Only 10 per cent

While working on the draft of a third-year Higher Education unit of study – Contemporary Management Issues – I thought it useful to address the rise and rise of everything “neuro”.

Indeed, in my view, we live in an extraordinarily exciting time with the discoveries being made about our brain and the implications they have for how we learn to develop many aspects of our mental life. The discoveries give rise to understanding such issues as:

  • why so many decisions go wrong when there is some estimate of probability of an event occurring
  • why an emotional component to decision making appears to be essential
  • emotional reactions and how to control them.

Another benefit of developments in neuroscience and cognitive psychology is the added attention being giving to dispelling unsubstantiated statements relating to our brains and minds that, while appealing, can be inaccurate and deleterious to the educative development of people.

Hence, the decision to spend some time tackling “neuromyths”. The first of these is the saying that has been around for decades that goes along the following lines:

Most people only use around 10% of their brain.

As I wrote in Contemporary Management Issues, the obvious question to ask is: How do you know?

Lilienfeld et al. (2010) have an excellent chapter on this myth. They suggest that:

“the biggest boost for the self-help entrepreneur came when journalist Lowell Thomas attributed the 10% brain claim to William James … in the 1936 preface to one of the bestselling self-help books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The myth has never lost its steam since. (p. 24)

As they point out, however, James was suggesting that the average person achieves only about 10% of their intellectual potential.

It is interesting to ponder why this myth has been so popular. For many, it seems to have been quite motivating and Lilienfeld et al. (2010) suggest that it has encouraged many people “to strive for greater creativity and productivity in their lives, which certainly isn’t a bad thing” (p. 24). It may well be the hope that it gives that explains the tenacity people display in hanging on to this myth.

You can read more about this myth in:

The question, then, is how do we educationalists inspire striving for cognitive and emotional development, creativity, and productivity without resorting to myths such as the 10% brain-use one.


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Lilienfeld, SO, Lynn, SJ, Ruscio, J & Beyerstein, BL 2010, 50 Great Myth of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex.