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90% of Your Brain

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"[This myth is] one of the hardiest weeds in the garden of psychology."
Donald McBurney, neuropsychologist

A situation where a character's miraculous abilities are not so much a product of "superpowers" as this being something humans in the series universe could have but are unable to access for some reason. That is, until they reach Brain Critical Mass.

This trope name comes from the oft-repeated but false assertion that humans only use 10 percent of their brains, a misquote of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.note  In Real Life, we use all of our brains, just not all at the same time — in much the same way you don't have every electronic/mechanical item in your home running at all times; you only turn things on when you need to use them. If you ever do find yourself with every part of your brain "on" at once, congratulations, you're having a seizure!


The origin of the myth may not even have anything to do with these facts about actual brain activity. It may be a distorted version of the more plausible claim that we only use a fraction of our total mental capacity, ie. we could potentially learn things more effectively and stuff. However, even in this context, the number "10%" is completely arbitrary (in other words, a statistic Dale Carnegie likely pulled right out of his ass).

This trope was examined by the MythBusters, throwing the 10% theory right out the window when it was proven that the human brain is at least 15% active while sleeping, and even more so when awake. There is debate as to how much of our brain activity takes place on the level of conscious thought, with roughly a tenth being a common figure cited, but this is still very different from claiming our brains are 90% inactive.


And the fact is, it's nonsensical. What would be the evolutionary incentive to keep this supposedly unused 90%? It's a waste of resources, of which the brain is a significant consumer. Evolution tends to trim that kind of inefficiency.

Compare Uninhibited Muscle Power, where powers activate the unused muscle potential instead of unused brain potential. For exceeding the limitations of the body to epic effect, see Charles Atlas Superpower. Also see Pineal Weirdness, which tends to show up in similar places. Very prevalent in Sci-Fi as a common trope with mentalists and ESP'ers. A Genius Serum may come into play to unlock this "buried potential".



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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Night Head Genesis anime states at the start that normal people leave 70% of their brain unused. Once again, this explains psychic powers.
  • Fist of the North Star does something similar with breathing. The real secret to Kenshiro's Charles Atlas Superpower is harnessing the traditionally untapped 70% of his breathing.
  • The Stone Mask-created vampires in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure gain their power through the activation of unused parts of the brain via acupuncture. This awakens the human's evolutionary potential (with abilities like Wall Crawling, liquid eye beams, superspeed/strength, regeneration, sucking blood through their fingers, and creating zombies) and it inverts the lifeforce energy in their bodies (making them undead-like beings weak to sunlight and Ripple, the amplified essence of life). Part 2 reveals these masks were created by a group called the Pillar Men, who belonged to an entire race vulnerable to sunlight. After enhancing themselves with stone masks, they turned humans into vampires to have a more-powerful food source. They also plan to enhance themselves even further in order to become the ultimate lifeforms, ridding themselves of all weaknesses, most importantly sunlight.
  • Played straight in A Certain Magical Index, as the eponymous character has a Photographic Memory, and can only retain 1 year of memory in her mind, because 85% of it is taken up with an eidetic recollection of the complete contents of 103,000 spellbooks. That is, until it gets subverted with a sledgehammer when a professor reveals that the "15% left over for a year's memories" is complete BS and gives a proper explanation of how the mind works in the series. The main character even realizes he's been played for a fool when he does the math: if a year's worth of memories really took up 15% of your brain, you'd max out around age 7 and not be able to ever remember anything new.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam's Universal Century:
    • Char's Counterattack (where it is mentioned) may use this explanation for why Newtypes exist—that people used only a part of their brains on Earth, and began to use the rest after moving into space. However, it was said to be "half" of the brain being used, not 10%. Also the conversation was between a couple of teenagers, so they may simply not know what they're talking about (they also take a fairly romantic interpretation of the idea/purpose of Newtypes, which Gundam goes back and forth on).
    • The fifty percent figure is brought up again in Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative, though it is again said by a teenager who isn't shown to have any real education in the subject.
    • This first appeared in the writings of Zeon Zum Deikun, inventor of the Newtype concept, in the Mobile Suit Gundam novelizations.
    • This is in turn based on the writings of Timothy Leary, specifically the 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness which predicted that people's brains would develop in new ways in the future, becoming more enlightened to cope with the challenges of space travel.
  • The foundation of superpowers in NEEDLESS.
  • In an episode of Reborn! (2004), Reborn gives Gokudera an unique brand of Training from Hell by making him eat ramen while withstanding I-pin's Gyoza-ken. Reborn's technical explanation is that, since the Gyoza-ken affects directly the brain, the fact of being able to eat ramen while resisting the muscular spasms the technique provokes would force Gokudera to use all of his brain capacity (whose standard usage is defined here as 30%).
  • This is part of the premise for Psyren. Like many others, this explains psychic powers, though they seem no less limited than any other set of superpowers in other series.
  • In B.Ichi, the Clowns can supposedly use 50 to 60% of their brains when activating their powers. However, this detail is only mentioned in the introduction and the Clowns' powers don't have anything to do with using more of their brains in the end.
  • Naruto does this, but with the chi-like chakra instead of brainpower. Rock Lee's ace in the hole is the ability to open various chakra gates that act like dams for the stuff, with opening enough of them putting him in a Kaio-Ken-esque Super Mode. The catch is that, if a ninja opened all the gates, he would suffer from a fatal Heroic Red Ring of Death.
  • Tohru brings this up during a conversation in Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. Note that Tohru is a dragon with almost zero understanding of human biology and she brought it up in response to seeing a magic trick. The English dub works in a Take That! against Lucy by having Tohru say that she heard about it from a "should-be-forgettable movie."
  • At least in the film, this is stated in AKIRA, where everyone has powers but aren't always "activated". The Espers have medication that keep them under control to an extent, though poor Tetsuo doesn't, ultimately leading to his ultimate form, A God Am I.

