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No, we don’t use only 10% of our brains!

Ever heard anyone say that? The last time I did was from one of the most powerful voices in movie history: Morgan Freeman’s. If he had been born in the UK, I’m sure he would’ve been knighted by now and joined the select group that includes Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and Dame Helen Mirren. Mr. Freeman played the role of Professor Samuel Norman, brain expert who has studied, among other things, the evolution of this incredible organ in Lucy, a movie co-starring Scarlet Johansson.

In one of the scenes, Professor Norman is lecturing to a group of interested students and says:

“Imagine for a moment what our life would be like if we could access, let’s say, 20% of our brain capacity?”

He goes on and claims that each human being has 100 billion neurons, from which only 15% are activated and that means that “we possess a gigantic network of information to which we have almost no access”. In his words, if we could access all the potential of our brains, we’d be able to control other people and even matter.

Well, Morgan Freeman, even though I love your voice and your acting, your character couldn’t be further from the truth. In this Luc Besson movie, released in 2014, most of what Professor Samuel Norman says is a false claim about the brain. It’s a neuromyth.

Funnily enough, I met the real Professor Samuel Norman. His name is Paul Howard-Jones and he is one of the biggest brain references in the world. I’m quite privileged to have him as one of my professors at the University of Bristol in the UK. In his amazing book, Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You got to be so smart, Howard-Jones (2018) goes back in time to the early forms of life and takes us in a journey throughout the aeons of our home planet until the most sophisticated form of intelligence known to date: our brains and us. My brilliant professor has published many articles and books on the potential of using brain research, and neuroscience-informed strategies to maximize educational achievement and learning outcomes. It is based on his research, and others, that I will discuss in my workshop the science of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE).

But first, to the facts.

No, Samuel Norman, we do not use just 10 or 15% of our brain capacities. In fact, we use most of our brain most of the time, even when we are sleeping. A simple task such as drinking coffee will require many areas of your brain to activate synchronously. The frontal lobe when you decide to look at the cup of coffee and pick it up, the occipital lobe because you’re visually processing the stimulus, your temporal lobe as imagine the word “coffee”, subcortical areas, an integral part of your reward system, because the thought of fresh coffee and that expectation make you feel good, your parietal lobe and motor cortex as you move your hands, arms, head to grab the cup and as you feel the heat on your fingertips, as well as areas related to taste and smell, memory retrieval, etc (Herculano-Houzel, 2002; Dekker et al. 2012; Howard-Jones, 2018).  

No, Samuel Norman, we don’t have 100 billion neurons in our brains. Actually, according to the amazing Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, we have around 86 billion. You can watch her brilliant TED Talk about how she discovered that (it involved detergent and brain soup). Suzana Herculano-Houzel (2002) was also responsible for a questionnaire that has been replicated all over the world on how much the general public, and most recently, teachers, know about the brain. The results in Brazil suggested that most people don’t really know much about how the brain works. So did the results in the UK, as demonstrated in Howard-Jones’ article (Dekker et al. 2012), in Portugal (Rato et al. 2013), in Greece (Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2017) in Latin America (Gleichgerrcht et al., 2015), in China (Pei et al., 2015), in Spain (Ferrero et al., 2016), and virtually everywhere.

But there is hope! In Lucy, Scarlet Johansson unlocks her brain potential because of a synthetic drug and basically acquire superpowers that would make her fellow Avengers in a different franchise incredibly jealous. Let’s just say that if Natasha Romanoff were Lucy in the latest Avengers movies, Thanos wouldn’t have gone so far at all. The hope I’m referring to, however, is the hope that lies in unlocking our potential as teachers so that we can unlock our students’ learning potential. There are things based on the MBE science that can guide us in understanding how attention, memory, motivation, efficacy, and many other relevant pre-requisites or aspects of learning work. We just need to learn about them and start applying that knowledge.

That’s exactly what I will discuss in the exciting InnovateELT Conference. I will share the six principles of MBE based on Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s work, and test your knowledge on neuromyths. I will also raffle a spot in my new Neuroscience and Learning Online Course!

You can’t miss it! Hope to see you at InnovateELT 2019 Barcelona in room 10 on Saturday at 15:15.



Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Ferrero, M., Garaizar, P., & Vadillo, M. A. (2016). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 10, 496. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496

Gleichgerrcht, E., Lira Luttges, B., Salvarezza, F., & Campos, A. (2015). Educational neuromyths among teachers in Latin America. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(3), 170-178.

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2002). Do you know your brain/ A survey on public neuroscience literacy at the closing of the decade of the brain. The Neuroscientist, 8(2):98-110 

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or how you got to be so smart. Taylor & Francis Group

Papadatou-Pastou, M., Haliou, E., & Vlachos, F. (2017). Brain Knowledge and the Prevalence of Neuromyths among Prospective Teachers in Greece. Frontiers in psychology8, 804. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00804

Pei X., Howard-Jones P. A., Zhang S., Liu X., Jin Y. (2015). Teachers’ Understanding about the Brain in East China. Proc. Soc. Behav. Sci. 174, 3681–3688. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.1091 

Rato, J., Abreu, A., & Castro-Caldas, A. (2013). Neuromyths in education: What is fact and what is fiction for Portuguese teachers? Educational Research, 55(4), 441-453.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.


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