Your Brain Really Necessary?
Do you really have to have a brain? The reason for my apparently
absurd question is the remarkable research conducted at the
University of Sheffield by neurology professor John Lorber.
Sheffield's campus doctor was treating one of the mathematics
students for a minor ailment, he noticed that the student's
head was a little larger than normal. The doctor referred
the student to professor Lorber for further examination.
student in question was academically bright, had a reported
IQ of 126 and was expected to graduate. When he was examined
by CAT-scan, however, Lorber discovered that he had virtually
no brain at all.
of two hemispheres filling the cranial cavity, some 4.5 centimetres
deep, the student had less than 1 millimetre of cerebral tissue
covering the top of his spinal column.
student was suffering from hydrocephalus, the condition in
which the cerebrospinal fluid, instead of circulating around
the brain and entering the bloodstream, becomes dammed up
inside the brain.
the condition is fatal in the first months of childhood. Even
where an individual survives he or she is usually seriously
handicapped. Somehow, though, the Sheffield student had lived
a perfectly normal life and went on to gain an honours degree
case is by no means as rare as it seems. In 1970, a New Yorker
died at the age of 35. He had left school with no academic
achievements, but had worked at manual jobs such as building
janitor, and was a popular figure in his neighbourhood. Tenants
of the building where he worked described him as passing the
days performing his routine chores, such as tending the boiler,
and reading the tabloid newspapers. When an autopsy was performed
to determine the cause of his premature death he, too, was
found to have practically no brain at all.
Lorber has identified several hundred people who have very
small cerebral hemispheres but who appear to be normal intelligent
individuals. Some of them he describes as having 'no detectable
brain', yet they have scored up to 120 on IQ tests.
knows how people with 'no detectable brain' are able to function
at all, let alone to graduate in mathematics, but there are
a couple theories. One idea is that there is such a high level
of redundancy of function in the normal brain that what little
remains is able to learn to deputise for the missing hemispheres.
Another, similar, suggestion is the old idea that we only
use a small percentage of our brains anyway -- perhaps as
little a 10 per cent. The trouble with these ideas is that
more recent research seems to contradict them. The functions
of the brain have been mapped comprehensively and although
there is some redundancy there is also a high degree of specialisation
-- the motor area and the visual cortex being highly specific
for instance. Similarly, the idea that we 'only use 10 per
cent of our brain' is a misunderstanding dating from research
in the 1930s in which the functions of large areas of the
cortex could not be determined and were dubbed 'silent', when
in fact they are linked with important functions like speech
and abstract thinking.
other interesting thing about Lorber's findings is that they
remind us of the mystery of memory. At first it was thought
that memory would have some physical substrate in the brain,
like the memory chips in a PC. But extensive investigation
of the brain has turned up the surprising fact that memory
is not located in any one area or in a specific substrate.
As one eminent neurologist put it, 'memory is everywhere in
the brain and nowhere.'
if the brain is not a mechanism for classifying and storing
experiences and analysing them to enable us to live our lives
then what on earth is the brain for? And where is the seat
of human intelligence? Where is the mind?
only biologist to propose a radically novel approach to these
questions is Dr Rupert Sheldrake. In his book A New Science
of Life Sheldrake rejected the idea that the brain is a warehouse
for memories and suggested it is more like a radio receiver
for tuning into the past. Memory is not a recording process
in which a medium is altered to store records, but a journey
that the mind makes into the past via the process of morphic
of course, such a crazy idea couldn't possibly be true, could
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We Really Use Only 10 percent of our Brains?
By Brett Baltimore, Md.
Brain Behaviour Laboratory,
Simon Fraser University
Whenever I venture out of the Ivory Tower to deliver public
lectures about the brain, by far the most likely question
I can expect as the talk winds up is, "Do we really only
use 10 percent of our brains?"
look of disappointment that usually follows when I say it
isn't so strongly suggests that the 10-percent myth is one
of those hopeful shibboleths that refuses to die simply because
it would be so darn nice if it were true. I'm sure none of
us would turn down a mighty hike in brainpower if it were
attainable, and a seemingly never-ending stream of crackpot
schemes and devices continues to be advanced by hucksters
who trade on the myth.
on the lookout for a "feel-good" story, the media
have also played their part in keeping the myth alive. A study
of self-improvement products by a panel of the prestigious
National Research Council, Enhancing Human Performance, surveyed
an assortment of the less far-fetched offerings of the "brain
booster" genre and came to the conclusion that (alas!)
there is no reliable substitute for practice and hard work
when it comes to getting ahead in life. This unwelcome news
has done little, however, to dissuade millions who are comforted
by the prospect that the shortcut to their unfulfilled dreams
lies in the fact that they just haven't quite found the secret
to tap this vast, allegedly unused cerebral reservoir.