    Comic Books 
  • Deathstroke, a.k.a. Slade, from Teen Titans, has this as one of his powers. Later retconned in that he uses his brain in various ways that regular humans do not. His grey matter got re-routed and reprogrammed. Makes slightly more sense - at least in terms of comic book science.
  • According to Todd Ingram in Scott Pilgrim, ninety percent of your brain is filled up with curds and whey. Hence his telekinetic vegan power. Arguably an aversion, though, as Todd is shown to be the dimmest and least imaginative of the League of Evil Exes. While it is canon that veganism gives psychic powers in the Pilgrim universe, Todd's explanation comes off more like a thinly-veiled insult, and Kim in particular seems skeptical.
    • Also, when he's revealed to have broken the rules of veganism, rather than losing his powers naturally, they were removed manually by the "vegan police".
  • This fake statistic appeared in the Iron Man mini "Hypervelocity," as the AI protagonist was frustrated at being forced to function at a relatively slow "cognitive clockspeed."
  • DC Comics villain The Key once claimed to have tapped into "the ninety percent of the brain we never use" via a device he built, which allowed him to devise all manner of amazing plans and schemes. This is an aversion, though, as it also drove him completely mad, leading to the implication that he only THINKS he's tapping into new parts of his brain.
  • A Justice League of America story by the same author (apparently Grant Morrison likes this one) revealed that millennia ago when man was still primitive, a group of White Martians came to Earth and deliberately tampered with their genetic code, reducing their brains and bodies to ten percent of their potential. Had the Martians not done this, it's implied that humans would be greater than the Kryptonians.
  • An odd Superman story featured a stand-up comedian having part of his unused brain areas activated in an accident, which gave him telekinetic powers, which he used unconsciously to become a sand-covered monster that tried to amuse people to counter his fear of not being laughed at. He was only cured once Superman used his super laughter so that he could finally hear through all the sand that someone was laughing. Okay?
    • A Silver Age Superman story involved a computer which was supposed to be designed like a human brain (but was the size of a small room). Its creator explicity laments there being no power source "powerful enough to activate all its circuits at the same time" and wonders what it might be capable of if there were. Then he decides to program it with a human personality... by hooking it up to Clark Kent's brain.
  • Valiant Comics invoked this with the Harbingers, people with superpowers. Unlike their equivalents in some other comic universes, Harbingers are not physically different from other humans. Elevated levels of activity in their brains result in psionic abilities that give them their powers. Ordinary humans can duplicate Harbinger powers through the use special cybernetic brain implants.
  • In a statement that impressively manages to be wrong in every particular, Marville gave us this as an add-on to reciting the 10% myth verbatim:
    Guy Who Is Probably God: Listen, it would be a disaster if humans used all of their brainsnote  — Einstein got 20% morenote  and he accidentally drew the roadmap that led to nuclear weaponry.note 
  • In Archie Comics, Archie recites this statistic to his friends. Moose exclaims that 10% is "almost less than half our brains". Archie muses if the statistic is too high in some cases.
  • Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt is sometimes said to use 100% of his brain, thanks to quasi-mystical training. Recent treatments of the character have at least implicitly acknowledged the mythical nature of the claim; Cannon simply perceives things nine times as well as most people.

  • There are plenty of jokes referring to people without any brain at all working as politicians, lawyers, and the like.
    • An old joke tells of a Brit, a Frenchman, and a German arguing whose medicine is better; the Brit mentions a man whose kidney was removed and he went back to work in three weeks, the Frenchman mentions a man whose lung was removed and he went back to work in two, and the German mentions a man whose brain was removed and he went on to lead the country within a week. Modern variants often replace the three with men from different states, the last one being a Texan talking about George W. Bush.
    • A famous line from The Wizard of Oz also riffs on this:
      Dorothy: How can you talk if you haven't got a brain?
      Scarecrow: I don't know. But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't they?
    • An old joke goes: An Englishman decides that he wants to become a naturalized Irishman, but he's told that in order to do so, he must have 10% of his brain cut out, leaving 90%. He goes ahead with the operation but when he wakes up, a doctor tells him, "I'm terribly sorry but we made a mistake. Instead of cutting out 10% of your brain, leaving 90%, we accidentally cut out 90% of your brain, leaving 10%." The man thinks about this for a minute, then replies, "She'll be right, mate!"note 

