Episode 17: The 10% Brain Myth, from Self-Help to Pulp Fiction to Hollywood

Words To That Effect Ep 17 (10% Brain Myth)

Do we use only 10% of our brain capacity? (Hint: No)

“It is estimated that most human beings only use 10% of the brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access more of our cerebral capacity?” This is the central question of the 2014 Scarlett Johannson film, Lucy. And it is not exactly an original idea. Exploring the extraordinary powers gained by accessing the untapped potential of our brains is a ubiquitous trope in popular culture. It’s the premise of the Bradley Cooper film Limitless (and the more recent TV version), and the idea appears in TV shows from Star Trek to Heroes to Fringe and beyond.

This is the 10% brain myth, the idea that we somehow use only 10% of our brain capacity, and that somehow unlocking or accessing the remaining 90% will result in vastly increased mental capacities.

Sometimes the idea is fully believed and earnestly repeated. Sometimes it is very knowingly appropriated for the purposes of a good plot. Sometimes it’s confidently asserted to back up dubious claims of psychic abilities. Either way, the idea is everywhere


The origins of the 10% brain myth

So, where did this stubbornly enduring myth come from in the first place? How has it permeated our culture? And what does it say about our understanding of intelligence and the brain?

This week’s episode explores the 10% brain myth, tracing its roots in early 20th century science, the self-help movement and following its adoption into popular culture via pulp fiction magazines.


Guest Voice

walter kane podcast (10% brain myth episode)

Alan is the producer of a great new short fiction podcast called Walter Kane – Broken Pieces

You can find the show at 8mmnetwork.com


Learning To Growl Album Cover (Words To That Effect Podcast 10% Brain Myth Ep)

Overhead, The Albatross

Waiting to Growl

Tracks Used:


Telekinetic Forest Guard

Indie Rose

  • Pinky and the Brain Theme Tune (c) Warner Bros. and Amblin Entertainments (link)
  • “It’s alive!” from Frankenstein (1931) (link)
  • Epic Theme No. 2 “Majestic/Epic” by Steven O’Brien (link). Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported— CC BY 3.0 (link)Music promoted by Audio Library (link)


Works and Authors Mentioned

Limitless, dir. Neil Burger

Lucy, dir. Luc Besson

Uri Geller

William James

Dale Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People

H.G. Wells: “The Things That Live on Mars”

Edmond Hamilton: “The Man Who Evolved”

John Scott Campbell: “The Infinite Brain”



Looking for more science fiction? This episode is on Irish Science Fiction

Or this episode is on transhumanism, science fiction and immortality


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