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Do You Use Only 10% of Your Brain?

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We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty special. All this week, mentalfloss.com is celebrating this miracle organ with a heap of brain[y] stories, lists, and videos. It all leads up to Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss, a two-hour television event hosted by Bryant Gumbel. The special airs Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel.

The simple answer is: No.

This myth is so prevalent that it is unquestioningly accepted as a pivotal plot point in movies, a motivational tactic for self-improvement, or justification for claims about ESP and other supposed untapped abilities of the human mind. A 2013 poll surveying over 2000 Americans found that 65 percent believed the 10 percent myth. A 2007 study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that even some doctors weren't immune to the fallacy. But the truth is that everyone uses 100 percent of their brain.

Proving this idea wrong is relatively easy with modern technology. PET and fMRI scans show that even when we're sleeping, our entire brain is active on some level. Our observations of individual neurons or cells reveal no inactive areas of the brain. Metabolic studies of cellular metabolism in the brain show consistent activity as well. "Evidence from studies of brain damage, brain imaging, localization of function, microstructural analysis, and metabolic studies show that people use much more than 10 percent of their brains," according to the BMJ paper. "No area of the brain is completely silent or inactive."

But even before imaging techniques allowed scientists to definitively debunk this myth, how did it arise in the first place? And why has it held on into the era of such increased understanding of how the brain works?

Some attribute its origin to the prominent philosopher and psychologist William James, who in 1907 wrote in The Energies of Man, "We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources." He probably meant that we all have untapped potential. Twenty-nine years later, in the introduction to Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People, Lowell Thomas wrote, presumably referencing that quote, "Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten per cent of his latent mental ability."

From here, the sentiment seems to have spun off; versions of it found use in the science fiction and spiritual communities. It didn't help matters that in the 1920s and '30s, prominent psychologist Karl Lashley attempted to isolate regions of the brain by removing areas of the cerebral cortex in rats. When he found they were still able to learn and remember specific tasks, it contributed to the idea that there are large swatches of "inactive" brain mass. We know now the brain's plasticity allows it to recover from such injury and compensate for the loss. That's the very opposite of inactive. 

Decades later, the myth has persevered because of the attractive possibility it seems to present. It absolves us for not reaching our full potential, offers a persistent insecurity for self-help gurus to appeal to, and provides a pseudo-scientific explanation for the limits of human comprehension. 

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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