hawking, Neil De Grasse Tyson, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg don’t succeed thanks to some key to the secret folds of their gray matter, but the trails they blazed by organizing and reorganizing their wiring system.

If neurons were Legos, the great thinkers of history would have some amazing structures on display—pieced together from building blocks that they assembled in surprisingly new ways.

So where does this “we only use 10% of our brains” myth come from? Like all good urban myths, pinpointing the origin is tough. Some attribute it to a statement Einstein is purported to have made. Some say it is the result of early brain scans, where the relatively primitive machinery failed to detect most brain activity.

In the movie, Scarlet Johansson gains martial arts skills, telekinesis, stunt driving, and the ability to reverse time. Short of actual wizardry, no amount of brain wiring can make that happen. The real question Lucy asks is, “What happens when a movie uses 100% of its special effects budget?”

Hacking Flow

In sports, it’s called being in the zone.

I’m talking about those moments when self vanishes, time seems to slow down, and you are operating with maximum confidence. A sense of calm pervades, even though you might be surrounded by a frenzy of activity. Your focus intensifies and your actions and decisions seem to meld.

This is the psychological state known as flow, researched and pushed into the spotlight by University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You might know what flow looks like from the outside if you’ve ever experienced a great jazz player riffing, or a skilled comedian doing improvisation.

And you probably know how flows feels if you meditate. If you’re in sales, it’s those times when you and your customer seem to be synced up in perfect harmony. A writer experiencing flow has the sense that the words on the page are being dictated by some outside source. When you and your best friend are so deeply engaged in conversation that an hour feels like minutes, it’s likely you’ve put each other into a flow state.

Runners, sky divers, surfers, and students engaged in deep academic pursuit are all secret or not-so-secret flow junkies.

Flow is big business. It’s fair to say that professional sports is really a giant flow industry produced for our viewing pleasure. It gives meaning to our lives, separating out the high points of experience from the everyday mundane.

So is there a way to hack flow, to trigger a flow experience? In Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, he suggests the following strategy:

1. Find something you’re passionate about and establish a clear goal for improvement.

2. Give yourself a hunk of unbroken time for maximum concentration and focus.

3. Find mentors and coaches: expert input is a key for good progress.

4. Push yourself to the edges of your abilities.

Push yourself, but don’t shove yourself. Kotler reports that a quest for a 4% improvement in any skill, compounded over time, will achieve incredible results.  It’s this kind of incremental growth that is an essential building block of progress. Trying to bite off more than you can chew is often self-defeating.

Flow is an ephemeral thing: easy to recognize, hard to pin down. In any given moment, there’s no surefire recipe for getting there. But by following Kotler’s steps, you can at least point yourself in the right direction. With a little practice, you could find yourself with a passport to the zone.

Neuroscience, Decisions, and Strippers

Decision making: there are countless books about it because, lets face it, decisions are at the epicenter of what we humans do. Make the wrong choice and it can kill you, or at least cause a lot of sweat and tears.

One major crossroads for many involves mate selection. Some knock it out of the park—we’ve all seen the heartwarming stories of couples still in love after 50 years—and then there are the marriages that crumble after a few months, or even days.

So what can we learn from the long-term lovebirds? What’s their secret? How did they find each other? When you first meet someone, what are the telltale signs to look for and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid?

It’s classic advice column fodder, and people make a tidy living doling out their strategies for selection. But at the crucial moment, how much strategy is really involved?

In his book Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman shares an unlikely experiment done in New Mexico.

Scientists were curious about how someone’s attraction response to a woman might be influenced by her fertility. It’s a tricky thing to study: how do you quantify something as ephemeral as human sexual chemistry? For these particular researchers, the answer lay in strip clubs. If the two things were connected, they hypothesized, maybe a lap dancer’s nightly tips would ebb and flow with her menstrual cycle?

The results were surprising. Lap dancers during their peak fertility period earned a cool $68 a night. On evenings they were menstruating, their tips fell to $35, for a monthly average of about $53.

Those who were on the pill saw no such fluctuation. Instead, they averaged about $37 dollars an evening.

What accounts for the difference? Of course, there’s no way to be sure. But Eagleman speculates it has to do with subtle changes in things like body odor, complexion, and waist-to hip ratio. It might also involve the output of pheromones, those neural chemicals linked to attraction, picked up subconsciously through the nose.

In other words, without realizing it, strip club patrons were primed to open their wallets and give more freely. They took their cues from the most primitive parts of their brains, hardwired over the generations to notice potential mates with the greatest likelihood of producing offspring.

No rational decision-making was at work, no reference to a conscious list of preferred attributes. Consciousness wasn’t even invited to the party.

What does all this mean? Well, if you’re a lap dancer relying on those tips, it means doubling up on your shift during peak fertility and maybe looking at alternate forms of birth control.

If you’re a man trying to pick up women, it means you might want to second-guess that gut instinct. Ask yourself, ‘who’s driving?’ It might not be who you think.