006. The 10% Brain Myth:

How Neuroscience Shatters A Stubborn Fallacy

In the last edition, I busted the myth of the left-brain, right-brain divide. Today, we're pulling back the curtain on another long-standing brain fable: the notion that humans only use 10% of their brains. Prepare yourself for a journey into the truth behind this captivating misconception.

First things first, the 10% brain myth is just that—a myth. Despite its prevalence in popular culture, it's fundamentally flawed. Here's why: each and every part of your brain has a specific function. From controlling your heart rate and breathing to understanding the complexities of a philosophical discussion, your brain is perpetually active, working round the clock to keep you, well, you!

Modern brain imaging technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), have confirmed this. These techniques show the brain in action, highlighting that virtually all regions are engaged over a typical day of activities.

But where did this 10% myth come from? It seems to stem from a misunderstanding of neurological research or a misquoted remark from the early 20th century. Yet, despite its dubious origins, this myth has stuck around, fascinating people with the idea of untapped mental potential.

Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman, the renowned cognitive psychologist, attempted to dismantle both the left-brain/right-brain and 10 percent myths in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow.” He describes two systems of thinking, aptly named System 1 and System 2.

  1. System 1 is the fast, intuitive, automatic, and emotional way of thinking. It's the system we use for routine, familiar tasks, snap judgments, and immediate reactions. It is often influenced by biases and heuristics (cognitive shortcuts).

  2. System 2 is the slow, deliberate, analytical, and consciously effortful mode of thinking. This system comes into play when we need to solve complex problems, make decisions that require careful consideration, or suppress our intuitive responses in favor of more logical ones.

While intriguing, compelling, and popular, not all the experts are on board with his thinking model. And who am I to take on Kahneman? For now I’ll just take the word of people a lot smarter than me on this subject.

So onward and upward. In my research about how the brain works, I discovered a theory called "whole-brain thinking." It offers something like a map of your brain divided into four parts:

  • The A quadrant is like a detective – it's all about facts, logic, and analysis.

  • The B quadrant is the planner – it likes order, details, and a clear step-by-step plan.

  • The C quadrant is your empathetic friend – it's more about feelings, talking to people, and using intuition.

  • The D quadrant is the dreamer – it likes to think about the big picture, be creative, and imagine different scenarios.

The idea here is that you need to use all these parts of your brain to get a full, balanced way of thinking, like using a whole toolbox instead of just one tool.

But as part of my ongoing education with the Wharton School Executive Education’s "Understanding the Brain: Using Neuroscience to Deliver Better Business Results,” I learned that our brain isn't carved up into right and left brains (which I wrote about last week) or four rigid quadrants either, as convenient as it may be for illustrations.

For instance, both the left-brain/right-brain myth and the whole-brain thinking model are broad-brush representations that hardly do justice to the brain's complex functionality. Rather, it's a vibrant tapestry of interconnected neurons spanning different structures of the brain in various regions. And, the more we uncover about our brains, the more intricate and extensive these neural networks seem to be.

I bet many of you are familiar with this instance. If you've ever dabbled in the domain of Emotional Intelligence (EQ or EI), you've probably come across references to the limbic system, often portrayed as a singular structure tucked away in the recesses of the brain. However, the reality is far more complex. The limbic system is not a lone ranger; rather, it's a bustling network comprising seven or more distinct brain structures.

Clearly, we are using far more than 10 percent of our brain, even when we’re sleeping (which is another story and myth!)

Now, why does debunking this myth matter at work? Think of it this way: If you believe your team is using only 10% of their capabilities, you might be inclined to push them harder, ignoring signs of burnout. Or you might overlook the importance of strategic rest, as you pursue the unlocking of the supposed 90% potential. Or if you’re still stuck on left-brain/right-brain thinking or even 4-quadrant thinking, productivity and performance is an employee problem but a management problem! In reality, your team is utilizing their whole brain, and it's essential to nurture their full capability as well as neurological health.

Let's shake up the perspective for our managers out there.

Cultivate Neurodiversity:

Recognize that each individual possesses a unique pattern of neural connections. Instead of pigeonholing team members into 'left-brained' or 'right-brained' categories, aim to harness the full spectrum of cognitive strengths within your team.

Promote Continuous Learning:

Toss the 'we only use 10% of our brain' myth out of the window. Our brains have an immense capacity for growth and learning, so foster an environment that encourages continuous personal and professional development.

Adopt a 'Whole Brain' Approach:

Embrace the complexities of the human brain. It's not just about the left hemisphere or right hemisphere, but about the holistic integration of various networks. But unleashing a “Whole Brain Approach” in your organization requires so much more than just a C-Suite mandate. That’s where one of my most favorite and powerful tools in my management toolbox comes out of my toolbox: “DeBono’s 6 Thinking Hats”– a powerful tool to tap into the full potential of your whole brain!

🔵 Blue Hat: Think of the Blue Hat as the conductor of your mental orchestra. It sets the agenda, keeps everyone focused, and ensures a structured approach to problem-solving.

⚪ White Hat: Put on the White Hat to don the role of the logical analyst. Gather all the information you have (and need), examine the facts, and seek out missing pieces of the puzzle.

🔴 Red Hat: The Red Hat lets you become an emotional intuitive. Express your feelings and gut reactions without judgment, helping you consider the human element in your decisions.

💛 Yellow Hat: Time to shine as the optimistic sunflower! The Yellow Hat represents a positive and constructive outlook. Embrace possibilities, explore benefits, and highlight the value of your ideas.

⚫ Black Hat: Don the Black Hat when it's time to be a cautious skeptic. Identify potential risks, challenges, and flaws in your plans. This hat encourages you to look at things critically and avoid pitfalls.

🟢 Green Hat: Finally, become the creative innovator with the Green Hat. This hat ignites your imagination, pushing you to explore fresh ideas, think outside the box, and come up with ingenious solutions.

By adding these six hats to your people’s thinking wardrobe, you will help engage their whole brain in the decision-making process. It's like having a versatile superhero team in your mind, ready to tackle any challenge from all angles!

Remember, it's not about exploiting a fractional percentage of our brain, but about appreciating the brain's intricacy and adapting our leadership styles accordingly.

In conclusion, we're not just 10%-brain users, but full-brain maestros, conducting a complex neurological orchestra. Understanding and embracing this can lead to healthier, more effective work environments.

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