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?”

Are You Smarter Than a Mouse?

Are you smarter than a mouse? This was one of the intriguing topics presented at 2013’s Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, on research done by J.F. Gysner, M. Manglani, N. Escalona, R. Hamilton, M. Taylor, J. Paffman, E. Johnson, and L.A. Gabel, all based out of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

If you are a lab mouse, then you are undoubtedly familiar with mazes. Specifically, you’ve probably logged some time in a Hebb-Williams maze. For decades, it’s been the go-to research model: a spacial-visual maze that centers on twelve standard problems, which differ based on the learning/memory task researchers have assigned to you and your rodent buddies.

But the Hebb-Williams maze is not solely reserved for our tiny rodent friends. Its friendly confines have also been used to test the mettle of ‘rats, cats, rabbits, ferrets, mice, and monkeys.’

The Lafayette College team had a few questions on their minds. Would it alter test results to use a virtual model instead? And if not, could they run humans through the simulation and compare their performances against mice?

Clearly, a virtual maze is far more desirable in terms of space and construction costs. Also, it’s not nearly as problematic as shrinking humans down to fit into a mouse maze. (Which, for one thing, opens itself up to all manner of tired movie plots.)

Ninety-eight humans, both male and female, participated in the experiment. The study focused on two age groups: children aged 8-12, and young adults aged 18-21. The participants were screened and evaluated on their video game knowledge to eliminate any pre-trial skill biases.

In order to ensure that chocolate pellets would be enough of an incentive to run the maze, researchers skimped on the food until the mice reached 85% body weight. (Apparently the humans needed no coercion to run the virtual maze for chocolate pellets.)

Ultimately, when it came to the final showdown, humans from both age groups were faster and less prone to mistakes than their small furry counterparts. However, taking controls for species into account, the humans and mice performed “similarly”, suggesting their performance could be compared in future experiments.

Additionally, it turns out that using a computer-generated maze on humans did not alter their results. This was particularly good news for the Lafayette researchers, but perhaps not such a boon for the would-be producers of Honey I Shrunk the Kids 3.

So lucky for your self-esteem, it turns out you are smarter than a mouse, at least where maze-running is concerned. That is, until the playing field is leveled and then, well, say hello to your new competitors, the irrepressible Mickey and Minnie.

Getting Smart About Intelligence

So what is intelligence, or more importantly, how does it work? The U.S. federal government recently announced it has budgeted some 3 billion dollars to mapping the human brain in hopes of answering these kinds of questions. (I would be happy to know why I struggle with driving directions.)

The larger question for the scientific world is: how does the brain make sense of the trillions of data bits thrown at it everyday? Continue reading