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10 percent myth
|Left: a general depiction of the 10 percent myth; showing only 10 percent brain activity. Right: a video still from the scene (Ѻ) from the 2005 film The Wedding Crashers, wherein Owen Wilson (John Beckwith) cites the 10 percent figure, but uses it as a pick up line to say that he thinks we only use 10 percent of our hearts.|
The figure of ten percent came about as the James-Sidis theory was retold over and over from “small part” (William James, 1906), to “one-quarter” (Addington Bruce, 1914), “10 percent” (World Almanac, 1929 – attributed to “scientists and psychologists), to “10 percent” (Lowell Thomas, 1936 – attributed to William James). The Lowell Thomas figure was included in the 1936 biographical preface section about Dale Carnegie, in the 15-million copy best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, which thus acted to solidify the semi-factual myth; semi-factual being that the so-called "myth" is based on an actual scientific theory, that was tested out in an actual case, and proved correct to a significant extent.
The seed of the ten percent myth originated in the 1890s reserve energy theories of Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis which postulated that just as the body has dormant energy that can be called on when the circumstance presents itself, then so to must the mind have dormant intellectual ability that can be called on when the circumstance presents itself. The theory itself was based on the second wind descriptions of an Adirondack hiking guide and the extrapolation of this to prolonged mental work, in the sense that one will always begin a project cold, but that given time or after successive attempts or efforts one will eventually begin to warm up to the task, with new mental energy.
In 1891, William James founded America's first psychology department at Harvard University comprised of an eleven room psychology laboratory. During this period, a newly immigrated Russian by the name of Boris Sidis was completing his BA (1890), and MA (1891) at Harvard and began studying under James' tutelage, eventually receiving his PhD (1896) and later his MD there. During this period, in about 1892, Boris and his wife Sarah Sidis, a Harvard physician herself, began hosting a weekly philosophy-psychology discussion group, every Sunday, at their house, attended by scores of students, revered teachers, and no other than professor William James, considered the most renowned of them all, who was said to have "frequently climbed the many stairs to their attic".  It was some time in this period that the reserve energy psychology theory originated. The first published statement of this theory, know better known as the ten percent myth, it seems, was in James’ 1906 speech “The Energies of Men” wherein he commented that:
“We make use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
In the 1914 article “New Theories of Education”, American journalist Addington Bruce, called the James-Sidis principle the “law of reserve energy”, and was explaining it to the effect that in the days of the savage people only used three-quarters of their brains, but that modern people were tapping into their mind with more use having discovered their reserve mental energy: 
“Psychologists are more and more inclined to the opinion, first voiced only a short time ago by William James and Boris Sidis, that there is in every human being a store of disposable ‘reserve energy’, commonly utilized at infrequent intervals, but capable of being utilized habitually to great advantage. Reaction to stimulus results in tapping a new level of energy. Without being in the slightest degree conscious of it, they have adjusted themselves to the leading of a fuller, a more intense, a more effective life than they led in the days when, like the savage, they lived with three-quarters of their brain unused.”
In 1929, on the heels of William James' view that “we are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources”, the World Almanac ran an advertisement from a self-improvement company that stated: 
“Scientists and psychologists tell us we only use about 10 percent of our brain power.”
The myth became legend when in 1936 American writer Lowell Thomas commented in the conclusion of his introductory biography, “A Shortcut Distinction”, on Dale Carnegie, found in the introduction to multi-decade long best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, that:
“Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average person develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability.”
The over millions of people (at least 15-million) who have read this book, over the last century, have since gone on to popularize this ten percent brain function factoid to the point that it is now part of the common cultural zeitgeist.
|William Sidis (IQ=250-300) - truth behind the 10% myth: spoke first word 'door' at six months; learned to read and spell correctly before age two; at age 4, was typing in French and English; age 5, invented a base twelve logarithm table; age 6, could pass a medical school anatomy exam; age 8, passed the entrance exam for MIT and had written at least four books on anatomy, astronomy, grammar, linguistics, and mathematics; age 9, graduated high school, passed Harvard entrance exam, and gave an anatomy lecture; age 10, had learned differential and integral calculus was checking Einstein's work for errors; age 11, gave a lecture on four-dimensional space; age 16, Harvard graduate (BS mathematics), age 17, mathematics professor at Rice University, while pursing PhD; age 18-20, completed Harvard law school (then quit his last semester, while in good academic standing, for no apparent reason); at 21, he defended himself in court; age 22, wrote treatise on second law of thermodynamics applied to life, the evolution of the universe, and black holes; age 29, invented (and patented) a perpetual calender, with movable parts; spoke 25 languages.|
In 1898, Boris and Sarah bore a son William James Sidis, named in honor of "William James", in which Sarah and particularly Boris began to test and prove the reserve mental energy theory. Their test, in fact, was so successful in developing of their son's intellectual abilities using this principle, that William was on the the first page of the New York Times nineteen times for his various mental feats and was in fact the model for the 1997 film Good Will Hunting.  Boris commented on his application of reserve energy in the raising of his son in a circa 1910 issue of New York American: 
“I do not believe in the prevailing system of education for children. I have raised my son upon a system of my own, based to some extent upon the principles laid down by professor William James.”
