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What Fraction of Our Brains do We Actually Use?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 31, 2024
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There is a common misperception, and pervasive urban legend that we only use a fraction of our brains. The part we supposedly use is 10% or 1/10th. This belief is often followed by the theory if we were to make use of the remaining 90% of our brains not in use, we would have amazing potential for intelligence, perhaps extra-sensory perception, and other sixth sense abilities.

About 10% of the brain is composed of neurons, can be shown to be active on brain scans. 90% of the human brain is made up of glial cells, which have very different functions than neurons. Through the use of brain mapping, it has been observed that in normal thought processes, the brain is in constant activity, no matter if we are sleeping or awake. It is important to note that we don't use the entire fraction of our brains that have neurons at the same time.

Firing of all neurons at once would cause seizures and possibly brain death. In this sense, we are not even using all 10% of the supposed fraction of our brains we do use. But we are using glial cells as well as neurons in order to think, act, feel and move. Therefore, we’re using much more than 1/10th at any given time. Not all of it can be mapped in the same way that neurons can be.

This doesn’t mean that all human beings reach their maximum “thinking” or cognitive abilities. In this metaphoric sense, we are only using a fraction of our brains because we may not the smartest, most educated or most brilliant people we can be. Various things can influence ability to maximize cognition. These include diet, genetics, nurture, education, and socio-economic level. Even still, some people who seem to have little in the way of nurturance appear to have genius or a savant skill, which makes people wonder if we all could have genius potential. It does seem that genius abilities are exceptional, rather than the norm, and these abilities may not be able to be nurtured or fostered into existence.

People who are classed as genius may show a correspondingly higher level of neuron activity when their brains are scanned and examined. But they still do not have total neural activity. Some illnesses and diseases also show higher levels of neuron engagement, but the results are not uniformly positive. What can be said of the brain is that it is constantly working and active. We use much more than just a part our brains — we use the whole organ consistently.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon303797 — On Nov 16, 2012

I personally feel that the theory of ten percent is there due to the limits of our thinking. If we were to realize our full potential, it would be something amazing, but also dangerous. I feel we purposely inhibit our brainpower. Imagine if we used our full power of thinking? We'd all be geniuses, but imagine someone who would use that information for evil?

I'm not trying to say it'd be like those fiction stories. I'm saying someone with enough brainpower converted to thinking, could see things we couldn't, and with that knowledge, they might even be able to outwit all others.

To put it simply, they'd have the literal "Power of Knowledge."

I understand completely that I might be possibly talking out of my butt, but it's something to consider.

By anon68640 — On Mar 03, 2010

we might use the whole organ constantly but what percentage of each section is utilized, at what rate, and for what arena of thought, or control for that matter?

How can you know that the pinky finger is moving while you listen to Beethoven and you suddenly realize that you have forgotten to purchase ranch salad dressing for dinner while playing an online computer game and decide that you need to up the thermostat?

By anon68638 — On Mar 03, 2010

I am currently undergoing a study, on my own initiative, that may have relevance to your theories. I have decided to take notes and possibly write a book concerning this matter.

I have found that with proper stimuli, the thought processes within my own brain are increased exponentially. I have a varied background, education and an above average IQ. I was wondering what your thoughts are concerning my little experiment.

By anon68615 — On Mar 03, 2010

The article says; "...we may not the smartest, most educated, or most brilliant people we can be." I think if whomever edits this page should look at this sentence, it detracts from your credibility.

I'm going to keep looking for research supporting your claim. I'm not finding it here.

By anon46172 — On Sep 23, 2009

Interesting. I had a feeling that we as human beings didn't use "only" 10 percent of our brains - we use all of it at certain times. You could say that our brains work similar to a computer processing unit. I will give you an example. For most of use using the Microsoft Windows operating system (I'm using Windows XP Professional SP3 at the moment) within the Windows Task Manager, view the "Performance" tab and you see the CPU Usage at any given time. That CPU percentage doesn't stay the same. The usage changes every second based on the activity at the time. Every time you use the mouse, open up documents, run an antivirus scan, or any task the computer is running at any moment, the CPU usage changes. Our brains work in the same way.

By anon26904 — On Feb 20, 2009

It's weird how many humans think that they use only a fraction of their entire brains. To me, there's everlasting knowledge to be sought out and our brains would consume every bit of data absorbed by it.

Also to me this could also be a bad thing. For one, I think constantly which gets very annoying at times and I try to meditate even though it doesn't work well for me.

By anon19027 — On Oct 04, 2008

how do we use our brains more proficiently?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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