In the movie Limitless, the protagonist Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, is an average, struggling author in New York City. His life is falling apart. His girlfriend breaks up with him and his career is in shambles, and it seems like he’s just failing at everything.
And then his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon, gives him a pill: NZT-48.
“And you know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?… Well, what this does… it lets you access all of it,” Vernon says.
Well, you can probably guess the rest of the plot. The pill completely changes his life and allows Morra to finish his novel incredibly quickly. He starts winning poker games and invests in the stock market. He becomes a big star at Wall Street, and he wins over his ex-girlfriend again.
After that, the plot grows a lot more complicated (and I’ll avoid spoiling any more than I have), but at the time I watched it (14 years old), the premise of Limitless was incredibly appealing.
If we only use a small portion of our brain, and we can just take a pill to access the rest of it, we can do anything.
If we can access the other 80% (or 90%) of our brains, we can fix every problem and also become billion-dollar Wall Street investors, right?
The only problem is claims that we only use small portions of our brain are a myth. “You only use 10% of your brain” is a neuromyth, as is Vernon’s claim in Limitless.
As I grew older, I started to see this mindset as one that leads to unhealthy habits and behaviors. Believing you have a lot more potential in your brain that’s not being accessed is sometimes what leads college students to abuse Adderall or other stimulants. And we also take unnecessary risks believing we can only use a small portion of our brains.
I did my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and sat through a lecture on neuroscience education that cited the 10% claim as one of the biggest neuromyths. The reality is there is no untapped potential because we’re always using our whole brains. According to Benjamin Radford at Live Science, we’re always accessing our whole brains.
A 2013 survey of more than 2,000 adults found that 65% of Americans believe the statement that “people only use 10 percent of their brains on a daily basis.”
In 2009, Suzana Herculano-Houzel published an fMRI study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that found the human brain is active at almost all times.
Dr. Eric Chudler analyzes where the 10% myth began, and it often comes from misquoting Albert Einstein, or from a quote from William James. Harvard psychologist Karl Lashley helped the myth take off in the 1920s and 1930s, after taking out parts of the cerebral cortex and finding out animals could relearn tasks.
However, this finding isn’t extrapolated to humans — any removal of a part of the brain has long-term effects on the brain.
“The 10-percent myth has undoubtedly motivated many people to strive for greater creativity and productivity in their lives — hardly a bad thing. The comfort, encouragement and hope that it has engendered helps explain its longevity,” Dr. Barry Beyerstein at Scientific American says.
This piece isn’t so much about the science, but is more about the appeal of the myth.
We all want to believe we have untapped potential. We all want to believe just one transition in our lives can help us activate our true potential.
They just won’t help us activate the rest of our brains.
But I think it goes deeper than that. There are objectively things we can do to improve the way we think and the way our brain works, but it’s nothing you don’t know. Get enough sleep, have a healthy diet, exercise, and drink enough water.
At the core of our belief in the 10% myth is what also has driven the self-help movement in the past century. It’s America’s push for us always to not be satisfied, to hustle for more, to trust our individual initiative to better our circumstances. In fact, a lot of self-help programs promise the “unleashing” of someone’s potential.
It’s normal to feel like we’re not doing the best we can. It’s normal to feel like we can improve. But we can believe we have untapped potential without believing neuromyths.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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