Use of our Brain's Potential
March 10, 2007 12:10 AM   Subscribe

If we can't use all of our brain's potential, why does that potential exist?

I was looking at some videos of people who had autism that could do amazing things. From photographic memory to visualizing numbers and perceiving them in completely different ways than most people do. All this just because of a different kind of structure or wiring of the same brain most people have. How is it that the brain has the capacity for these amazing things yet we can't use it? Why is it there then? Isn't necessity the mother of invention? Obviously evolution doesnt go exactly by those rules. Anyway, what do you think?
posted by theholotrope to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think (without any but the most superfluous reading in this area) that this potential in autistic people is there because they are not using parts of the brain for the things that they are normally doing.

You can't use your photographic memory chip because it's busy calculating emotions and social behaviour.
posted by themel at 12:36 AM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

You have amazing abilities as well! It's just that they're the ones everyone has, so they seem less remarkable.

Do you realize how much information you process when you interpret someone's body language? Or drive? Very smart people have spent a lot of time trying to make computers do these things, and come up essentially dry.

So yeah, it's just specialization due to evolutionary pressure. Doing integer factorization in your head doesn't get you laid, otherwise it would be really easy.
posted by phrontist at 12:56 AM on March 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

If we can't use all of our brain's potential, why does that potential exist?

The real answer is ... we don't need it. Pattern recognition on a subconscious level kept our ape forefathers from getting eaten by lions before they could pass on their genes. That's all our brains needed to do.

But while we're at it ... if the idea is in there ... get the idea that we "only use 10 percent of our brains" out of your head. It's one of those silly things that keeps getting passed around.

As the father of an autistic child ... let's just say the math and memorization gymnastics are exceedingly rare, often involve shortcuts that anyone can learn (and master, if you have nothing whatsoever to do in your spare time and a tendency to over-focus on details), or are just plain fiction.

Yes, Rain Man can count cards. So did a bunch of MIT students. But no one can just blink at a random pile of drinking straws on the floor and instantly, intuitively know there are exactly X number lying there. The brain is amazing. But there's no magic here.

A friend of mine had an autistic cousin that had memorized the entire Seattle bus schedule. Seriously, if you told him what street corner you were standing on and what time it was, he'd tell you the number of the bus.

Know how he did it?

He sat and read the schedule books for days on end. He was autistic and never ever, ever, ever gets bored with repetition and sameness.
posted by frogan at 1:24 AM on March 10, 2007

someone told me that its not that you only use 10% of your brain but that you only use 10% at a time
posted by Satapher at 1:24 AM on March 10, 2007

Beyond what previous posters have said, we start life with a certian amount of excess brain capacity, including extra neurons, to survive subsequent life shaping developments, including adolescence, wherein we lose, as a side effect of hormonally driven brain reorganization, a goodly number of neurons originally contained in our thick skulls. Thereafter, we continue to need a certian amount "excess capacity" to deal with aging, and the accumulation of learnings and memory throughout our lives.

I wonder if any our brain's capacities are, truly, in "excess" at any point in our lives. Our large brains being already a huge metabolic drain, it would seem utterly counterproductive from an evolutionary standpoint if our distant ancestor's brains had carried significant "excess" capacity that was never used in life. I'm more of the opinion that it is all used, somehow, somewhere in our lives, but only a small portion is up for discretionary assignment, at any given time.
posted by paulsc at 1:26 AM on March 10, 2007

The whole 10% thing is crap. The truth is, we as humans/scientists/society don't really understand all that well (as compared to how well we understand other things) how the brain works.
posted by dantekgeek at 1:27 AM on March 10, 2007

The whole 10% thing is crap. The truth is, we as humans/scientists/society don't really understand all that well (as compared to how well we understand other things) how the brain works.

Yeah, here's [uwashington] some information [skeptical inquirer] on this [straight dope]. Lots more to be found by googling for ten percent brain myth. One thing that's pretty clear is that the origin of this statement long predates any ability to do any kind of brain imaging.
posted by advil at 1:43 AM on March 10, 2007

In the specific case of autism, it's not so much that there's some portion of the brain that does amazing things that everyone else could have but isn't using - it's a trade-off. The brain's developed a particular way that encourages some types of thought patterns and cognitive strategies, at the expense of making others difficult or impossible. Your specific examples are largely visual. People with high-functioning autism (maybe all people with autism, but I'm sticking to what I know about here) use the portions of their brain that process visually for almost every cognitive task you give them, much more so than neurotypicals. It provides them with an entirely different set of cognitive strategies based on a more visual processing style - some of which allow some tasks to be done better/quicker/more easily. But it comes at a cost of making other tasks more difficult because other parts of the brain have impaired communication with that area.
posted by Stacey at 3:48 AM on March 10, 2007

I'm joining the "10% is crap" camp- wouldn't evolution have reduced brain size over time if so much of it was unnecessary? Is there evidence that this has (or has not) occurred?

Maybe we aren't all supposed to use our brain to the fullest; maybe only certain people are. We see these people operate (whether autistic or not) and marvel, get inspired and try harder.