Why would a neuroscientist immediately doubt that 90 percent
of the average brain lies perpetually fallow? First of all,
it is obvious that the brain, like all our other organs, has
been shaped by natural selection. Brain tissue is metabolically
expensive both to grow and to run, and it strains credulity
to think that evolution would have permitted squandering of
resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such
a massively underutilized organ.
doubts are fueled by ample evidence from clinical neurology.
Losing far less than 90 percent of the brain to accident or
disease has catastrophic consequences. What is more, observing
the effects of head injury reveals that there does not seem
to be any area of the brain that can be destroyed by strokes,
head trauma, or other manner, without leaving the patient
with some kind of functional deficit. Likewise, electrical
stimulation of points in the brain during neurosurgery has
failed so far to uncover any dormant areas where no percept,
emotion or movement is elicited by applying these tiny currents
(this can be done with conscious patients under local anesthetic
because the brain itself has no pain receptors).
past hundred years has seen the advent of increasingly sophisticated
technologies for listening in on the functional traffic of
the brain. The goal of behavioral neuroscience has been to
record electrical, chemical and magnetic changes in brain
activity and to correlate them with specific mental and behavioral
All told, the foregoing suggests that there is no cerebral
spare tire waiting to be mounted in service of one's grade
point average, job advancement, or the pursuit of a cure for
cancer or the Great American Novel. So, if the 10-percent
myth is that implausible, how did it arise? My attempts to
track down the origins of the 10-percent myth have not discovered
any smoking guns, but some tantalizing clues have emerged.
stream leads back to the pioneering American psychologist,
William James, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In addition to his voluminous scholarly work, James was a
prodigious author of popular articles offering advice to the
general public. In these exhortatory works James was fond
of stating that the average person rarely achieves but a small
portion of his or her potential. I was never able to find
an exact percentage mentioned, and James always talked in
terms of one's undeveloped potential, apparently never relating
this to a specific amount of gray matter engaged.
generation of "positive thinking" gurus that followed
were not so careful, however, and gradually "10 percent
of our capacity" morphed into "10 percent of our
brain." Undoubtedly, the biggest boost for the self-help
entrepreneurs came when the famous adventurer and journalist
Lowell Thomas attributed the 10-percent-of-the-brain claim
to William James. Thomas did so in the preface he wrote, in
1936, to one of the best-selling self-help books of all time,
Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. The
myth has never lost its steam since.
sources for the ubiquity of the 10-percent myth probably come
from popular authors' misconstrual of scientific papers by
early brain researchers. For example, in calling (for technical
reasons) a huge percentage of the cerebral hemispheres the
"silent cortex," early investigators may have left
the mistaken impression that what is now referred to as the
"association cortex" had no function. That was far
from the researchers' intention, but that is what seems to
have filtered through to the public.
early researchers' appropriately modest admissions that they
didn't know what 90 percent of the brain was doing probably
fostered the widespread misconception that the leftovers did
my quest for the seminal utterance of the 10-percent myth,
I frequently came across the claim that Albert Einstein had
once explained his own brilliance by reference to the myth--Einstein's
enormous prestige, of course, making it unassailable thenceforth.
A careful search by the helpful people at the Albert Einstein
archives, however, was unable to provide me with any record
of such a statement on his part. So it remains probably just
another of those instances where promoters with a point or
a buck to make have misappropriated the clout of Einstein's
name to further their own endeavors.
The 10-percent myth has undoubtedly motivated many people
to strive for greater creativity and productivity in their
lives--hardly a bad thing. The comfort, encouragement and
hope that it has engendered helps explain its longevity. But,
like so many uplifting myths that are too good to be true,
the truth of the matter seems to be its least important aspect.