    Films — Animated 
  • The aliens in Stan Lee's Mighty 7 have superpowers because they use 80% of their brains as opposed to humans using 10.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • This is part of the plot of the 1986 film Flight of the Navigator, where a young boy discovers an alien probe had experimented with using the unused ninety percent of his brain for data storage.
    Max: Back on Phaelon, we discovered that your inferior species uses only ten percent of your brain. So we filled it all the way up with star charts to see what would happen.
    David: What happened?
    Max: It leaked.
  • Richard uses this as an insulting mnemonic device to help Tommy Boy remember the figure 1.5%.
    Richard: Let's say the average person uses 10% of their brain. How much do you use? 1.5%. The rest is clogged with malted hops and bong resin.
  • Besides the milk-white complexion and hairlessness, this is what made the protagonist of the film Powder so special.
  • Pretty much how Extremis is applied in Iron Man 3. Aldrach, through years of research, has found that the human brain has an empty space, hinting that humanity is not at the apex of evolution.
  • The Last Mimzy does this; their newly-unlocked abilities include telepathy, telekinesis, and super-hearing, as well the ability to control spiders by emitting certain frequencies, to send objects through small warp portals, and to draw ancient patterns without ever having seen or heard of them. In the future, levitation is also a standard part of humanity's milieu.note 
  • It is implied in Phenomenon that the incredible mental and psychic abilities John Travolta's character, George, suddenly gains after seeing a strange light in the sky is caused by a tumor spreading across his brain and activating unused parts of it. Also, killing him.
  • In Defending Your Life, everyone on Earth is said to use 3-5% of their brains. When a person dies and goes through the Celestial Bureaucracy, they have the chance to move up to the next level, where it's possible to use more of their brain. Then after that lifetime, they have the chance to move up to the next level and so on; each level allows one to use more and more of one's brain, which means being more intelligent and less afraid.
  • Referenced for the sake of a joke in Wedding Crashers. "You know how they say we only use ten percent of our brains? I think most people only use ten percent of their hearts."
  • In My Favorite Martian, Uncle Martin states that Martians have gained their powers due to fully using their brains, unlike humans who use less than ten percent. Tim protests that humans use more than ten, only to get the reply "Your astronauts pee in their spacesuits. Case closed."
  • The Sorcerer's Apprentice uses this trope straight to describe how sorcerers get the powers.
  • Inception says this is why in dreams your brain can work faster, as the majority of your brain's processing ability is devoted to processing sensory perceptions. With the use of shared dreaming technology, the brain can work much faster, allowing for a dreamworld hour to pass in minutes in the real world.
  • In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World vegan evil ex-boyfriend Todd Ingram claims the source of his psychic powers is that he's able to use more than 10% of his brain because it isn't gunked up with all that filthy animal protein. However, it's more likely that he's an Unreliable Narrator, since the fact that the Vegan Police were able to take those powers away suggest that they were granted to him, not an inherent ability, add to the fact that he still seemed to be able to use his powers after breaking the 3-strike rule, plus there's the fact that Todd is actually pretty stupid.
  • In My Stepmother Is an Alien the alien Celeste explains that "We use 104% of our brain capacity, as opposed to your 36%."
  • In the 2009 film Race to Witch Mountain, the extraterrestrial humans Sarah and Seth have access to telekinesis, telepathy, and phasing, which Sarah states the humans on Earth can not use yet, because they "haven't learned to use that part of [their] brain yet." Ironically, in an interview with AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Sarah, she confirmed that the director wrote that line in because he wanted to be "as scientifically accurate as possible."
  • In the film Limitless Eddie takes a novel drug, NZT-48, which the dealer claims to allow him to access 100% of his brain as opposed to "the twenty percent." Of course, since the dealer is clearly lying about everything else he says about the drug, such as it being "FDA-approved", he was probably just making up whatever he felt would get Eddie to take it. The actual effects of the drug are flawless information recall, maximized reflexes and extreme situational awareness, which simulate super-intelligence, precognition, and a host of other low-grade superpowers.
  • Spoofed in the Italian satirical comedy Italiano Medio, itself based on a sketch by the same creators. A clever but insufferable man is convinced by his friend to take a pill that reduces his brain capacity to 2%, to make him complain less and enjoy life more.
  • Lucy is playing it 100% dead straight, straighter than we've seen in a decade or two. Unlocking more and more takes her down the Jean Grey path of increasing mind powers. Using 100% of one's brain capacity leads to omniscience and omnipotence, making the title character practically a Physical God. The trailer also features Morgan Freeman's character --said to be one of the world's top experts on the workings of the human brain-- repeating the misconception. According to Word Of God, they were aware this is just a myth but chose to go with it anyway as a What If?.
  • The Lazarus Effect calls out this trope's misuse... and then goes right to saying that newly resurrected Zoe is using all of her brain, all of the time, as an explanation of her psychic powers.
  • Implied in The Shadow, in the end, the Big Bad gets a glass shard through his head and has to have a part of his brain that "no one uses" removed. It turns out that this was where his psychic powers were located.

