The 10% Brain & The Flat Earth: 2 Misconceptions We Need to Stop Repeating

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There are certain ideas that have become common beliefs. They are used so often and have been repeated so many times that we just assume they are true. Call them what you will – misconceptions or myths or outright lies – the fact is they are not true and I really think we need to just stop using them. There are many examples I could give but the two that I seem to come across the most are:

A) Humans only use 10% of out brains and
B) at one time everyone thought the world was flat.

These two notions are used quite a bit in science fiction – this is a genre I spend a lot of time in either reading, watching or writing – but it is most definitely not exclusive to sci-fi. In fact the reason I was prompted to sit down and type this little soap box rant is that I saw a politician on a Sunday morning talk show that when presented with overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming replied, “Well scientists used to think the world was flat too.” I threw a cushion at the TV.

Now for the most part when I come across one of these misconceptions in a story or in a movie I usually just roll my eyes and attempt to ignore it. But when an elected official attempts to blow off received scientific knowledge with a known myth…well this just has to stop.

Humans Only Use 10% of Our Brains


Abbey…something. Still uses more than 10%.

I’ve been hearing this since I was a kid and I used to believe it. It made sense that we had this huge squishy computer in our heads and if we just had a proper operation manual we could start using ESP and telekinesis and whatnot. Alas, it is not so.

But I can understand why people want to believe it, it has to do with human potential. I think there is a part of us that wants to be a musician or play sports or be a psychic ninja and if we could only tap into some unused portion of our brain it will just instantly happen.

Movies and TV perpetuate this myth. As recently as last year Luc Besson’s film Lucy has Scarlett Johansson using drugs to access 100% brain power and subsequently beats up bad guys, flings cars around with her mind and changes her eye color (which is weird). But I’m sorry to say that even if Morgan Freeman says it in his most Morgan Freemany voice the 10% brain myth still isn’t true.

Where this came from is a bit unclear but it probably stems from a neurosurgeon in the 1930s who stimulated areas of the brain that appeared to have no function. He called these the “silent cortex.” We know now from brain scans that these areas do actually function.

And the fact is we use 100% of our brain all the time. Most brain scans show activity coursing through the brain even when resting. Now we don’t always use this brainpower for creating novels or learning languages or remembering a happy day from the past; areas of the brain are specialized and a good portion of it is devoted to allowing you to function and interact with the world.

There is not a 90% inactive super-brain waiting to be turned on. So we will have to reach our true potential the old fashioned way with study, practice and hard work. Bummer I know, but deal.

 We Used To Think The World Was Flat

An actual illustration from 1246 clearly showing a round Earth

An actual illustration from 1246 clearly showing a round Earth

I was actually taught this in school. Columbus in 1492 had this crazy notion that the world world was round and no one would back him because everyone knew the world was flat. And so the intrepid explorer set off on the ocean blue and low and behold did not fall off the edge but discovered a new continent. It’s a good story, complete crap, but a good story.

Aside from the fact that you can’t discover something that has millions of people living on it, the reality is that no one believed the earth was flat. No one.

In fact as far back as ancient Greece Plato and Aristotle were writing about a spherical Earth. And in 240 B.C.E Eratosthenes (a Greek astronomer in Egypt) calculated the circumstance of the Earth and came remarkably close to the actual number. And from that time forward not one credible person ever doubted the truth of this. According to Stephen Jay Gould, “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

So where did this come from? Well most people credit histories by John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White and Washington Irving (yes, the guy who wrote Sleepy Hollow) for popularizing the flat-earth myth between 1870 and 1920. You see at the time there was this fellow named Darwin who was proposing some ideas that didn’t sit well with the established notions of the time. And stating that people (specifically scientists) once believed that the Earth was flat was a way to discredit these new-fangled ideas. It was a made-up story used to throw doubt on rigorous scientific data gathered through experiment and observation. Kinda like I saw a politician do this past Sunday. In 2015.

Oh, and the thing about Columbus is he thought the world was smaller than everyone else did and so could sail around to India in a shorter time than going over land. The reason he couldn’t get backers was that everyone thought he would sail out to the middle of the ocean, run out of supplies and die. Thus making it a bad investment. Lucky for him he ran into a very large continent and set to work exploiting the indigenous peoples. What a guy.

So Let’s Put These Myths To Rest

These are old and outdated notions and in my opinion they do more harm than good. We are mid-way through the second decade of the 21st century its about time we put these misconceptions to bed. Forever. So the next time someone says we only use 10% of our brains or people used to believe the world was flat politely tell them they are wrong and explain why. I’m sure they will be eager to be corrected and thankful for the knowledge.

Or you could just roll your eyes and throw a cushion at them. Especially if they are on TV.

Originally published July 27, 2015

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