Is Morgan Freeman Lying To You About Your Brain?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Actors Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming film "Lucy." (EuropaCorp/TF1 Films Production)

When Morgan Freeman says something, we all want to believe him. He's got that special something in his voice. 

But what about the premise of his new movie "Lucy" with Scarlett Johansson?

In the film, Freeman plays a professor, who contends that the average person only uses 10 percent of their brain capacity.

Is it true? Is 90 percent of your brain full of untapped mental potential? Sam McDougle, a PhD candidate in psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, says that premise is an urban legend. 

The origins of the myth are cloudy and go back over a century. Even Albert Einstein mentioned it at one point. But the fact of the matter is, we use almost all of our brain most of the time. 

Does the field of neuroscience suffer when blockbuster movies perpetuate bold, unscientific claims? Or is this exactly the kind of conversation starter needed to get people actively interested in the study of our brain? 

"The brain is a biological organ, so [using] 100 percent is the correct figure," says McDougle. "Like any organ, like your spleen or your liver, all the cells are doing something."

McDougle says that 100 percent of the human brains is always working because the brain is transcribing DNA, making proteins, and moving around ions.

"But, like anything in science, the answer is more complicated," he says. "If all your neurons were firing all at once, you'd be having the biggest seizure in the history of mankind."

While McDougle can't pinpoint the exact origins of the myth, he says that it seems to have originated in Dale Carnegie's 1936 self-help book, "How To Win Friends And Influence People." The forward, which was written by Lowell Thomas, misquotes a Harvard University professor who once said that humans have unused mental potential.

"The average person develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability,” Thomas wrote.


Sam McDougle

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Henry Molofsky


T.J. Raphael

Comments [1]

Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Todd, you forgot to ask Sam McDougle about what percentage of the brain do Zombies use.

The question isn't just what percentage of the brain are we using. There are related questions:

Are there ways to feel that we can become more intelligent? (and in that way we are using a higher percentage of the brain)

Are there games to play that would expand our ability to think? (and again in so doing using a higher percentage of the brain) Scoring higher on tests after game play?

Physical Exercise or chanting, meditating exercises that would seem to open us up to things that we didn't know we could do before? Does that spark areas of the brain which weren't sparking before?

Overcoming insecurities, and past difficulties seem to increase peoples ability to think.

I haven't quite nailed the takeaway but I don't think the use of the brain is just related to what percentage we are using but it is related to what are the things that block us as humans from our full potential use of our brains.

Each human has a primitive brain which protects us and acts as some sort of defense mechanism.

When explored these blocks can be removed and reveal an intelligence which we didn't know about before..
Isn't that why people go into therapy or start practicing Zen Buddhism?

"How can humans remove defensive blocks in order to use more of their intelligence?

I feel like I'm onto something in what we even really mean when we say,"I am only using 10 percent of my brain."

I of course like to kid around and say that I use 90 percent of the part of the brain that we don't even have.

Please edit this, my brain hurts.

Jul. 25 2014 01:51 PM

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