    Fan Works 
  • This turns out to be how the Diadem of Ravenclaw works in The Arithmancer. It allows the conscious mind full access to all the sensory information, processing power, and memories that the subconscious normally filters out. Normal people can't handle that level of input and overload, but Hermione has been training her entire life in the sort of mental discipline necessary to handle the Diadem.

  • The Immortals: Daine makes a reference to this in Wolf-Speaker while sharing the mind of a wolf whose brain was changed by association to her magic: "Numair had said, in an anatomy lesson, that humans used little of their brains... For Brokefang the difference was that each nook and cranny of his skull was packed with ideas."
  • The Douglas Adams book The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul plays with this: a character in a coma has a dream in which her mind is represented by an infinite collection of cabin trunks, of which ten percent contain past memories, and the remaining ninety percent contain penguins.
  • Comes up multiple times during The Dresden Files. Harry Dresden's mental passenger Lasciel resides in the so-called "unused parts of Harry's brain.'' Bob even quotes the 'ten percent' stat when they discuss it. All of this could be partially hand waved with the previously established plot element that Wizards have a different cellular biology than most, allowing for better healing and longevity. It's possible Wizards have abnormal neurology.
  • Artemis's magic in Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony is another case of this trope. Humans lost the kind of brainpower necessary for that long ago.
  • Roald Dahl's Matilda; the eponymous little girl gained access to psychic powers because she was willing to use more of her brain than the rest of her family was. It's all but stated, in the book, that this is a direct result of her not being intellectually challenged enough, since she starts to lose her powers once she's moved up to sixth form at the end of the book. The same explanation (but without power loss) is given in the Film of the Book.
  • Mark McHenry of Star Trek: New Frontier could not only use 100% of his brain, he could specify at any given time what percentage of his brain is dedicated to what activity. This is because Mark isn't quite human, due to his being descended from the Greek God Apollo.
  • In The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, this is the basis for the idea of having one's powers "Awakened".
  • The Zombie Survival Guide makes this same error in comparing zombies' senses to those of humans, speculating that undead without eyes have a "sixth sense" derived from the unused part of the brain. Oh, and it claims that we, the living, only use 5% of our brains, doubling this trope's inaccuracy. As the claim is presented as being purely speculative regarding zombie abilities, it could be a case of an In-Universe error by the author.
  • In All-Consuming Fire, a character with psychic abilities (pyrokinesis, specifically) is discovered to have suffered a major head trauma that destroyed a large chunk of his brain. Bernice mentions the 90% thing, and speculates that the man's brain, in the course of rerouting around the damage, started using a previously unused part of the brain and activated the pyrokinesis.
  • The Eighth Doctor Adventures novel The Gallifrey Chronicles comes very close to getting this right... but doesn't.
    There was an old myth that humans only used ten percent of their brains. This was a simple misunderstanding. Give or take, there was activity in every part of the human brain. But the physical structures were capable of ten times the activity they performed. It wasn't that a human being had a brain like a house with nine tenths of the rooms sealed off, it was more like a road network wasn't carrying as much traffic as they were designed to carry.
  • In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett said that the other 90 percent of the brain powers a sort of Weirdness Censor so that the fact that the entire world we take for granted is, in fact, amazing, is ignored.
    It is a popular fact that nine-tenths of the brain is not used and, like most popular facts, it is wrong. Not even the most stupid Creator would go to the trouble of making the human head carry around several pounds of unnecessary gray goo if its only real purpose was, for example, to serve as a delicacy for certain remote tribesmen in unexplored valleys. It is used. And one of its functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary and turn the unusual into the usual.