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Powers of the Human Brain
conspiracy to reduce consciousness to intellectual awareness
of the physical world has been in evidence for at least five
thousand years. Over the centuries the mental and psychic
powers that only mystics and seers now possess have been filtered
out of most people. So we now assume that our narrow, tightly-bound
consciousness is normal and natural. "Ordinary consciousness"
is "normal" only in the strict sense of "statistically
most frequent," not inherently "good" or "natural"
as the term is sometimes misconstrued to mean.
contrasted with supernormal consciousness experienced by certain
people in specific instances, our current rigid, intellect-based
awareness is highly abnormal and unnatural.
OF SUPERNORMAL CONCIOUSNESS
beings possess a whole range of dormant powers of which they
are usually unaware. Experience of these latent powers occurs
accidentally or to those who learn the necessary procedures.
These powers include inspiration, clairaudience, clairvoyance,
psychometry, precognition, and telepathy. In his book Beyond
the Occult, Colin Wilson conjectures that we have gradually
lost these powers ". . . because we no longer need them."
On the contrary, we have needed and continue to need such
powers--for the completion of our human potential and for
participating in human evolution.
CONSPIRACY TO DEBASE HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS
psychic powers have become forgotten and atrophied from neglect
because the vast conspiracy of the ideologies of Materialism
(there is nothing but matter in space) and Mammon (material
wealth as the highest value) have conditioned untold generations
to believe that mind-bound consciousness of the physical world
is all there is and all that is needed for humankind's wellbeing.
Non-ordinary states were said to be psychotic, evil, abnormal
or merely debilitating. Persons who even spoke of spiritual
or psychic powers were classed as weird, insane, or perverse.
have very little understanding of "consciousness,"
since it is by definition a nonmaterial quality or state of
being aware. Scientists study only the physical correlates
of consciousness, such as brain waves, not consciousness itself.
HUMAN BRAIN AND MIND
and psychologists for decades agreed that there were specific
facts about the brain and intelligence that were unchanging:
intelligence is genetically determined; people with high intelligence
are born that way; experience can't increase or decrease innate
intelligence; experience can't change the structure of the
brain; growth in the total number of brain cells we have is
completed by age two; neurons cannot reproduce themselves.
psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted
studies which were to turn the world of brain and intelligence
research upside down. They discovered that: rats showed higher
levels of AChE (the brain enzyme related to learning and memory)
when placed in "enriched environments" (well-lit,
multilevel cages filled with swings, slides, ladders, bridges,
an assortment of frequently changing stimuli, and a variety
Marian Diamond proved that rats raised in "enriched environments"
showed: increased thickness of the cerebral cortex or "gray
matter"; a 15 percent increase in the actual size of
individual neurons in the cortex; increases in protein in
the brain paralleling the increases in cortical weight; an
increase in the amount of dendritic branching; an increased
number of dendritic spines per unit length of dendrite; increases
in the number of synapses and in the size of synaptic contact
areas; an increase in the ratio between the weight of the
cortex and the weight of the rest of the brain; a 15 percent
increase in the number of glial cells, the "glue"
cells that are the most numerous cells in the brain and which
hold together, support, and nourish the brain neurons, act
as guides for neural growth, assist in learning, and seem
to form some mysterious communicating network of their own.
human brain is about five times as large as that of a chimpanzee,
yet contains only about 30 to 50 percent more neurons. The
difference between humans and chimps comes from the development
of the cerebral cortex and the larger number of glial cells.
The cerebral cortex is a layer of nerve cells forming a convoluted
outer shell over the brain, the "thinking cap" or
"gray matter" atop the brain, in which much of the
thinking or higher intellectual activity of the brain takes
these studies focused on one conclusion: increased brain stimulation
in an enriched environment produces not only a growth in size
and weight of the cortex but completely alters and enriches
the quality of the entire cerebral cortex.
STIMULATION AND NEUROFEEDBACK
performance in all areas can be deliberately improved through
environmental, biochemical, and psychophysiological manipulation
of the brain and mind. One way this takes place is through
the use of machines designed by researchers to stimulate the
human neocortex through exposure to experiences which are
novel, changing, and challenging, and which provide the brain
and mind an opportunity to exercise themselves by means of
self-observation and self-transformation.
more information about stimulating and growing your brain
can be found here: Brain,
Mind, Altered States