There is a new movie coming out later this month called “Lucy.” (See the trailer here.) The premise of this movie is that humans only use 10% of our brains, and Scarlett Johansson gets superpowers by using more than 10% of hers. This idea that we only use 10% of our brains, but would be better if we used more, is a very persistent myth in our society.
Disclaimer: My point here is not to rain on anyone’s parade. I love science fiction movies, and if Luc Besson’s record is any indication, this one will probably be good. (Personal note: Luc Besson wrote and directed my favorite movie.) Even though I am a scientist, I am usually willing to suspend my disbelief for whatever premise the movie asks me to accept. I am not trying to convince anyone that they shouldn’t watch this movie or that it will suck because it gets some facts wrong. The release of this movie is just a convenient opportunity to talk about an oddly persistent myth.
Now back to the show…
My first exposure to this myth was probably as a child when I read the book My Teacher Fried My Brain — the second book in the My Teacher Is An Alien series. In this book, the school bully has his brain zapped by an alien device which makes him much smarter and a much more pleasant person. I can remember speculating later that very smart people like Albert Einstein probably used more like 50% of their brains.
But none of this is true. There have been several takedowns of the 10-percent-of-our-brains myth from a neuroscience perspective by people who are more qualified than I to discuss neuroscience. I am much more qualified to discuss this from an evolutionary angle.
Evolution is incremental. Traits evolve slowly over time, with each successive version of the trait being slightly better than the last. The brains of modern humans have a volume somewhere in the area of 1200 cubic centimeters (cc). Chimpanzee brains have less than a third of this volume. We evolved from an ape that was not exactly a chimpanzee, but we can use the chimp brain size as a point of comparison. Since our evolutionary divergence from our chimpanzee-like ancestors, our brains have tripled in size. This means that, during our evolution, individuals with 450cc brains survived and reproduced better than individuals with 430cc brains, and individuals with 500cc brains survived and reproduced better than individuals with 450cc brains. Our brains eventually grew to what they are now because the modern brain allowed individuals to survive and reproduce better than individuals that had anything less than a modern brain.
The modern human brain is astonishingly expensive to build and maintain from a caloric standpoint. A typical adult male at rest requires 1800 Calories per day to function. That is, a man lying motionless but awake for 24 hours will burn 1800 calories just to maintain his body. This 1800 Calories is his “metabolic budget.” The metabolic budget is just the cost of every process within the body added up. Keeping the heart beating and the lungs breathing requires some of these calories. Replacing old, worn-out cells requires some more of these calories. The average adult male brain requires 414 of those Calories, which accounts for 23% of the total resting budget. Typical adult females require fewer Calories to function (1480) than adult males. The female brain requires about the same number of Calories as the male brain (400), but accounts for a slightly larger percent of the resting metabolic budget (27%).
Evolution is not wasteful. Acquiring enough energetic resources to survive was a big problem for our ancestors. Building a smaller brain would be less expensive. If the expense of building a bigger brain was not offset by the advantage it gives, it would never have evolved in the future. If humans suddenly found ourselves in an environment where our big brains were no longer an advantage for us, our brains would subsequently evolve to be smaller. (Remember that evolution does not always make things bigger, better and more complex.)
If the brain was larger (and therefore more energetically expensive) than it needed to be, individuals with a smaller brain would be able to spend that additional energy on other important things. They could spend it acquiring resources to support more offspring. They could spend it on growing bigger muscles and repairing more damage. Or they just wouldn’t require as much energy to survive and it would be harder to starve to death. This is to say that a brain that wastes 90% of its potential could not possibly evolve. Compare this to a centipede that only used 10 of its 100 legs or a cheetah that had the anatomy and physiology to run 70 miles per hour but never ran faster than 7mph. Evolution would not produce these traits, either.
In summary: a brain that leaves 90% of its potential untapped would not evolve. But don’t let this fact stop you from making good movies that use this as a premise. Luc Besson doesn’t tell me how to do my job, so I won’t tell him how to do his.