    Because if this was not the case, then human beings, faced with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around wearing big stupid grins, similar to those worn by certain remote tribesmen who occasionally get raided by the authorities and have the contents of their plastic greenhouses very seriously inspected. They'd say "Wow!" a lot. And no one would do much work.
From a certain point of view, this description is almost entirely accurate. A huge amount of brain power goes into basic data filtering and interpretation, all so that the relatively small part of our brains that does the thinking we're conscious of doesn't get overwhelmed. Show a person the raw data of their nerves and it would just look like static.
  • The protagonist of Insidekick by J. F. Bone develops psi powers (telepathy and teleportation), plus eidetic memory, after being invaded by a symbiont which activates a "large dormant portion" of his brain.
  • In Stephen King's Cell, the people who are hit by the Pulse lose almost all of their higher level reasoning skills. After this, they slowly regain higher level thought, but they use unusual parts of their brain to do it, resulting in them developing telepathy and eventually telekinesis. Granted, this is just a hypothesis in-Universe, but the "we only use ten percent of our brains" myth gets thrown around a lot by some highly educated people.
  • In Beneath the Dark Ice, the protagonist's superhuman abilities are thought to have come from when he was shot in the head in a way that forced the brain to direct more blood to the areas of the brain with the most 'unknown functions'. How this accounts for super strength and endurance is not obvious.
  • Isaac Asimov:
    • Foundation Series' "The Mule": Part of the Emotion Control powers that the Mule had was to cause intuition and creativity to skyrocket, at the expense of their lives. He describes human brains as normally operating at 20% efficiency (essentially failing to use 80%), and he can use his power to force all of it to work non-stop without any chance to rest for weeks on end.
    • Pebble in the Sky: The main character, who has inadvertently been pushed forward from our time to the far future setting of the novel, gets an experimental "Synapsifier" treatment in the hope it will help him learn the language. It does that and more ... he starts becoming telepathic, and strongly enough so that at one point he kills one of the bad guys that way, without even intending to. Played with in that the novel makes quite clear why humans only use a small percentage of their brain at any one time (within the context of the setting): using more is damaging to the person in question, to fatal levels (partly because once the Synapsifier has been used on a person, the effect is permanent). Evidently those ninety percent are there to keep the brain running for year after year.
  • My Teacher Is an Alien: In the second Novel, one boy, a school bully of below-average intelligence, has his brain "fried", which makes him a genius and a telepath. In the third, the aliens remove the protagonist's brain temporarily to study why humans have the most powerful, yet under-utilized, brains in the galaxy. It's part of our unconscious Hive Mind. Turns out we used to use it all, but as humanity spread the sheer amount of psychic chatter overwhelmed the conscious mind, and so humans suppress it so we can stay sane.
  • David Gerrold's novel When Harlie Was One: Mentioned as the supposed "reason" why the sentient computer of the title, despite being like a human brain, is so much more efficient.
  • Desmond Warzel: In the short story "On a Clear Day You Can See All the Way to Conspiracy", a caller to a radio show invokes the "ten percent" myth and the host smacks him down, even giving the "seizure" explanation mentioned in the introduction above.
  • The Name of the Wind explains its magical naming system by drawing a line between the waking mind and the sleeping mind, with the sleeping mind being more powerful and more knowledgeable but difficult to access.
  • Mentioned and immediately debunked in Run Program. The person debunking it compares it to a car driving on a highway. If it was operating at 100% capacity, then every single system would be on at the same time. Imagine wipers constantly working, both the gas and the brake pedals floored, with every single gear engaged (including the reverse), and doors constantly opening and closing. That would be our brains at 100%.
  • The operating premise of the Transformers interactive book Project Brain Drain. The Decepticons plan to drain the awesome untapped mental energies of the human brain from the attendees of a rock concert.
  • In The Destroyer, it's been mentioned that Sinanju allows you to use more of your brain, which in turn allows you to do incredible stuff.
  • In Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, the Klugarsh Mind Control course claims that only 10% of your brain is in use, and that the secret to telepathy, telekinesis, etc is learning to access the rest of your brain.
  • The psychic villain of the Fear Street novel One Evil Summer at one point claims, "You know, they say people use only a small portion of their brains. Well, I use all of my brain. I can do anything. Anything!" Of course, she is kind of insane...
  • In Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down, Greg hears that humans only use 90% of their brains. He hopes that people don't figure out how to get the last 10%, imagining it being complete chaos.
  • In When Rabbit Howls, Ten-Four opines that people only use 10% of their brains and 3% of their physical energy due to being so sedentary. The theory throughout the book that people with multiple personalities all start as super-intelligent children was popular at the time. note 

