In a way, thoughts like these are quite hopeful; after all, if we only use a tiny part of our brains, think of the potential improvement we could see if we used it all! We see this idea echoed a lot in the usually-trustworthy nootropic industry, as manufacturers line up to promise consumers that their products help brains work to “capacity” or “100%”. The premise is that with a little boost from a handy nootropic, the true hidden potential of the human brain is released and the organ is fully used for the first time.
But is this adage true in the first place? Below, we take a look at the evidence piece by piece to see how much of our brains we use and how useful nootropics really are for improving this usage.
Let’s start simple. If we can only access and use a small part of our brain, it stands to reason that most of it is essentially idle or useless. Straight away, it seems rather odd that our brains would be as big as they are if so little is actually used. Bigger brains take up precious space and use a lot of energy – some estimates claim that our little brains hog 20% of the body’s available energy!
Because of this, evolutionary scientists state that if we only used 10% of our brains, then humans would have evolved much smaller brains than we have. The evidence of our evolution from apes to humans actually shows evidence that our brains and skulls became bigger over time, going as far as to triple in size over millions of years. There would be very little point in this process happening if humans can only ever naturally use 10% of their brain’s capacity! You would probably expect them to shrink if this was the case.
This is where things get pretty damning. These days, we have neuroimaging technology that allows us to see which of the brain’s regions are active at any one time. Techniques like this allow us to easily see that most parts get used as the hours pass, although few areas are lit up constantly.
Our ability to see parts of the brain “light up” when used has been central to the field of neuroscience, and has actually helped us to map the brain and its different parts. We know that the cerebrum is mainly responsible for cognitive thought and processing, that the cerebellum helps the body to move physically, and that the brain stem regulates the parts of us we never think about (like breathing or other internal functions). More focused research has identified different clusters of neurons in specific areas of the brain that are responsible for different tasks, such as movement in a specific limb or the movement of the jaw or tongue.
All of these maps suggest that humans use all parts of the brain. Medical evidence also corroborates this – when patients have damaged parts of their brain or have had to had parts of it removed, there is almost always a severe impact on their ability to use their brains normally. This wouldn’t happen if we didn’t use all of our brains.
All the evidence says yes. Along with mapping the brain from the top-down, scientists have also found ways to look at brain cells on an individual basis. “Single-unit recordings” involve researchers placing tiny electrodes in the brain to monitor the level of activity in individual cells, which further help us to understand how the brain works as a whole. Scientists have taken “single-unit recordings” from all parts of the brain, and to date have never found a single cell that wasn’t working.
Although we still have much to learn about how different parts of the brain interact with one another and how the whole thing links up, we know that there is no part of the brain that simply does nothing. All of the available information shows that humans use 100% of their brains, although not necessarily all at once.
Weirdly enough, this is a hard question to answer (although, for the record, Albert Einstein definitely never said any such thing). Some writers have traced the original idea back to a Harvard University psychologist and philosopher called William James, who claimed in the late 1800’s that:
we are making use of only a small part of our possible mental… resources.
This fairly uncontroversial statement was later twisted by other writers like Lowell Thomas to suggest that people only use 10% of their brains, a claim that was quickly seized upon by advertisers and others in the entertainment industry. Soon, we could see the myth repeated ad nauseum in TV sitcoms, on self-help book blurbs, and in adverts for nootropics.
Perhaps the real source for the myth is the fact that we still don’t understand how the brain works. Even amongst neuroscientists, there is still very little knowledge on how brain cells work together to produce complex cognitive thinking and behaviour. With thin unfortunate haze, it’s perhaps understandable that we encounter these enduring myths and falsehoods.
Nootropics may not improve your ability to use “more” of your brain, but good products do still perform a great and useful role. In a nutshell, most nootropic products change the balance of hormones and enzymes in the brain to ensure that certain neurotransmitter and receptor “systems” work more efficiently.
The way this effect is achieved can vary. Some products use ingredients that affect cholinergic receptors, whilst others target glutamate neurotransmitters. All products work in different ways, but most generally target parts of the brain that are associated with learning, memory or cognition, and make the neural pathways within those areas more efficient.
In simple terms, consumers looking to make their brains more effective need to think in terms of making their brains more efficient, rather than bigger overall. The original hopeful message behind the 10% claim is still there – our brains really do have huge room for improvement and development, if we only have the motivation and desire to see this through!