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In the 2014 film Lucy, Lucy through interaction with a drug grows her brains capability until it reaches 100% and she integrates into the cosmos. The film received general positive reviews even though many know it is based on a myth. The myth has been with us for many years and is also very enduring because of its inherent positive spin – “you can release your potential and you too can become a genius!”. The myth is fundamentally wrong but there is hope because we do have brain plasticity, changeability, and we can develop our brains – some of the ways to do this are a lot simpler than we may assume. In education some of the things we have stopped doing are some of the most important.

History of the Myth

Wikipedia gives a comprehensive view of the history of the myth which has unclear origins. It is generally ascribed to William James, the father of modern psychology, who wrote in the 1880s that we use but a fraction of our potential. Dale Carnegie the legendary author of “How to win friends and influence people”, considered one of the first self-help books and forerunner to the human potential movement, stated in his foreword, falsely, that William James had quoted we only use 10% of our potential.

Biological underpinnings.

There also appeared to be some justification in this respect when first uncovering the biological secrets of the brain:

–       Firstly, there seemed to be vast amounts of neurons many of which couldn’t be ascribed any function.

–       Secondly there were also vast quantities of so-called glial cells without any clear function – we now know that these support neurons and feed them nutrients and do all sorts of housekeeping work in the brain.

Similarly, the cases of autistic savants or individuals who after brain injury discover incredible abilities, such as the man who after a concussion could miraculously play the piano, also lend support to this myth.

So how much of the brain do we use?

How much do we use?

The simple answer is 100% all the time. Unfortunately for the motivational speakers. However, this has many caveats. As a living cell all brain cells need to be active otherwise they will die – but their activation and stimulation depends on many factors.

Firstly, it will depend on input and secondly on carrying out actions. The brain, for example, needs to use incredibly complex patterns of activity to walk down the street or climb the stairs – similarly some activities will activate certain regions to a greater or lesser extent. Doing a mathematical problem will activate certain regions while reading a book, others, and playing the piano yet others. Hence certain activities will focus and increase activity in certain areas. High activity is incidentally not always beneficial; it generates waste products. Epilepsy is an example of brain activity not shutting down.

In fact, having high activation, as in the case of epilepsy, is not necessarily such a good thing and the brain naturally goes through waves of activity – this also gives us our well-known brain waves. Indeed, a healthy brain is one that has waves of activity. It could be this that is more important and similarly that integration of information is also critical, or more critical, than simple activation or not. This may give us more potential rather than “using” more of the brain.

Similarly, when we do nothing our brain is still active. This came as a surprise to the first researchers, in fact we may have more activity in the brain when doing nothing than when focused on a discrete task. This is called the Default Mode Network.  A recent study, fascinatingly, found correlations between patterns in the default mode network and IQ.

How much can we develop?

Can we develop the brain – yes of course we can. The brain is plastic i.e. it can grow and develop. In fact, just about everything we do has an impact on the brain. We tend to be amazed that playing the piano grows the brain and that playing computer games changes the brain physically. But this is true for any activity; sewing, playing football, practicing theater, writing a novel… All of these change the brain. Our brain is designed to adapt to the environment around us and the activities we regularly do through its inherent plasticity. This is not different to other cells in our body (such as muscles) that adapt to different inputs and outputs. So, doing new activities will grow certain areas of your brain by building new connections between these neurons and strengthening certain pathways.

The level of this growth depends on:

1.     Age – there are critical phases of development this is just why exposure to different and varying stimuli is essential to healthy development of children

2.     Intensity of activity and new stimulus (the brain will also habituate to repetitive input and fail to respond)

3.     Genetics – just like in building muscles some of us are more predisposed to plasticity than others. It’s just the way it is.

What may be more surprising, to some at least, is that activities that are most demanding and beneficial are sometimes not taken so seriously. In schooling we consider what subject and concepts we should be teaching in early years, separate classes into age groups and drip feed subject matter to children. Yet, from a brain development viewpoint, much of this makes no sense. The activities that stimulate the brain most are activities such as playing. Playing requires vast networks of complex behaviours and decision making; abstraction, imagination networks, social judgment, preempting decisions and choices of others, language, emotional control, role playing, and so on and so forth, all of which are very advanced brain functions using vast and complex networks and stimulating development of these. If there is one piece of advice for brain growth, it is not to put children into a series of intense training at an early stage but give exposure to as much as possible and let them play!