    Live-Action TV 
  • My Favorite Martian: Cited by "Uncle Martin" as one of the reasons Martians are so much more advanced and intelligent than human beings. Martians use all of their brains, while earthlings only use a small percentage of theirs.
  • Alphas: Stanton Parrish has a variation of this: He has the ability to consciously control every process in his brain, even those that are not consciously controlled in ordinary humans. This makes him able to instantly recover from any injury and prevents him from aging. However, it comes with several downsides: His emotional relationships with others are disrupted, making him similar to a sociopath and his ability to retain memories is disrupted to an extent (likely due to the fact that his brain, powerful as it is, still lacks the capacity to hold over 200 years worth of memories all at once.)
  • Johnny's powers in the television version of The Dead Zone come from the fact that a normally unused part of his brain became active to compensate for a damaged section.
  • Referred to in the premiere of Heroes as an example of one way humanity might make a sudden evolutionary leap, but then mercifully dropped. Only to be brought back up in season three, in a speech by Sylar.
  • Eureka's scientific adviser was on record as making sure that when that concept was used on the show, the line was "ten percent... at any one time" specifically to dodge this trope.
  • Stargate-verse: The idea that 90% of the brain is unused becomes a major plot point of the Ascension Myth Arc within both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. To be able to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence without the aid of an already-Ascended being, the brain must become fully active. As the human brain activates an increasing percentage of the brain, they begin to develop special abilities, such as the ability to heal with a touch, or read minds or move objects with the mind. Usually, such a human will only develop a single ability, but as they get closer to the threshold for Ascension, they begin to display multiple abilities. In SG-1, the Goa'uld are ever in search of powerful hosts to parasitise, so a rare few have experimented with technology to force humans to develop these abilities or even to actually be capable of taking a Goa'uld into Ascension. Atlantis expands on SG-1 when an ancient technological device is found that's supposed to help people artificially reach Ascension by forcibly and gradually awakening the inactive 90%. The catch is that this isn't how the brain is supposed to naturally function and it therefore brings the modified human to the point of permanent seizure. The machine therefore forces the modified human to either Ascend or die.
  • Referred to in Kyle XY. The titular Kyle has a highly advanced brain, learning to speak in one day, and learning kung fu and Chinese from watching an old Bruce Lee movie. They give him a CAT scan and the scan showed he used 80% of his brain. However, the doctors noted this as strange, citing the problems one would have at such levels (such as seizures), and wrote it off as a machine malfunction. It is later shown that if he uses his powers too much, he will get a seizure.
  • John Doe actually acknowledges that only about 10% is in use at any given time but implies that tapping into the other 90% at the same time is what allows some of the characters to use their psychic abilities.
  • In Seinfeld, when George stopped having sex, his brain was free to do other things, accounting for his sudden burst of knowledge. Jerry compared George's brain to a cabbage, with a tiny leaf being the part he normally devoted to anything that wasn't sex. This seems to work the opposite way for women (as shown with Elaine's sudden stupidity), by which Jerry meant that most of men's brainpower is normally invested toward obtaining sex, while a woman always has men available to take care of her sexual needs for her and never has to think about it herself; therefore a celibate man becomes super-intelligent since his brain is freed up, while a celibate woman becomes super-stupid since she loses all her brainpower into thinking about sex.
  • In Fringe, the 10% fallacy is averted only to be replaced with a different (even more absurd) rationalization. A Mad Scientist several decades in the past developed a drug that prevents babies from losing the natural potential they have at birth. In a Double Subversion the Mad Scientist in question fails completely in clinical trials only to be proven right when Olivia develops psychic powers. Maybe.
    • Another subversion on that show: The reason Walter is mentally askew is that 10% of his physical brain was removed and implanted in other people's brains, giving them all bits and pieces of a complex design, in a bit of Lego brain surgery. Getting back that 10% puts him on track to solving an important puzzle.
  • In the last episode of Lois & Clark, Dr. Mensa uses the rest of his brain and gets an enlarged brain, the power of mind control and the moniker "Fat Head".
  • The main plot line for an episode of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. To make matters sillier, accessing the other 90% gave the character in question godlike powers. All this was caused by a device that was established in a previous episode to be used for brain-swapping.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this is cited as why Dr. Bashir can lose a portion of his brain and be completely fine (this was before Bashir was Retconned to be super-intelligent.) It's absolutely not true and is in fact one of the ways we know the 10% thing is a myth; there is almost no part of the brain we can lose without suffering loss of ability.
  • Spoofed in an Italian Real Trailer, Fake Movie parody of Limitless, mercilessly titled Italiano Medio (Average Italian).
    Protagonist's friend: You know that story, that we use only twenty percent of our brain? [hands him pill]
    Protagonist: OK, I'll try it just out of curiosity. [swallows pill]
    Protagonist's friend: With this, you'll only use two percent.
  • Disproven on Mythbusters, Tory's brain scans showed him using 15-30% of his brain, depending on what he was doing.
  • Referenced in episode 5 of Almost Human where an alleged spirit medium says her powers are the result of the Cerebellux procedure, which enhances use of brain pathways.
  • Referenced in the first episode of 12 Monkeys, when scans of Cole's brain reveal that he's using the entirety of his brain. In a twist, the researchers point out that this should be a Grand Mal seizure, except it's somehow organized and controlled, turning him into a human computer calculating something obscenely complex. They don't know what he's calculating, but the audience knows that he's a time traveler who has been modified to survive the journey, implying that this is part of the process.
  • Defied on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Dr. Holden Radcliff explains that it's a myth that we only use 10% of our brains.
  • Night Man: When Johnny Domino gets struck by lightning and starts hearing other people's thoughts, this is the explanation offered by the medical consultant on psychic phenomena—who's apparently been spearheading our side of an ESP race with the Soviet Union.
  • Birds of Prey (2002): Barbara claims that ordinary humans use only five percent of their brains, but metahumans far more. Dinah uses fifty percent, her scans reveal.
  • Discussed and defied in Limitless. Brian attends a party where everyone there is on low-grade NZT. He hears someone saying that you only use ten percent of your brain and that the pill works by allowing you to use more. Brian responds by pointing out that it's a myth.
  • Surprisingly played straight in the episode "Black Museum" of Black Mirror. In the second segment, a man is informed that human beings use only 40% of their brains, so they could upload the consciousness of his comatose girlfriend into the "empty space" of his own brain, allowing her mind to "take the passenger's seat" on his mind. It ends badly.


    Tabletop Games 
  • Aberrant uses this as part of the Meta Origin for novas. Most humans have an underdeveloped, uncharted node in their brain that maps the background forces of the universe. When a nova Erupts, this node becomes active, allowing for limited manipulation of reality — a.k.a., superpowers.

