Lucy and the Great 10% Myth

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 10:44 AM EDT

Andrew Sullivan reminds me of something I was curious about the other day. He quotes Jeffrey Kluger, who writes in Time that he's annoyed with the movie Lucy because it perpetuates the ridiculous myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. I sympathize. I was sort of annoyed just by seeing that in the trailer. But it did make me wonder: where did this urban legend come from, anyway? Wikipedia to the rescue:

One possible origin is the reserve energy theories by Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis...William James told audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential....In 1936, American writer Lowell Thomas summarized this idea...."Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability."

In the 1970s, psychologist and educator Georgi Lozanov, proposed the teaching method of suggestopedia believing "that we might be using only five to ten percent of our mental capacity."....According to a related origin story, the 10% myth most likely arose from a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of neurological research in the late 19th century or early 20th century. For example, the functions of many brain regions (especially in the cerebral cortex) are complex enough that the effects of damage are subtle, leading early neurologists to wonder what these regions did.

Huh. So we don't really know for sure. That's disappointing but not surprising. It's remarkable how often we don't know where stuff like this comes from.

As for its continuing popular resonance, I have a theory of my own. There are an awful lot of people out there with remarkable—and apparently innate—mental abilities. They can multiply enormous numbers in their heads. They can remember every day of their lives. That kind of thing. And yet, they operate normally in other regards. The fact that they've stored, say, distinct memories of the past 15,000 days of their lives doesn't seem to take up any cerebral space or energy that they needed for anything else. So surely all that storage and retrieval capacity is just sitting around unused in the rest of us?

No, it's not. But the idea resonates because freakish mental skills seem to be so much further out on the bell curve than freakish physical skills. It makes the whole 10 percent thing seem pretty plausible. And that's why it sticks around.

POSTSCRIPT: Or does it? I mean, has anyone tried to find out how many people still believe this myth? For all I know, everyone has long been aware that it's not true. We need a poll!