It is important to note that rest is just as important as stimulation. Brain growth happens mostly during sleep and down time enables detoxification of the brain and rebalancing of natural wave patterns. So, more stimulation is not necessarily better.

Summary – Growth mindset

So, in summary we always use all of our brain, but we can improve brain performance through practice and exposure to new stimuli. We should continue doing this throughout our lives. Children will go through different phases of growth and we should encourage exposure and especially play – recess is therefore one of the most important parts of the school day, not just a break between the learning blocks.

A final note is that of mindset. though the term has been misused a little, the attitude of a kid may be more important than whether the child has high plasticity or not. If we help develop drive and ambition, then we can help the brain build itself and continue building over life. Teaching neuroplasticity has been shown to improve this, particularly for at-risk children (see references below).


Teaching Tips

How will this help in teaching

There are many implications for teaching from what we teach, i.e. we can also choose to build awareness of neuroplasticity, to ensuring enough down time, waves of intensity and encouraging collaborative and play activities also.

–       All brains are plastic and can and do grow

–       Teaching the concept of neuroplasticity has been shown to be beneficial particularly to those who are most at risk

–       The brain goes through natural learning phases don’t worry if some students need more time

–       Focus on waves of intensity and plan plenty of down time and relaxation also – play is critical to learning and development of the brain as is rest

What to avoid in teaching

Much of this is common sense and has been approached in other pedagogic literature but typical problems revolve around too much intensity, lack of context (see previous post), lack of downtime, and limited opportunity to play.

–       Sticking to intensive focused areas too long

–       Too high intensity

–       Sacrificing “play” for “study”

–       Too much homework – this can increase stress out of school and remove opportunities for play and recovery

Blog Learning Exercises*

To practice what we preach we give three exercises using the best of brain and learning techniques:

Learning Friction Exercise

Review this paper and what it says about genes and plasticity – how will this impact your view of teaching and growth.

Learning Ambiguity Exercise

Brain growth is dependent on activation abut we also noted in the post above that IQ is also related to Default Mode Network i.e. resting state brain activity.  So, can we build intelligence (classed as cognitive abilities in standard IQ tests) or is this inherent or limited by genetics?

Paradoxical thinking Exercise

We have said that play is essential to learning but we also stated here that learning friction is beneficial to learning – how can we reconcile both of these concepts?

*Learning friction is when we have to apply more effort or discomfort to learn something, it becomes more effective – so simple, fun learning is sometimes not as beneficial as more difficult or less pleasurable exercises!

*Learning ambiguity creates a reason for the brain to resolve ambiguity – when the world is stable and unchanging the brain does not need to learn so creating ambiguity is beneficial to learning and also stimulates friction.

*Paradox relates to the above two but are unresolvable issues but still enable and stimulate learning through being able to deal with unresolvable situations.


General reading

Wikipedia on the 10% myth https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_percent_of_the_brain_myth#cite_note-sciam-1

Extreme plasticity in the case of a lobectomy (removing large parts of the brain) https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/august-4-2018-parker-solar-probe-watching-a-brain-rewire-itself-gut-microbes-thwart-weight-loss-and-more-1.4771602/scientists-get-a-rare-glimpse-of-the-brain-reorganizing-itself-after-a-lobectomy-1.4771624

How Free Time Affects Your Child’s Brain, According to Experts https://www.romper.com/p/how-free-time-affects-your-childs-brain-according-to-experts-9943906

The cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain https://www.parentingscience.com/benefits-of-play.html

Scientific Reading

Do People Use Only 10 Percent of Their Brains? – Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-people-only-use-10-percent-of-their-brains/

the above is also archived here https://web.archive.org/web/20081117113321/http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=people-only-use-10-percent-of-brain

The Science of Success https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/12/the-science-of-success/307761/

Caltech scientists can predict Intelligence from Brain Scans http://www.caltech.edu/news/caltech-scientists-can-predict-intelligence-brain-scans-82675

Scientific Papers

Meta study of teaching neuroplasticity shows the most beneficial effects are for at-risk students. Note, this is behind a paywall: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211949318300024

Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593/full

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