Lucy and the 10% Brain Myth


LucyWe watched the film Lucy on iTunes last night and, while reasonably entertaining, its plot is founded on a persistent bit of pseudoscience: that people only use 10% of their brain capacity. It’s so widespread a myth that Wikipedia has a page on it that opens:

The 10 percent of the brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban myth that most or all humans only make use of 10 percent (or some other small percentage) of their brains. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By extrapolation, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence.

Sure, we all know people who don’t appear to use much of their brain’s potential power, but the simple truth is that we all use all of our brain’s capacity. We evolved a big brain to handle the growing demands of increased consciousness, speech and sophisticated motor control, and that’s what it’s for.

Sure, not all of it is used in a conscious manner. Much of the brain’s function is taken up in processing, storing and interpreting the huge bandwidth of information that is fed to it every second of every day. Even acts we do daily and take for granted – like walking upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand while talking – take a huge amount of processing power. Sight, balance, motor control, memory, logic, vocalization, muscles control… the brain takes care of it all without spilling a drop.

Your consciousness – the ego – doesn’t see all this work going on and never will because you would quickly be overwhelmed by the huge amount of data being managed by your unconscious. Yes, yes, a lot of people don’t appear to even use the whole capacity of their conscious brains – anti-vaxxers, chemtrail wingnuts, creationists and some local bloggers come to mind – but that’s just a portion of what the brain does. Critical thinking is a skill one has to acquire and practice, not an inherent brain function.

In 2008, Scientific American, quoted Barry Gordon, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

“It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time,” Gordon adds. “Let’s put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body’s weight and uses 20 percent of the body’s energy.”

And the article adds:

Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period. “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Even in sleep, areas such as the frontal cortex, which controls things like higher level thinking and self-awareness, or the somatosensory areas, which help people sense their surroundings, are active, Henley explains.

Take the simple act of pouring coffee in the morning: In walking toward the coffeepot, reaching for it, pouring the brew into the mug, even leaving extra room for cream, the occipital and parietal lobes, motor sensory and sensory motor cortices, basal ganglia, cerebellum and frontal lobes all activate. A lightning storm of neuronal activity occurs almost across the entire brain in the time span of a few seconds.

But, as Wikipedia points out, the myth of the 10% brain is kept alive by unscrupulous New Age con artists…

…by asserting that the “unused” ninety percent of the human brain is capable of exhibiting psychic powers and can be trained to perform psychokinesis and extra-sensory perception. There is no scientifically verified body of evidence supporting the existence of such powers.

Well, we already know psychics are a scam, what we don’t expect is to find their nonsense cunningly interwoven into a major film. Far too many people will now believe this myth because they saw it in a movie For all its huge capacity, our brains are still remarkably gullible organs.

Skeptical Inquirer tackled this myth back in 1999, writing:

The argument that psychic powers come from the unused majority of the brain is based on the logical fallacy of the argument from ignorance. In this fallacy, lack of proof for a position (or simply lack of information) is used to try to support a particular claim. Even if it were true that the vast majority of the human mind is unused (which it clearly is not), that fact in no way implies that any extra capacity could somehow give people paranormal powers.

In Lucy, the whole premise of the film revolves around this myth. The main character (Scarlett Johansson) ingests a new drug that accelerates her brain’s growth in using its own capacity. In doing so she gains New-Agey, even godlike powers. She can move things with her mind, change shape, see and hear things like cell phone transmissions.

Sure, it’s something we’d all like to believe in: that we can become superheroes by taking a pill. No need to exercise, to study, to do the 10,000 hours of effort to master a skill. Just pop a pill and we’re there. Instant enlightenment. Who wouldn’t pop a pill like that?

Except that’s not how it works.

But it makes for such good special effects – and seeing a formerly helpless, ditzy and weak woman become kick-as in the process is equally compelling – that we tend to overlook the bad science in order to enjoy the movie.

And as far as movies go, it was okay. Not great (a mere 66% approval on Rotten Tomatoes) – the director never develop’s Lucy’s character or fully explain what she eventually becomes (Arthur C Clarke took us on a similar evolutionary journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey but did it much better and more believably). The special effects are sometimes so overwhelming that you miss the point – if there is one buried in them – about human evolution (the few visual references to the ancestral Lucy are suggestive but not fleshed out).

Lucy sprints along at a fast pace that the audience has no opportunity to analyse; there is no time when she pauses for introspection; everything is turned up to the top notch right from the start. That’s doesn’t allow us the time to really get to know her or feel empathy with her.

Nor does Morgan Freeman’s role get developed past that of brainy cutout. He’s the scientist to whom Lucy turns – but he’s really just there to make her intellectual evolution seem more credible; he doesn’t get any real chance to interact with her. There is none of the tension we want between the two. He’s like most of the other characters in the film: secondary and two-dimensional. Their contribution is simply to elevate Lucy’s importance.

I’ll give it three out of five for sheer fun, but it’s fast-paced fluff and I’m glad I didn’t buy it on DVD, because I’d only be putting it in the yard sale next spring.

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