One of the more persistent urban myths is that we only use ten percent of our brains. The technical term for this theory in the cognitive science community is ‘horseshit’.
It’s just not true. We don’t use all of our brains all of the time, but we do use all of it for something some of the time, meaning it all gets used. Many trace the myth to ‘father of American psychology’ William James, who argued in The Energies of Men that “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” Soon after, the ten percent figure emerged in multiple sources and was then given its biggest boost in 1936, when in the foreword to the highly influential book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, the American writer Lowell Thomas wrote: “Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability”.
It’s not hard to see the reason for the persistence of the myth: it’s exciting. It’s inspiring. If the idea was we only use 80 percent of our brains, who could be bothered to seek out ways to eke out an extra 20 percent? Not many. But an extra 90? I’ll have some of that!
The basic idea is encapsulated in the 2011 film Limitless starring Bradley Cooper. In it, Cooper’s character is a struggling author with writer’s block who is given a sample of a new ‘nootropic’ (smart drug) called NZT-48. Upon taking the drug he transforms into a kind of mental superhero, able to process information in his brain much more rapidly and accurately, leading him to instant wealth (and the inevitable drama). The success of the film shows how the idea of vast untapped mental potential is alive and well in the modern world despite its dubious scientific basis.
Here’s the thing. I think the ten percent concept is in need of a respectability revival. Not for your brain generally, but for your creativity. That’s because creativity is very different from normal cognition. Your IQ is essentially set (though some research shows it can probably be inched upwards a little). If you brain is a computer, its processing power is not about to get a boost in RAM or some extra hertz of speed any time soon. And it’s just not plausible – is it? – that anyone can become significantly more intelligent through learning how to access some huge latent reserves of brain power.
But let’s say you’re someone who’s never really come up with any inventive, original or imaginative ideas. You’re bright, educated and competent at what you do. But creative? Not so much. Now imagine if you go through a training process that aims to increase your ‘creative intelligence’ – your ‘creative IQ.’ If you were able subsequently to come up with just one highly inventive idea in your work or personal life, how would you characterise that improvement? You might even say it was even bigger than 90 percent. From zero to hero, perhaps.
How do you define a creative idea? Scientists use one definition (in essence, both new and useful), which I and some others have tweaked a little (more of which another time), but one thing is for sure. If you come up with just one brilliantly creative idea, you would rightly be regarded as a highly creative person. It’s not really a numbers game. Norman Greenbaum wrote one standout song – Spirit in the Sky. A classic one-hit wonder. Is he not creative because he never did anything else that brilliant? In 2005, Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald created a website called redpaperclip.com. His idea was simple but ingenious: to try to barter his way from a single red paperclip to a house. Ridiculously, he did it. It took him just fourteen online trades over the course of a year. Would it matter if he never did anything so interesting and different again? Of course not. Have just one truly imaginative idea that makes a game-changing difference and you join the genius creative club. For life.
Today, more than ever before in human history, it’s possible to become a giant of culture based on a single brilliant idea. One of my goals is to help everyone I train to use a different kind of cognitive ‘style’ so they are better able to come up with that one killer idea that could change their life, their sector or even their society. I’m sure others who provide good creativity training would agree that’s one of the most exciting parts of the job: knowing that one spark could ignite something in a person’s mind that really and truly changes things thing for them and those they influence.
One thing you do need, actually, is to believe it’s possible. We’re all sceptics these days, but if you write yourself off as someone who just isn’t really creative, then there’s virtually no hope. I think given the right tools, anyone can ascend to the creative Mount Olympus. The question is, could it be you?