It’s said that we human beings use only 10 percent of our brains. But when we ‘re sitting around and “doing nothing,” our brains have a lot to occupy themselves with, as Claudia Hammond explains on BBC Future.
Brain scans reveal that, even when you’re doing “nothing,” your brain is very busy keeping you alive, controlling your breathing, heart rate and much more. Saying a few words or opening and closing your fist takes more than a tenth of the brain‘s power. Just keeping the brain itself going requires plenty of resources: Hammond cites cognitive neuroscientist Sergio Della Sala, according to whom keeping brain tissue alive requires 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe.
Studying the brain in a resting state could potentially tell us a lot about “which areas of the brain prefer to talk to which other areas, and how those patterns might differ in disease,” says the journal Nature. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans monitor blood flow and not the brain’s electrical activity directly and some researchers do question what they tell us. Combined with information from EEGs, fMRIs can provide a picture what’s actually going in our brains.
Indeed, study of the “idling brain can help us detect the early signs of Alzheimer’s; to understand how our brains use past experiences to make decisions in the present and to prepare itself for future events and to maintain a ‘sense of self’ throughout the upheaval” as we age.
Our “Idling Brains” Are Still Hard At Work
Maurizio Corbetta at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis compares the activity of neurons in a resting state to that of a car idling: “If I have ongoing patterns that are guessing what’s going to happen next in my life, then I don’t have to compute everything.” By leaving a vehicle — that is, our brains — “on,” there’s no need to “restart the engine” as it’s already on.
The brain at rest is actually “running several models of the world in the background, ready for one of them to turn into reality,” says Andreas Kleinschmidt, director of research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research’s Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Gif-sur-Yvette.
Especially fascinating to me is that study of resting-state networks in some autistic children have been found to be “hyper-connected” and show more links than for other children. My teenage autistic son Charlie takes a more time than most of us to “process” what is said to him — it can take several minutes, an hour, even a whole day to understand a new event or some new phrase said to him, perhaps because his brain spends more time in resting activity “working in the background”?
Why Are We So Prone To Believe Medical Myths?
The BBC ‘s Hammond notes that one source of the myth that we only use 10 percent of our brain’s capacity may be that only 10 percent of the cells in our brains are neurons, the gray matter that makes thinking possible. The remaining 90 percent are the white matter, glial cells that could be called the “supports” for the neurons, for which they provide physical and nutritional help.
Perhaps our tendency to fall for and even believe medical myths such as that we only use 10 percent of our brains is a sign that we could all do well to make sure we’re actually using at least 10 percent!
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