Fast Brains

January 26, 2011


It fastbrains.jpg was the 1950s when I first heard "the fact" that we humans use only a small part of our full brain capacity. I still hear it every few years. The implication is that if we used our brains at 100-percent of their power 100-percent of the time we'd all be geniuses. But it's not so.

There are times when we seem to use our brains at something like full capacity, or at least at high speed, as I describe in my essay "Three Accounts of Terror." But that kind of mental operation, what I call the terror state of mind, is too much like psychosis to be useful in normal social settings. An analogy would be a car with a 300-horsepower engine, or which you use not more than about 20 horsepower in the city. Imagine how fast you could commute to work or get to the shopping mall if you used all 300 horsepower all the time.

Or consider this: The black letters on this page cover only a few percent of the page; imagine how much information could be contained here if the page were covered completely in black. There's a sense in which a black page contains all possible information; but in practical terms, it contains nothing.

Or how about the muscles on the front-most part of each thigh: They are used only a few percent of the time, and at only a few percent of their maximum power. Would we all be super-fast runners if we used those muscles at full power all the time? More likely we'd behave like cockroaches just sprayed with Raid -- running around in circles at high speed, thrashing about and then dropping dead.

There are times, though, when we do use the full power of the car engine or the full power of our thigh muscles. And there are even times when we use our brains to full power, as in the "Three Accounts of Terror" essay.