By Michael Corballis 05/05/2016

Do we use only 10 percent of our brain? That idea has been around for a long time, but we now know it’s not true. Brain imaging fails to show large regions of quiescence, as expected if we only used a small fraction of the stuff that occupies the skull.

Even when we’re at rest a widespread “default” network remains active, accommodating the idle thoughts that flit into the mind, and may even provide illumination or creative ideas. At night, when normal stimulation is cut off and the body is immobile, we dream, filling the mind with often bizarre and sometimes fearful images.

Far from idling along on candle power, the brain remains fully active even when we’re not fully aware of it. Sometimes the answer to a difficult crossword clue simply pops up out of the mist of my semiconscious mind, as fully formed as a newborn baby.

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But there is one sense in which the 10-percent myth carries a measure of truth, and is even a vast exaggeration. The infant is born with huge potential, most of which cannot be realised. Some 6,000 languages are spoken on the planet, and any healthy child has the capacity to master any one of them.

But life offers us only a short window of time. By the time we reach puberty, the capacity to learn a new language is largely removed, although with effort you might still manage a heavily accented exchange in an Italian restaurant, albeit with a chance of getting the wrong order.

It’s not just language. You might play a passable game of tennis, but in another life it might have been curling, or darts, or jai alai. It is in the nature of people to specialise. Our world is peopled by wood carvers, architects, candlestick makers, priests, elephant trainers, historians, car salesmen, engineers, flautists, legspin bowlers, poets, plumbers, neuropsychopharma-cologists, and thieves. And about a million more.

Human possibility

In terms of human potential, then, 10 percent is a vast underestimate. Of course a few Renaissance men and women can learn a dozen languages, play a decent game of cricket or squash, comprehend nuclear physics, and play the violin to a professional standard, but even these can only scratch the surface of human possibility. In our everyday commerce we use our brains pretty much to the full, but in terms of potential we attain perhaps a millionth of what would have been possible at birth. Or maybe a billionth.

This is not an exhortation to work harder, or a plea for Pelmanism or Brain Gym, since life offers only a tiny fraction of time to acquire skills. If there is a message, it is really for those who work at the population level. It is the diversity between people rather than within the individual that is what really makes us human.

Whether in our schools, universities, or even within families, our kids should have maximum opportunity to develop whatever talents they can find within themselves, and so add to the human pool of diversity and creativity. Of course they have to learn basic stuff too, like reading and mathematics and literature and biology, but these are part of the road to diversity.

The dark side

There is a dark side too, since part of the equation is cultural. Differences between people are often captured within walls of exclusiveness, best exemplified by language and religion. Diversity works well within groups, but in an increasingly global world creates tensions between them. Language is one of the marvels of human invention, but serves as much as a barrier between people as a means of sharing and communication. The same might be said of religion.

Just how to solve the conflicting pressures of human diversity ought not to be beyond the means of the human potential for diversity and creativity. Well, let’s hope so.

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Featured image: CC wikimedia

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