After the Learning Solutions Conference earlier this month a few friends and I spent the afternoon feeding alligators hot dogs at Gatorland, which is my favorite place in all of Orlando. Walking by a gator pit, we overheard one of the staff explain to some visitors, "You see, alligators have teeny little pea brains, but they use 100% of it, unlike us, who only use 10%." I stopped on a dime and wheeled around with my finger pointed into the air. Luckily for the staff member, my friends said "Jen! Don't! It's Gatorland!" and "Let it go! She's only training alligators, not people!"
That you only use 10% of your brain remains one of the most pervasive psychology myths despite it being one of the most demonstrably false. (If you don't believe me, I challenge you to smash 90% of your head against a wall repeatedly.) The origins of this myth are not entirely clear. Some attribute it to an off-hand comment by Albert Einstein. Most often, people incorrectly cite William James, one of the pioneers of the field of psychology. What we do know is that Lowell Thomas made this misattribution in his forward to Dale Carnegie's best seller How to Win Friends and Influence People. That book went on to sell tens of millions of copies, which may partly explain the myth's pervasiveness. Regardless of its origins, why is it so sticky? The answer lies in a true story about a psychic, the CIA, bad psychology research, and a late night television host. Long story short:
It's the 1960s. The Beatles have started doing a lot of LSD and their music has gotten really great. The U.S. government's MK Ultra program is in full swing, and unwitting citizens are getting slipped drugs and being hypnotized in the hopes of figuring out how to compromise Russian spies. There are hippies everywhere. And in the field of psychology, the Humanistic perspective is born. If you've ever taken an intro to psychology course, this is probably the chapter your professor glossed over. Humanistic psychology was founded as a response to the dominant perspectives at the time. On the one hand, Behaviorists argued people were just like other animals that responded to stimuli and sought rewards for their behavior, which is unappealing to some as it revokes humanity's snowflake status on the planet. On the other, Freudian psychology was focused on treating aberrant behavior. Instead of fixing problems, humanists wanted to know how to take good people and make them great. Taking Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as its foundation, they held that people are special, uniquely conscious, and driven to self-actualization. What a time to be alive.
One of the upshots of this perspective was the Human Potential Movement. Basically, this is a school of thought that combines "New Age" spirituality, Eastern religions, and Humanistic psychology (among other things) to help people reach their full potential or, as we say these days, "live your best life." The idea is that the human mind has vast untapped potential that if harnessed can lead to "peak experiences," bringing out spiritual, emotional, and psychic abilities in people. Now, here's where our 10% of the brain myth comes into play. One of the founders of the Human Potential Movement, George Leonard, was doing research for an article he was writing. He says, "I had interviewed 37 experts on the subject of the human potential. Psychiatrists, psychologists, brain researchers-even theologians and philosophers. Not one of them said we were using more than 10% of our capacity." You see, the only way we can have all this untapped potential is if we're not currently maxing out the capability that we have. The myth of using 10% of our brain gives us the hope that there's much more to us that's possible, if only we knew how to tap into it. And that's why this myth is so appealing. It speaks to our feelings of inadequacy and promises the potential to one day be better, faster, and smarter.
Enter the psychic. In the early 1970s, a young Israeli named Uri Geller shows up on the scene with a variety of psychic powers, the most well-known of which is the ability to bend spoons with his mind. Why this is the most practical manifestation of his psychic prowess we will never know. Regardless, the CIA gets wind of this and in the spirit of psychically battling the Russians, commissions Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ at the prestigious Stanford Research Institute to do an evaluation of his powers. After spending a few weeks with him, they determine he really is psychic. (You can read the CIA report here). Uri Geller becomes arguably the most famous psychic of all time, and inspires Human Potential Movement fans across the globe.
One person is not so convinced, however. Johnny Carson, long-tenured and by today's standards debatably offensive host of the Tonight Show, is himself a magician, and he smells a rat. He invites Uri Geller to come on his show, to which he agrees. Carson's staff send him a list of interview questions to review, and everything seems normal. But apparently Geller's powers failed him because what happened next, he did not see coming. He walked onto the stage into a test of his psychic abilities and got totally owned by the master of late night comedy. (Watch it, it's seriously great.) It turns out bending a spoon is a lot easier if you bring your own spoons to the party.
What does all this mean? Regardless of how much of their brains alligators use, rest assured you use all of yours. So, no, you're not secretly capable of telepathy, seeing into the future, or warping flatware through intense concentration. (On the plus side, neither are the Russians, so that's one less thing you have to worry about). You'll never be Captain Marvel or Spiderman, but that doesn't mean you can't help save the universe from Thanos. You can be an ordinary person who works hard to do the best they can with what they've been given, like Hawkeye. So be like Hawkeye, and feel pretty good about that.
These posts are written or shared by QIC team members. We find this stuff interesting, exciting, and totally awesome! We hope you do too!