Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Originally written and performed at The Paper Machete, a weekly live magazine taking place at Chicago’s historic Green Mill.
I’m going to tell you something that you’ve probably heard before: The average human being only uses about 10 percent of their brain capacity. Ten percent! That’s all! This three-pound hunk of electrochemical matter that holds within its squishy stone-colored folds everything you do and feel and know and experience and remember for variable lengths of time, this captain’s chair, this board of directors, this central processor, and you only use Ten Percent of it.
We’ve known this about our brains since the 1890s! Medical science had only just stumbled upon the novel notion that you perform surgery in a sterile environment in the 1890s but Harvard psychologists could already tell us that the vast majority of brainstuff went unused, even within the most exceptional human beings. Neurosurgeons confirmed this claim all throughout the 20th century. Einstein gleefully broadcast this fact to the world on at least one occasion, and if anybody in the past 100 years can be considered an authority on how much of one’s brain one uses surely it’s the man whose name is now synonymous with intellect, whose name is the go-to sneer for every playground bully who wanted to make the kids who understood long division feel alienated.
Ten. Percent. This singularly important organ that for some reason our evolved biological form saw fit to build with vast untouched wilderness. The idea entrances us. It turns into young-adult literature and action films, these exciting and hyperkinetically edited narratives of average people who become super-beings simply by unlocking more and more of these sealed-off spaces in our skulls. Not even two years ago millions of us went to the theaters to take in Luc Besson’s thrill-ride Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson spends the film gradually gaining telepathy, telekinesis, pain immunity, oneness with the space-time continuum, and the absolutely unbelievable power to be cast as a Japanese protagonist.
Only ten percent of your brain. Imagine that.
And now keep imagining it, because it’s not fucking true.
Some of you knew that already. You knew it and you were polite and/or sober enough at this hour not to rise from your seat and scream WRONG! They disproved that on MythBusters like six years ago! Duh! I thank you for not doing that. I’d have hated for you to look like a jackass when I arrived at this paragraph of the essay.
“Humans only use ten percent of their brains.” The 25-cent word for this persistent falsehood is canard, but if you’re on a budget this month you’ll be fine just referring to it as bullshit. We use every bit of our brains, not all at once, perhaps, but all of it at one moment or another, and the surprising thing is how decentralized some of our brain functions actually are.
This past week, Nature—an international journal of science—published a two year-old study by the team of Alexander G. Huth et al, concerning a map of the human brain’s semantic system, which handles language. Using an MRI, the team examined the brain activity of a group of test subjects by reading them stories and then charting what areas responded to certain words. What they discovered is that we have literally hundreds of pea-sized semantic categories spread throughout our cerebrums that perceive and process specific vocabulary. That certain words and concepts are grouped together in certain ways and our facility for language exists in something akin to urban commercial districts. Here, the right side, just behind the ear. That’s where the study says you find words like mother, home, and family. They found that some words appear in multiple locations: The word top showed up in the region that processed numbers and measurements—top value, top limit—and it also showed up in the region related to clothing—girl, you are slay as fuck in that top.
And so every sentence we speak is an adventure happening too fast to recognize, a Legend of Zelda side mission to collect the words from dungeons throughout an expansive land, words you need to achieve the communication you want. You want a hot dog. You want a raise. You want somebody else to love you back. Zip, zip, zip: Achievement Unlocked.
To be clear, the science is still in an early stage. The subject pool was small and monolithic—these were all English speakers from Western nations, and the team knows they need more data to see how gender factors into the equation. The scale is significantly balanced towards questions instead of answers, but the exciting thing is that we have a new sense of what kinds of questions to ask. And consider that as the work moves forward there are a number of applications in medicine, particularly when it comes to fighting ailments like Alzheimer’s.
But I am an American, goddammit, and as such it is vital that I know how we intend to use this breakthrough for purposes of enhancing our entertainment.
I want Semantic-Cam windows in the corner of the screen receiving information from nanite-sized electrodes. I want to see what happens when a middle reliever mumbles a string of motherfuckers after choking up a lead with a fat one right over the plate. I want to watch what happens to the gladiators during freestyle rap battles, to see the mental lightning storms that accompany the linguistic pyrotechnics coming from the sick flow of a blistering diss track.
I want morning talk shows in which the guest discovers that the words for “dad” and “neighbor” come from the same place. And the host kneels before her as she bursts into tears, and asks her “Did you know?” And the guest says “Yes. I must have. I must have known.” Then that neighbor comes out from the wings, and the man everybody thought was the real father rockets from of his seat to attack with clumsy Krav Maga. When suddenly suddenly suddenly the audience discovers how every time the cuckolded father shouts the neighbor’s name it’s firing off from the same place as the word “sex,” and now it’s the father bursting into tears. And now it’s the father’s turn, as he admits he’s not upset because of his wife’s infidelity with the neighbor. He’s upset because he wished it had been him. He’s always wished it was him.
Catharsis. Sobbing, subdued applause. We’ve done some good work here today but we need to go to commercial. Enjoy these messages from Hamburger Helper and Downy Fabric Softener.
That will happen. We might think I’m kidding but that will happen, because for every advance we make in science that excites our imagination there is somebody figuring out how to package its appeal for the lizard nodes of our brains as well. Everything that excites us gives us cause to fear and fear requires comfort lest we spend our hours marinating in adrenaline. We will continue perpetuating the folklore that we only use ten percent of our brains because it frightens us how much mystery we carry around on our shoulders, and because we want to imagine a future in which we’ve accessed magic—without recognizing that this is pretty magical already if we’re willing to look at it closely.