In the presence of a display of extraordinary ability of any sort, I tend to look at myself and say, "OK, now YOU." We're all cabable of more but we don't challenge ourselves out of our comfort zones.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:51 AM on March 10, 2007

For one thing, we can model some of the thought processes and memorization routines used by those on the Autistic Spectrum who have those abilities. One of my clients who has Asperger's uses mathematical formulas to memorize his karate katas. I've borrowed and adapted that for my own use quite successfully. Mnemonic devices are easily adaptable to whatever it is that triggers your memory. You might want to check out the book Mind Hacks which addresses the "10% myth" and provides many sweet workarounds to things our brains don't appear to pick up on regularly. Also, interestingly, many researchers have embraced the idea of the Autism Quotient, arguing that we are all on the Autistic spectrum in some way.
posted by moonbird at 7:20 AM on March 10, 2007

I think it's to do with the fact that aggressively filtering out unimportant information is an successful survival strategy. Remembering and recalling only the most important information enables us to make faster, better decisions. If you look at people in positions of power, they are not generally there because they are good with the details, they are there because they are focused and decisive. Too much information can easily lead to indecision and a lack of motivation.
posted by teleskiving at 7:26 AM on March 10, 2007

If we can't use all of our brain's potential, why does that potential exist?

Taking this another direction, consider the human body as a whole. It is capable of incredible feats of strength and stamina, and yet about 95% of us use it to lay on the couch and watch television.

All that potential being wasted....and yet, were a survival need to arise all of our bodies would quickly adapt to the new requirements being placed on them.

One of the biggest strengths of humans as a race is our adaptability, a trait that requires some over-capacity -- reinforcements, if you will, for when the going gets tough.
posted by tkolar at 8:51 AM on March 10, 2007

I'm joining the "10% is crap" camp- wouldn't evolution have reduced brain size over time if so much of it was unnecessary?

The 10% thing isn't true, but no, I don't think that's how evolution works.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:16 AM on March 10, 2007

The 10% thing isn't true, but no, I don't think that's how evolution works.

Definitely. Witness the appendix.
posted by tkolar at 9:57 AM on March 10, 2007

To reiterate, photographic memory is not necessarily unobtainable, but so far against our natrual intuition that we must train our brains. My computer retains (or at least has the potential) a lot of information, more than I could ever reasonably remember. It also does discrete mathematics much faster than I can. Ask it to recognize complex patterns in three dimensional space or the notion of infinity and it simply cannot do it. So what seems natural and intuitive is completely foreign to a computer, just as I see doing long division in my head instantly as something completely foreign to me.

Without anthropomorphizing computers too much, it will be interesting to see if emotions and things we would deem non-rational are key to creating anything that will be able to think or surpass humans.
posted by geoff. at 11:56 AM on March 10, 2007

Rserved for future use.
posted by Neiltupper at 2:01 PM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Now I'm curious about how would you train your brain to obtain photographic memory, geoff.
posted by Memo at 2:17 PM on March 10, 2007

Look at this way: my car's speedometer goes up over a hundred. Potentially, I can drive it at 100 mph. If, however, I do this continuously, my car would soon seize up.

I imagine if you used your brain or body at its maximum rate for more than short bursts, your brain or body would seize up pretty quickly.
posted by SPrintF at 6:22 PM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Memo, I used that term rather loosely. The MIT guys mentioned above memorized pages and pages of probability tables and algorithms. I would consider this rather photographic. Not everyone can do it, but with training one can, it is just a matter of spending enough time on something in order for it to be recalled.
posted by geoff. at 6:33 PM on March 10, 2007

Uh- that's not a photographic memory, that's just plain old memorization. Photographic memory implies that it is anything but a matter of spending enough time, since it would be memorized near instantly- kind of like, oh, a photograph.
posted by hincandenza at 10:54 PM on March 10, 2007

Anecdotal evidence points to non-autistic people with phenomenal memory or knowedlge all using the same basic device - mnemonics (as mentioned above).

My brush with medical schooling has confirmed this - there are mnemonics for everything, and they are passed down from senior to junior students as well as from professors to audiences. I have no hard evidence for the following statement, but it seems that many brains prefer a level of conscious pre-organization to accommodate large amounts of information. The wonderful thing about mnemonics is that the brain is easily capable of separating the mnemonic device from the referenced data.

Case-in-point: I'd never, ever remember that Serratus Anterior is innervated by the Long Thoracis nerve, had I not recalled the mnemomic SALT (first letters of the two terms above). At the same time, I of course know this has nothing to do wth the noun salt as used in daily life. Everyone wins.

For the curious, here is a big page full of medical mnemonics. Memorizing a few makes for a good party trick, assuming the audience is appreciative of anatomical or physiological trivia.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 6:30 AM on March 11, 2007

I think the reason we don't use the potential is because most of it exists when we are children, and it's harder to imprint vast amounts of knowledge on an adult brain.

We can see how easily a growing baby can, for example, learn two languages simultaneously with complete ease, and therefore assign (rightfully) a capability to their brains that far outstretches our own. And that's why we [society] are able to inundate children with much more information in schools than we could possibly give a grown-up.

Frankly, compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we already are using a lot more of our brain potential than ever before.

We can probably push the envelope a little more though.
posted by kisch mokusch at 12:50 PM on March 18, 2007

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