Psychology Myths 1 of 5

Myth #1 People Use Only 10% of Their Brain Power

       A long time ago, I learned about the myth that people only use 10% of the brain. At first, I thought that only individuals who were not in the field of psychology or neurology would believe this misconception. However, this changed when I read a study that found that one-third of psychology students believed that people only use one-tenth of their brain power (Higbee & Clay, 1998, p. 471). Then, when people kept asking me what I thought about humans only being capable of using ten percent of their brain and reading similar articles like one that found that 59% of a sample of individuals who went to college in Brazil believe the ten percent myth and that six percent of neuroscientists agreed (Herculano-Houzel, 2002), I understood that I was reading about one of the most prevalent myths in psychology.

(If you would like to learn more about this and other myths check out 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by clicking this link)


Where did it come from? Well, it's hard to pinpoint its origin, but it seems that it originated when William James wrote that he doubted that people used more than 10% of their intellectual capacity. Then, some people slowly transformed the statement into 10% of the brain. Moreover, the journalist Lowell Thomas stated that the proposition came from William James. He wrote this in the preface of "How to Win Friend and Influence People," which has sold 15 million copies worldwide. Some people believe that Albert Einstein used this claim in order to explain his intelligence, but the staff at Albert Einstein did not found evidence of this.

Why is it so prevalent?

There are several reasons this myth has not died. First of all, it would be good news to know that we have room to expand and there are a lot of people who help feed these hopes. For example, Robert K. Cooper wrote a book called "The Other 90%: How to unlock your vast untapped potential for leadership and life."

Other books where the ten percent claim is present includes "How to Be Twice as Smart," by Scott Witt. He wrote on page four that "If you are like most people you're using only ten percent of your brain power."

In addition, it has been used over and over in the media. A good example would be the movie "Lucy." Spoiler alert! The plot revolves around a woman who slowly gains access to more parts of her brain thanks to a drug. She starts by being able to speak other languages, but, by the end of the movie she has superpowers.

Do we use our whole brains, but only 10% at a time?

       Not long after I published this post I received the question: "what if we use the ten percent, but only at a given task?" Well, the answer would still be the same, we don't ignore 90% of the brain while doing a specific activity. According to Dr. Eric H. Chudler, neurons communicate by sending electrochemical messages. The process that occurs when the message is traveling down an axon is known as an action potential. Still, some neurons that are not firing action potentials are receiving those messages. Moreover, there is a concept known as redundancy, which is the theory that there are different pathways in the brain that are used for the same purpose in case one of the neural paths fail. In other words, even if the neurons are not firing action potentials, there are other ones that are constantly receiving those messages and there are several pathways that work to serve the same purpose.

Have we reached our limits?

       According to Dr. Gordon, a behavioral neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist, who had an interview published in Scientific American in 2008, we use virtually every part of the brain. Does this mean that people have reached their limits? Well, no. Research explains that the best way to improve is not by unlocking secret areas of the brain, but rather working hard (Beyerstein, 1999; Druckman & Swets, 1988). And yet people still believe that there is a possibility that they will unlock that 90%. In fact, this finding has not changed the convictions of believers of the myth (Beyerstein, 1999). But, can we change that?

 Feel free to leave a comment, questions, concerns, or suggestions.


Beyerstein, B. L. (1999). Whence cometh the myth that we only use ten per cent of our brains? In S. Della Sala (Ed.), Mind myths: Exploring popular assumptions about the mind and brain (pp. 1–24). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. 

Carnegie, D. (1981). How to win friends and influence people (Rev. ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Druckman, D., & Swets, J. A. (1988). Enhancing human performance: Issues, theories, and techniques. Washington, DC, US: National Academy Press.

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2002). Do you know your brain? A survey on public neuroscience literacy at the closing of the decade of the brain. Neuro- scientist, 8(2), 98–110. 

Higbee, K. L., & Clay, S. L. (1998). College students' beliefs in the ten-percent myth. The Journal Of Psychology: Interdisciplinary And Applied, 132(5), 469-476. doi:10.1080/00223989809599280

Lilienfeld, S. (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.