“You must begin a child's education as soon as he displays any power to think. Everybody knows how hard it is to learn a new language late in life. The same holds good of all our acquisitions. The earlier they are acquired the more truly they become part of us. At the same time keep alive within the child the quickening power of curiosity. Do not repress him. Answer his questions; give him the information he craves, seeing to it always that he understands your explanations.
You need not be afraid of overstraining his mind. On the contrary, you will be developing it as it should be developed―will he habituating the child to avail himself of the great fund of latent energy which most of us, to our detriment, so seldom use.
The law of ‘reserve mental energy,' as set forth by professor William James, has much to do with the progress of my son. Professor James explained that the power of getting what is popularly known as 'second wind' might be controlled at will and enable us to accomplish daily and regularly what we can all do under stress of circumstances. If you do prolonged mental work you will find yourself grow tired, but if you keep on working the feeling of fatigue will pass away. You are drawing on your reserve mental energy.”
In 1910, American journalist Addington Bruce began to popularize the combination of the reserve energy theory, its application in William Sidis' childhood abilities, in conjunction with the logic that a large fraction of the average brain is unused.  It is primarily through the writings of Bruce that the figure of "unused percent" began to be associated with child prodigy William Sidis. In 1951 retrospect, Sarah commented back on their application of the "reserve mind theory" their son:
“Genius was the term used for Billy. My son had merely learned the ability to use his brain to its capacity. In this regard, the science of psychopathology has set forth this fundamental principle which is not only of the utmost importance in medicine but also in the field of education. It is the idea of stored up, dormant, potential, subconscious power—reserve energy. Billy was able to achieve an understanding easier than most people because he was aware of how to release and harness this reserve energy.”
Fact or fiction?
As to the question of whether the ten percent theory is fact or fiction, as many articles have been published on this issue, arguing from both sides, the fact that the myth is based on the true story of the use of the theory in the intellectual development William Sidis leaves the question open for debate, in the sense that one, in theory, could take any random child and by means of accelerated home schooling result to utilize or employ a far greater portion of the mind than is used in the development of the average student.
The famous “Edith Experiment” is another example of this. Specifically, in 1952 New Yorker Aaron Stern resolved to make his newborn daughter a genius, simply by stimulating the mind in the proper manner. In fact, In 1952, when his daughter was born, Stern called a hospital press conference, inviting all his friends to see the infant, and in his own words, “I told them bluntly that she was destined become a genius.” With her father's help, she was reading before age two, entered collage at age twelve, was teaching mathematics at Michigan State University by age 15, completing her PhD at age 18, supposedly has an an adulthood IQ of 203, and now works as a secret computer programmer at IBM.
In the 1971 book The Making of a Genius, Stern commented that “he could foster the same meteoric IQ in the children of the Tasaday tribe, a Stone Age people living in the Phillippines.” On these examples, it may be that the mind is capable of far greater ability that is currently used, thus lending credibility to the 10 percent myth.
● Good Will Hunting (William Sidis)
1. Thomas, Lowell. (1936). “A Shortcut to Distinction”, In: How to Win Friends and Influence People (pg. 283), by Dale Carnegie, Simon and Schuster.
2. (a) James, William. (1907). The Energies of Men (pg. 14). Kessinger Publishing.
(b) Speech: “The Energies of Men” delivered as the Presidential Address before the American Philosophical Association at Columbia University, Dec. 28, 1906.
3. Bruce, H. Addington. (1910). “Bending the Twig” (discusses Boris’s reserve energy theory), American Magazine, Vol. 69: 690-95, Mar.
4. Bruce, H. Addington. (1914). “New Theories in Education”, in The Outlook (quote, pg. 148), by: Abbott, Lyman, Mabie, Hamilton W., Abbott, Ernest H., Bellamy, Francis R.. Outlook Co.
5. Wallace, Amy. (1986). The Prodigy: a Biography of William James Sidis: America's Greatest Child Prodigy (pg. 14). Dutton Adult.
6. Sarah, Sidis. (1951). “Genius”, unpublished manuscript, 5-pgs, Sidis.net.
7. Author. (1910). "Boy Prodigy of Harvard", Current Literature, 48: 291-93.
8. Pickover, Clifford A. (1998). Strange Brains and Genius: the Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen (ch. 13: Do We Really Use Only 10 Percent of Our Brain?, pgs. 209-213). Quill.
● 10% of brain myth – Wikipedia.
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