The power of our Brain: from science to fiction

Our brain is unique and highly efficient. Yet the myth of using only a very small part of its potential is still very popular, in particular the 10 percent of brain myth is widely known.

The remaining 90 percent is just there, waiting until we learn how to make use of it, and then... all the wildest fantasies come in. The recent movie by Luc Besson – “Lucy” perfectly illustrates this wild imagination. The main character, starred by Scarlett Johansson, is smuggling drugs hidden in her own body. The consignment starts to leak into Lucy’s body, enhancing her brain capacities. When it reaches 22 percent she becomes immune to pain, with 28 percent she can feel every living being, later on she gains control over time….

Reality shows that we are all using our brains at almost 100 percent which has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies of its activities. In light of the evolutionary logic, this is also evident. Our nervous system is very „voracious” – it requires 20 percent of oxygen and nutrients delivered by blood and yet it takes up only 2 percent of the total body’s weight. It would be a huge waste of energy if we didn’t make use of most of our brain. And no living organism can afford such a waste.

The “10 percent myth” most likely arose from the misrepresentation of a 19th century neurological research study involving people with very high IQ.

Many “savants” are known throughout history – e.g. people with extraordinary mathematical skills such as Raymond Babbit, the leading character of the movie “Rain Man”. Most of them however have serious problems in other areas such as social skills. Autistic Raymond can count cards in the casino and help his brother win considerable amounts of money, yet he is unable to relate to others or live independently as in need of constant care.

Our brains are like a jig-saw consisting of many small fragments that work with each other. In order for this “cooperation” to be harmonious the connections need to be balanced. If one area is performing above normal, other areas will be negatively affected. In the case of people affected by autism, connections between different brain areas are underdeveloped or missing. 

Interestingly, the same might be true when trying to enhance our brain so that it performs above normal. All the stimulating substances that we know today affect only certain functions of our brain. They can for instance increase the capacity to focus but at the same time affect the quality of our sleep or have negative effects on the blood circulation.

There are of course substances needed by the brain to perform efficiently. The classic example is Omega-3 Fats – their shortage is likely to cause problems with concentration, hyperactivity and even increased levels of aggression. Thanks to an appropriate diet, adequate physical activity and food supplements we can make our brains work as efficiently as possible.

Humanity has been always searching for means to enhance further brain performance. Some of them, although effective, can at the same time pose a serious threat to our health. Others might indeed optimize the work of our neurons. However, to date no method or substance that could enhance our brain by giving us extraordinary skills is available and scenarios from movies like “Planet of Apes” or “Lucy” still remain a fiction that has very little to do with science.