    Video Games 
  • In Chaos;Head, Norose muses that Gigalomaniacs use the remaining 90% of their brain unlike normal humans, and this is responsible for their abilities. And possibly even worse, it's also stated that 80% of the brain is used for processing visual data.
  • Assassin's Creed makes use of this trope to explain where the accumulated memories of ancestors that all humans have in its universe are being stored. It also uses it to explain Eagle Sense and Eagle Vision, extranormal senses that only some people with a greater than usual concentration of DNA from the Abusive Precursors can learn to use.
  • This is given as the reason why Fuka, a human Ordinary Middle School Student, can keep up with her demon teammates in Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten. She deluded herself into thinking the afterlife is All Just a Dream, and since it's her dream, she's free to do anything she wants. This allows her brain to unlock her full potential.
  • In Dragon Ball Online, set more than 200 years after the main series, this happened with the book "Groundbreaking Science" written by Gohan, explaining Ki manipulation to the saiyan blooded humans.

  • Casey and Andy examines this, thanks to Anti-Stupid Science Man!
  • Parodied in Scary Go Round, where a man survives having 90% of his brain eaten by a zombie because by incredible coincidence, she ate only the 90% that no one uses.
  • Sofia of Breakpoint City explains her telekinesis this way.
    You know how most people only use 10% of their brain? I use 11%.
  • FreakAngels seems to be hinting at the fact that they have simply not reached their full psionic potential. Arkady's continual experimentation with her abilities seems to be a testament to this.
  • Penny Arcade:
    • A joke that unfortunately never made it into the comic but does show up on their podcast uses the concept:
      "You know how people only use ten percent of their brain?"
      "I've heard that."
      "Well I only use ten percent of my penis."
    • One strip uses this trope as part of an advertisement for "air for gamers".
  • El Goonish Shive:
    • In one strip of EGS NP, Susan complains about Lucy, saying it's "based on a 'fun fact' that isn't even true! You might as well make a movie about an assassin who uses daddy-long-legs venom!"
    • Later, in the main strip, an Immortal starts telling a series of Blatant Lies in order to demonstrate to a confused griffon that Immortals are capable of lying. This is one of them.
  • When one member of Belinda's medical staff mentions this myth in this strip of Legostar Galactica, she answers by delivering an angry rant. (The comic's author once was a neuroscientist himself, so this is quite understandably a pet peeve of him.)
  • Mentioned in Paranatural, during a battle with their teacher possesed by Hijack (a spirit shaped like a brain). When Max complains that Hijack has too many abilities, he used this mixed with Insane Troll Logic.
    Hijack: Well, the brain is like a muscle, and you only use 10% of your brain. But I'm 100% brain, so—

    Web Original 
  • A Cracked article compares this notion to becoming a better writer by using every key on your keyboard in every sentence.
  • SCP Foundation:
    • SCP-1475 of the SCP Foundation is a deliberate Deconstruction (the author even flat-out stated that his inspiration for writing it was his hatred of this trope). He gave himself a non-reproducible drug that lets him use 100% of his brain 100% of the time. This not only gave him complete control over his body but let him rewire his brain so that he doesn't need to sleep anymore. However, in a true case of Blessed with Suck, this completely destroyed his autonomic nervous control (that is, the body's ability to automatically regulate the heart/lungs/etc.), so he has to spend most of his concentration on keeping himself alive. Not only does this not leave him much concentration to use his voluntary muscles, but he's also suffered permanent damage to a lot of his organs due to having messed it up in the past.
    • Surprisingly played straight with SCP-3733, which is described as activating "several typically inactive areas of the brain, resulting in the ability to act and reason outside of one's experiences and personality". That's because the entry is from a world where an unknown entity has hijacked humanity's collective mind and suppressed their emotions and individuality. The SCP is the aforementioned concepts, which is now being contained by the foundation.
  • Villain Source sells brain pills that are guaranteed to increase your IQ by 300% or your money back! (The small prints adds that if you believe this, then you really need those pills.)
  • The Onion parodied the concept with a man who invented a device that lets him fire all his neurons at the same time. Every time he turns it on, he has a seizure.
  • This spoof of Lucy suggests Hollywood should make other movies based on inane common beliefs.

    Web Videos 
  • In To Boldly Flee, it's stated that a critic's brain usage is typically 5%, but Ma-Ti's brain uploading has boosted Spoony's brain usage to 92%.
  • CGP Grey discusses this trope, with a bit of a Take That! at the end:
    "If you really think someone could scoop out 90% of your brain, and you'd be alright, then perhaps you really do only use ten percent of it."

