Save your brain power

We often hear it said, “They say we only use 10 percent of our brain.”

Where does this quote come from? Is there evidence for its claim?

Most people who are busy doing anything are using a large amount of their brain space. Cognitive space — the equipment you use for thinking — is limited in the sense that each component can do only so much at a given moment.

Life normally requires you to be doing more than one thing at a time, such as jogging, listening to music, thinking about the words and singing along, and watching where you’re going while keeping an eye on traffic.

That will take you far beyond the 10-percent usage. And if I ask you to do a simple task, like telling me your great-grandfather’s place of birth, you would probably have to stop one of the things you’re doing in order to answer. You might give up keeping an eye on traffic. You would definitely lose track of the song in your ear. You might even have to stop jogging.

That’s because you’re not just over the 10 percent line, you’re beyond capacity.

So, why does the old saying get repeated so often, even in education and in the industrial world? My guess is that it sounds inspiring, as though we could do amazing things if we’d just tap into the unused sectors of our brain. Sounds interesting, but the saying is too far off base to be useful.

The way you maximize brain space is by learning how to handle the information and emotions that occupy your head. Managing emotions requires strategies for evaluating and prioritizing facts. Managing information requires learning facts and meanings, along with proper associations between new and old knowledge. Then you have to catalog it all and create “handles” to access it when you need it.

Managing the large amount of information in your head requires automation. You have to learn to crawl, walk, eat, dress, talk, read, work, play — all by establishing strong connections in your brain that allow you to perform a complex activity like walking without having to break it down into its many parts. You won’t get anywhere on schedule if you have to think about how to rotate your hip, shift your weight, lift your knee and extend your foot just right so that you can support yourself while you repeat the motions with your other leg. You’d use multiples of 10 percent of your cognitive space if you had to pay strict attention to walking or jogging.

But once you’ve automated them, you need much less mental space for them – as long as you aren’t trying to think about them. Thinking about them goes beyond automation and back into conscious processing, and now you’re jamming your cognitive circuitry.

The great thing about building skills, such as walking, talking and safety, is that you economize the brain space needed to perform them, which allows you to do other things at the same time, at a certain level of consciousness. You can take a walk on a smooth, unobstructed path in the woods and give an enormous amount of attention to a conversation with a friend.

It would be a strange thing to find yourself using merely 10 percent of your brain. You would most likely be barely conscious and doing nothing but lying motionless on a bed and wondering where you are.

Build skill if you want to get more out of your brain. You won’t necessarily be using more of your brain, but you will be making better use of it.

Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or