Top motivational myths, and why we don’t need them. Number three. Spare brain capacity

We only use 10% of our brain. Or do we?

This myth is very attractive; it suggests that there’s a huge hidden part of the human brain just waiting to be unlocked.  It’s a popular science fiction theme in films and books.  In the film ‘Lucy’, Scarlett Johansson plays a  character who is implanted with drugs that allow her to access 100 percent of her brain capacity.  She is able to learn Chinese in an instant, beat up bad guys, and throw cars with her mind (among other new talents).  Morgan Freeman plays neuroscientist Professor Norman, who’s built his career around the 10 percent claim. “It is estimated most human beings use only 10 percent of the brain’s capacity,” he says, “Imagine if we could access 100 percent.”

Of course it’s just not true – we humans use all of our brain at different times.  Brain scans show this very clearly, and they track activity across the whole of the brain.  “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.  The brain is only about 3% of our body mass but it uses 20% of our calorie intake – wow, maybe thinking can make me slim!  No organism can afford to give that much to one organ and then only use a tiny part of it.

So where does this idea come from? Various explanations have been put forward, but the most likely one is a simple misunderstanding of early work on how the brain functions.  Only about 10% of brain cells are neurons (the ones that light up on all the scans and transmit information in the brain), the others have different functions. This may be at the bottom of it.  Either way, it’s another myth that you hear quoted all the time.

But what people often mean when they talk about this ‘unused’ part of the brain, is actually the subconscious.  The part of our mind which is outside our control, where our attitudes, moods and habits are found. Accessing that is a whole different ball game, watch this space …..

Ultimately, it’s not that we use 10 percent of our brains, merely that we only understand about 10 percent of how it functions.

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Top motivational myths, and why we don’t need them. Number two. Suicidal frogs

Have you heard the one about the frog?  Put it in a pan of hot water and it will jump out.  Put it in a pan of cold water, heat it up gradually and the frog will stay there ’till it croaks (sorry).  No it won’t.  Frogs aren’t that stupid, it will jump out as soon as it gets too hot – about 25 degrees.

But this story is still  used a lot to show the danger of complacency and the comfort zone, even by people who should know better, like Al Gore in his film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.  So are we as smart as frogs, or do we get used to growing discomfort and stay where we are? My dad spent most of his life in a tough physical job which he hated. When I was a girl, I felt sorry for him, then when I got older, I just wondered why he didn’t get another job.  Now I understand that, even though his comfort zone was a hard place to be, it was still easier than stepping outside, for someone who always disliked and feared change.

So we need to jump out of our warm cosy comfort zone before it stifles us. The habit of doing something new, different or scary is a wonderful one to develop.  It’s exciting, fires up new connections in the brain, keeps our minds active so that we’re always growing and developing. So let’s be like the frog, take that leap before we croak!

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Top motivational myths, and why we don’t need them. Number one. Goal setting

We’ve all heard of myths haven’t we? Ancient Greek legends, Norse myths, even urban myths like the giant alligators in the New York sewers. But we have our own motivational myths too, and we love them.  Here’s a famous one:

There was a study done at Harvard between 1979 and 1989. Graduates of the MBA program were asked “Have you set clear written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?” The results of that question were:

  • Only 3% had written goals and plans
  • 13% had goals but not in writing
  • 84% had no specific goals at all

10 years later Harvard interviewed the members of that class again and found:

1. The 13% who had goals but not in writing were earning on average twice as much as the 84% of those who had no goals at all

2. The 3% who had clear, written goals were earning on average 10 times as much as the other 97% of graduates all together. The only difference between the groups is the clarity of the goals they had for themselves’

It’s a fantastic story, isn’t it?  The power of written goals with deadlines.  Except that it never happened (nor at Yale in 1953).  Both universities still get asked about it often and have no record of it,  but the story’s been shared endlessly – go on, google it! And you still hear it being shared today.

So does that mean that having clear goals with deadlines and writing them down is  a waste of time? No! Goal setting, connecting with your goals, visualising, mental rehearsal, all of these are powerful tools.  Many successful people in business, sport, the arts, training and coaching testify to that.  In fact, a study conducted later by Gail Matthews PhD from Dominican University has shown similar positive results to the one that never happened, only a bit less dramatic.

So, like lots of myths, there’s some truth in this one.  But, like lots of myths, it’s just a story. And when someone challenges it, we’re going to look pretty foolish, aren’t we?

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