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied in The Simpsons when Bart becomes ultra-focused after taking medication for attention deficit disorder: "You know how most people use only ten percent of their brains? I am now one of those people."
  • The Batman Beyond episode "Mind Games" has an Unreliable Expositor claim this to explain psychic powers.
  • In Godzilla: The Series Dr. Nick Tatopoulos states this is the reason as to why the aliens were able to copy their minds into human brains.
  • In the Teen Titans Go! episode "Brain Percentages", the use of this trope is heavily lampshaded. Cyborg tells the others that this is untrue and purely exists as a narrative device, only for the other Titans to dismiss him on the basis that it wouldn't be used in so many shows and movies if it weren't true. The episode then has Beast Boy increase the percentage of his brain anyway, and along the way, travel back in time to physically contact his prehistoric ancestor and inexplicably become a reality warping computer at 100% brainpower. This is all in the service of solving a hidden images puzzle, by the way.
  • Parodied in Les Shadoks. The Shadoks use their brain plenty, but they only have four boxes in their brain, and they can only know how to do up to four activities as a result; for example, if a Shadok knows how to ride a bike, and doesn't know how to read, and if their brain is already full, they'll have to unlearn how to ride a bike if they want to learn how to read.
  • The general idea that 10% is the norm for humans and perhaps most humanoids is implied, without being stated explicitly, in Star Trek: The Animated Series. When Spock scans the literally-vegetative bodies of a newly discovered species, he states that they "used almost seventy percent of their brains: a very high ratio."

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television to an extent; humans can still function (though not to full capacity, obviously) if parts of their brains are removed. Most notably, the practice of lobotomizing criminals was considered a humane alternative to the death penalty for quite some time. Splitting the corpus callosum (the tissue connecting the two hemispheres of the brain) was a common cure for seizures in the 70s (and is still occasionally done in severe enough cases).note The side-effects only occur in very specific, usually engineered scenarios, and are much preferable to the seizures in the first place.
    • Removing a damaged hemisphere can even result in a significant improvement in cognitive function... in the other hemisphere, which rewires itself and takes on the tasks once done by the removed half. Whether it improves overall ability is unlikely, given that split-brain patients often act like two people sharing one body, and often work at cross-purposes.
    • The basic rule now is that you do not remove any part of the brain unless it's absolutely necessary, because functions are centralized to specific parts, and depending on what is being lost and the patient's age there are distinct upper limits to how much function will be regained. People have permanently lost the concept of color, while prefrontal lobotomies are a good source of Nightmare Fuel...
  • One source of the myth itself (of many possible ones) is a series of experiments done on rodents in which the poor creatures had large parts of their brains burned away but could still run a particular maze. However, all this proves is that memory is distributed in the brain rather than localized; the rodents still lost other functions. Besides, mice aren't men.
  • Approximately 90% of cells in the brain are not actually neurons, but glial helper cells that keep the neurons alive and functioning. So only 10% of the cells are used directly; the other 90% are vital to keeping that 10% healthy and alive.
    • However, not only are these cells necessary for brain function, but if you stick human glial helper cells in mouse brains the mice become smarter, suggesting that they do play a pretty important role in cognition.
  • The famous Phineas Gage had a tamping rod driven clean through his head after he struck it with a sledgehammer when too much gunpowder had been poured into its hole, causing massive damage to his frontal lobes. He recovered, memories and abilities mostly intact, but with a radically changed personality-friends and family said he was "no longer Gage." Despite the injury, he managed to live for another twelve years. He was long used as an example of the effects of damage to the frontal lobes on a person, but the severity of his personality changes are now questioned due to a lack of actual records of what he was like from before the accident.
  • There is a famous case of a character who came to a doctor complaining of headaches, and turned out on the X-rays to have no cerebellum. Apparently, he'd been born without one, and the cerebrum had simply taken over all the necessary tasks—to such success that he was working as a steeplejack!
  • Dolphins and other cetaceans have adapted to function actively while 50% of their cerebrum is asleep. This is good, since their breathing is entirely under conscious control, and total loss of consciousness thus equals suffocation.
  • Some birds can also have half their brain asleep while the other half keeps watch for danger from one eye.
    • Generally speaking, all air-breathing aquatic animals and all land-based prey species that sleep out in the open do this as well, sleeping with only half their brain at a time. Only animals that tend to hide themselves in very well protected locations such as dens or single-family bungalows in the suburbs can afford to sleep with their entire brain.
  • Autistic savants are people who, due to cognitive disabilities, have focused on specific skills and as such have refined them to an unusually high skill level, sometimes operating in a somewhat bizarre manner (such as some artists who, rather than sketching, immediately start drawing the finished drawing piece by piece in proportion; some of these skills can be extremely narrow or bizarre as well). While the common perception is that this is a Disability Superpower, in reality ALL humans are capable of developing savant-like abilities, and indeed many "ordinary" people do have savant-like abilities. The reason savants stick out so much is because their ability is so far in excess of everything else that they can do, they become defined by it as far as other people (and frequently they themselves) are concerned. People who don't suffer from cognitive disabilities aren't referred to as savants, they're just viewed as highly skilled individuals.
  • There was a girl who had half her brain gone. The left hemisphere was just not there. So far she seems to be living a fairly normal life with a fairly normal, if quirky, degree of intellect.
    • While half of the brain can be removed in a young child and they can still live a fairly normal life due to the other half compensating (due to the symmetrical design and the child's brain being extremely flexible) it's worth adding that an adult who had half their brain removed in adulthood would not be able to function properly.
  • A man from Florida lost a good portion of his brain in a car accident and was left with a flattened cranium. Memetic Mutation struck when his mugshot was posted to the Miami New Times website.

Alternative Title(s): Ten Percent Of Your Brain