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Stroke Smart Magazine

March/April 2007

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Do We Really Use Only 10% Of Our Brains?

By Peter Levine, BA, PTA

It has long been thought that we only use 10 percent of our brains. But we now know that this is just a myth; we actually use every part of our brains. So why do so many people still believe this to be true?

In the 1800s, researchers did experiments to see how human and animal brains responded to electrical stimulation. A jolt to one small area of the brain made the elbow bend. A zap in another area caused muscles in the face to twitch. And so on. But researchers also found areas of the brain where electrical stimulation produced no movement. These “silent areas” were believed to be unused parts of the brain.

By the 1900s, the parts of brain thought to be unused were discovered to be active and productive centers of language, short- and long-term memory, abstract thought and reason.

The “10 percent” myth persists because we go about our lives without ever thinking about all the things the brain does. We may realize that we use our brains to do complex tasks like filling out tax forms. But we don't realize that the brain regulates everything from digestion to heartbeat, from body temperature to breathing. In fact, the brain is responsible for controlling trillions of cells in the human body. Like the swimming duck, we may be doing simple things but our brain is paddling like crazy, just below the surface. And all this is done “in the background,” leaving us free to imagine the taste of Rocky Road ice cream and remember directions from the market to home.

There are many folks in the paranormal and psychic fields who benefit from — and are responsible for — the persistence of the 10 percent brain claim. Here's their pitch: We only use 10 percent of our brains for everyday tasks; the part we don't use is the part for stuff such as mind reading and card guessing. Most of the folks who say we're only using 10 percent of our brains are willing to show you how to access the other 90 percent — for a price.

Unfortunately for this crowd, science has provided solid evidence that the entire brain is used. With advanced scanning technology we can see not only every structure in the brain, but also every millimeter of the brain while it works. Every bit of the brain is used, but different parts are used at different times for different things. Language, senses, emotion, movement and reason all work best in areas of the brain specialized for that work.

The human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe and, as any stroke survivor knows, has special vulnerabilities. Stroke can affect speaking, understanding, mood, memory and imagination. But the human brain has special ways of healing itself. Through our free will and hard work we have the potential to “rewire” the brain after a stroke to “go around” the area of the brain damaged by stroke. We might not be able to use more than 100 percent of our brains but we can fine-tune our brains for optimum recovery.


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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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