We have all heard the dubious claim that we only use ten percent of our brains. Though vague, this figure doesn’t have to be so abysmally wrong. Just add “at any given time” to the end of it and the figure starts to make some sense. However, it still remains too vague to be any good. I could use this ten percent followed by a different ten percent every picosecond and thus use one hundred percent of my brain some one hundred billion times per second. So we need to specify how long a “given time” lasts. You get my point. We need to keep the fourth dimension in mind when talking about the brain. Sadly, many neuroscientists and philosophers make the same mistake regarding slightly less dubious facts and figures. Take the following paragraph from Keith Stanovich’s “The Robot’s Rebelliong,” which could as easily have come from Benjamin Libet or Daniel Wegner:
The brain gradually breaks the news to John that, not only are his perceptual and vegetative functions directed by brain processes beyond his control, but much of his deep conceptual processing is also not something that he directs with his conscious mind. The brain says that despite John’s belief that he, the Promethean Controller, is in charge and directs the brain’s activities, John in fact “is apprised of only the bare minimum of knowledge about my inner activities.”
This is nearly correct; we just need to add “at any given time” to the end of it. It should read: “I am only apprised of the bare minimum of knowledge about the inner activities of my mind at any given time.” What does this little addition yield us? Only a complete revamping of the picture that Stanovich irresponsibly paints. The beautiful thing about having an identity, having a “rational map” of the inner workings of my brain, is that new additions to this map don’t need to be refreshed or reinforced constantly. Once I am apprised of a tiny piece of knowledge about the inner activities of my mind, I can keep that knowledge forever without having to rely on my fickle brain to give me exactly this piece of knowledge again and again. Thus, even if my brain only offers up knowledge of one hundredth of a percent of its total operations at any given time, a complete picture will be revealed in due time. Let’s use the analogy of a ground-mapping satellite that can only take high resolution photos of ten square miles of the Earth’s surface every second. The satellite engineers could despair that they are only apprised of a bare minimum of the photos needed to map the whole surface, or they can wait a while and piece it together.
Now, perhaps you are objecting (along with Freud) that the brain systematically keeps large swaths of its operations under wraps. This is true. However, it is also true that one does not have to passively rely on one’s Freudian unconscious or his brain to offer up information, but can pose questions to it. Ask the right series of questions, and one’s brain will offer up the right “bare minimum of knowledge” to complete the part of the puzzle of self that you are trying to put together. Once this is done you don’t have to pose those questions again, nor do you have to wait for your brain or unconscious to send that piece of information up the stream again. So please don’t despair that at this precise picosecond you might be using only ten percent of your brain, or that you are only privy to a small fraction of the inner workings of your mind. Keep paying attention to each fragment of knowledge that comes your way and you will eventually know yourself inside and out, despite whatever bandwidth restrictions you must deal with. If you still remain anxious about this topic, keep in mind that while reading this post your brain was only capable of taking in a few words at a time, but this hardly stopped you from reaching my conclusion.