You’ve probably heard the common misconception that we only use 10% of our brains. It would probably be more accurate to say that we only use a fraction of our DNA, though this may also be inaccurate, given that we’ve been learning new uses for so-called ‘junk DNA’. In general, just because we don’t know the exact use of something, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have one—and small snapshots of a process may not give the full picture. That’s why multiple experiments and tests are used to get a better picture of how the world works.
The truth is that we aren’t using every cell in our brains in every second of the day. The parts of your brain being used depend on the tasks you need it to accomplish. For example, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably not currently moving, so the areas of your brain associated with movement can be “turned off” for energy conservation purposes. You don’t need to waste energy on things (like turning off lights in rooms you’re not in when there’s no point for them to be on). It’d be extremely wasteful (and expensive!) to be constantly running every light in your residence, plus the dryer, clothes washer, dishwasher, computer, and shower, even when you are not in the room or have no clothes to wash or dishes to do. The same principle applies here. Your body wants to be efficient, so only the amount of energy required to accomplish the task should be expended.
That is not to say, of course, that your ‘inner potential’ can’t be unleashed. How? Never stop learning, never stop using your brain and skills. Your brain is constantly changing to optimize. Using skills strengthens connections or makes new ones, which improves your brain. On the other hand, your brain actively works to remove “unneeded” (unused) memories, so if you want to keep them fresh, you have to continue to exercise them (like muscles). Interestingly enough, even using unrelated skills may improve your brain’s functioning (art, music, language). (This is not an entirely uncontested idea, but then, aside from a few very specific topics, such as gravity, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts very few topics in science are.) There are all sorts of scientific explanations as to possible cause, but while several different factors are probably involved, there is a common thread linking them all—learning a new skill challenges your brain, just like a good workout challenges your muscles, forcing growth. Continuing to challenge yourself and broadening your horizons as well as keeping your old skills sharp keeps you and your brain flexible. You can continue to find new talents, and/or make connections with things you already knew. You won’t master everything new you try (and some things, like laying in traffic, aren’t worth the effort), but staying flexible is an important prerequisite to growth.
What other clichés about your brain have you heard? With a little research, do they look plausible? Have you noticed a difference after learning a new skill?