Paradox, or at least a certain paradox, is at the heart of insight: The more focused you want to be on solving a problem, coming up with a novel solution, the more you need to get into an un-focused state to actually come up with that creative insight.

Somewhat similarly, at least in terms of paradox, the pop-culture trope that we only use 10% of our brains is utter bs. And perhaps fertile.

"Lucy" movie poster in HK cinemaI watched “Lucy” in a Hong Kong movie theater, daring myself to see it in spite of all the negative reviews, coming to the counter-intuitive and unpopular conclusion that it’s actually an interestingly composed story that, not in spite but because of all the ways it fails to be engaging, let alone any kind of logical, makes one think.
At the very least, it makes one wonder what Luc (Besson) was thinking, perhaps even if it wouldn’t take a Lucy at 90% of her brain capacity to have a chance at understanding it – or be able to wrap her brain around the puzzling observation that such a movie could ever be made.

Made it was, though, and one of the thoughts I had, pushed on by Lucy, was about the paradox of the “10% brain use”. Screenshot from "Lucy" featurette "The Mind's Ability"

If it is meant to say that a human being only “uses” 10% of their neurons, in the sense that only that number is active at any given time, sending impulses, then it’s a, well, no-brainer that this might not be a bad thing.

Our thinking is in the connections between neurons and the patterns of their firing, so (too much) more than 10% firing at any given time would not be a pattern but just a seizure or random noise.
(And if you expand the thought to be about nerve cells in other parts of the body than the brain… Well, you sure wouldn’t want even 10% of your pain receptors firing, would you? And on the other hand, all your cells that aren’t dead are alive, and are thus doing something, and I bet you don’t think that only 10% of your heart or gastro-intestinal tract are functioning at any one point in time.)

If it is that we are only ever aware of 10% of what’s happening in ourselves (body – brain – us), then that number might well be too high. We aren’t aware of most of our thought processes, not even our sensory perceptions, let alone our bodily functions – but that’s a good thing.

We become rather concerned when we hear our very own heartbeat because we are deprived of outside sensory input; a sudden awareness of all the gurgling and pumping and what-not of ourselves is nothing if not disconcerting – it can even be used as a means of torture.
And anyways, most of the thoughts (or “thoughts” – perceptions and function impulses) running around our brains, filtered through our senses and filtered out by our unconscious are extraneous and unnecessary to what we really want to be doing, consciously.

There is always a flood of sensory impulses, filtered to not overwhelm us. If it were not filtered automatically, even as that may mean overlooking a man in a gorilla suit because we are focused – our attention is – somewhere else, we would need to invest so much thinking in just trying to decide what we are seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and sensing, we could not function.

(Then again, make people have nothing to do but think to entertain themselves, and they’ll rather give themselves electric shocks… as good a reason as any to watch Lucy rather than get bored?)

We are fascinated by the apparent potential of some yogis to control their bodily functions, but it’s a good thing we live without being consciously aware of – and having to remember –  our heartbeat.

Just try it where you easily can: hold your breath, then consciously breathe in and out… and then try to focus on a problem while also trying to control your breath. – It’s a simple example of how we can multitask in the sense of having many processes run unawares besides what our attention goes to, but cannot multitask attentive thinking.

There is, however, another aspect to the “10%”-trope.

Maybe, it is (and was originally) meant to say that we only ever manage to develop 10% of our total potential. Do think about that, and preferably not only as being about the brain and creativity.

We are not going to magically become able to tap into another 90% pool of untapped reserves and develop some magical-mystery ninja skills that defy gravity and other laws of physics. Lucy is just fantasy action on that front, of course.

Maybe, even as it basically deals in the “appeal of the instant upgrade”, it (accidentally?, one wonders) even gets something fundamental right: if you were suddenly different, this wouldn’t be you.

Captain America Movie ScreenshotCaptain America, to run with the example in the link just above, is just too in awe about his suddenly great physique to notice, but he’d probably end up with quiet hours in which he wonders if that’s really him – not to mention that the reflexes that come with the enhanced physique in the movie wouldn’t be there in real life, whereas a little time to adjust to the suddenly different level of strength would most definitely be required.

Lucy movie screenshotLucy at least develops her powers (sort of) gradually – and has enough humanity to notice that her different understanding and insight and power are stripping away that very humanity.

The clarity and power she gains make her something other than human – and it makes the story both more of a failure, as the viewer loses a heroine that it is possible to identify with (if not gains a figure that is only to be feared, in all her feminism), and a more interesting work, as it speaks to our desire to become more and better without just falling into the trap of thinking that it wouldn’t fundamentally change us, also for the worse (or at least, very different) if it were pushed on us, gained in an instant.

But, to get back to that last idea about the 10%, we here, in actual life, we can most certainly develop way more skills, in expertise in various fields and language knowledge, in music and maths, or also in athletic abilities (starting at the everyday) and ‘simple’ attention, than we usually do.

We just need to do it, and change ourselves for better, step by step, bit by bit. And we need to do so even as aging pushes us towards decline – which just makes it all the more necessary that we do and learn and become better.

In this regard, even as the trope (in its usual interpretations) is false and dumb, the paradox is that it is also, used as motivation to become better, useful and intelligent.
If ever there was a simple representation of the “growth mindset” that has been shown to be so helpful in actually growing, learning, becoming better at things, keeping up greater physical and mental health than we otherwise would – it is that faulty 10%.

Maybe, just maybe, “now you know what to do with [your life]” – and especially, knowledge – then:

Pass it on.