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The "Ten Percent" Myth

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Are you achieving your brain's full potential? Are you making the most of the mind-power God has given you?

Many people today take for granted what is sometimes called the “10 percent” myth—the idea that the average person uses just 10 percent of his or her brain. The origin of this idea is unclear—some point to American writer Lowell Thomas, who referenced it in a foreword to an edition of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Whatever its origin, the effect and reach of the myth has been widespread.

What accounts for widespread differences in intelligence from person to person? Noted 19th century psychologist William James proposed that there must be some underused mental potential in everyone. Ever since, James’ research and quasi-metaphysical speculations have been misinterpreted and misquoted, and even wrongly attributed to credible scientific figures such as Albert Einstein (Robynne Boyd. “Do People Only Use Ten Percent of Their Brains?,” Scientific American, February 7, 2008).

Missing in Action?

The truth is that we “pretty much use 100 percent of our brains,” according to Ph.Ds Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, Princeton neurologists and co-authors of Welcome to Your Brain (2009). They reason, based on their extensive research, that there are no “unused parts,” and that the functioning human brain is basically complete.

If any part of your brain went “missing in action,” says Dr. Wang, “you would notice—and you would be sorry... or, depending on which part, you might not be sorry!” Consider also that any cells or muscles our bodies do not use tend to atrophy and die, yet the entire brain is an active organ, using about one-fifth of all the energy your body produces.

Yes, it is true—under normal circumstances, we use all of the “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) brain God gave us. However, many of the brain’s processes are unconscious and work best without our awareness—they do not require what we usually think of as “high intelligence.” In fact, abnormally high intelligence often comes with a price, as seen in some cases of autism and similar neurological disorders. Disabilities can occur when some parts of the brain are too active, or work without needed inhibition.

Use It or Lose It!

The true key to mental development is not how much of your brain you use; it is how well and how often you use your brain! Although experience, training, injury or disability may limit our mental capacities, our real potential to learn, grow and fill the brain with useful information may be far greater than most of us realize. And we reach that potential by hard work!

One danger of the “10 percent” myth is that it can distract us from how we are using our brains, as if “more” mattered more than “better.” God’s word gives us many inspiring principles in this regard, such as the Apostle Paul’s admonition, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8). Are you using your brain to better yourself? Or do you dull your brain through drugs and empty entertainment?

God has given you a brain—the organ through which your mind operates—and He expects you to use it wisely and profitably. And He has given you even more than that! God has also given Christians a way to exceed the limits of the physical human mind and brain, not through human effort or metaphysical dabbling, but through the gift of God’s Holy Spirit—which connects the human spirit to wisdom inaccessible to carnal mankind (1 Corinthians 2:10–16).


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