Share story

We humans use all of our brain matter, but we don’t always use it well.

There are many compelling reasons why we should pay attention to our brains and their functionality. Better mental-health care and sound brain development have been on my mind recently. I wouldn’t have imagined a Scarlett Johansson movie would be a reason to think about the brain, but her new picture, “Lucy,” has stirred a conversation about brain capacity.

In the movie, drugs allow her character to use all of her brain, which results in superhuman abilities.

The movie is based on a myth that has no substance and yet is widely believed. Recent polls find that two-thirds of Americans believe people use only 10 percent of their brain capacity.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The list of things people believe, but that aren’t true, would fill an encyclopedia, but the error isn’t always a matter of stupidity. In the case of this particular myth, daily observation of the species might lead to a similar conclusion because we don’t always use our heads.

Brain misfires are an endless source of puzzlement and humor, but our collective ignorance about the organ that defines our existence has serious consequences for everything from mental-health care to education to personal brain development.

I wasn’t smiling at all as I read excerpts from Aaron Ybarra’s journal in a news story last week.

The 26-year-old wrote that he cared about his family and friends, but, “Everybody else in the world, I just want to blow their faces out with a 12-gauge shotgun blast!”

Ybarra is accused of killing Seattle Pacific University student Paul Lee in June and injuring two other people on the SPU campus before he was subdued.

His encounters with the mental-health system follow a familiar pattern. There were several, and there were two attempts to involuntary commit him, but they failed.

First, I have to say that most people who have a serious mental illness are no more dangerous than anyone else. But public perceptions of mental illness contribute to a reluctance to seek out or agree to treatment.

Second, mental-health professionals don’t have a way to accurately predict who will commit violence, but erring on the side of caution seems sensible to me. We need to revisit the balance between personal freedom and potential risk to a person or a community. Sometimes people can’t decide for themselves whether they need treatment. And our default for people who prove to be dangerous (and for many who aren’t dangerous) is anything but humane — we leave them to the criminal-justice system.

Mental-health providers also have to improve public trust and deal with costs that can be barriers to seeking treatment.

What does make me smile is that mental-health care and people’s understanding of the brain are improving at a fast clip, giving us lay people more to hang on to than myths.

Somewhere recently I read that there is a new effort to get neurologists and psychologists to talk with each other more, so that research and practice benefit one another and patients. That would be good.

One of the benefits of recent brain research is the advances in understanding how to protect and nurture our brains from the start of life.

The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington has been at the forefront of much of that research. Patricia Kuhl’s work on early learning is especially important, because the best way to grow healthy human beings is to start them off right.

If you’re a young parent, get a copy of “Brain Rules for Baby,” by John Medina, another professor at the UW.

I think what’s appealing about that 10 percent brain myth is that it suggests the possibility of our being so much more — if we could just unlock that other 90 percent. In the movie the key is a drug, but in real life all we have at hand is a cup of coffee.

I’ve gleaned from the experts that the best way to get a quick hit of brain power is to exercise your body and your brain, eat well and maybe take a nap. It’s not so sexy as the movie, but it’ll work for anyone who isn’t Scarlett Johansson.

And maybe when we’re all thinking straight, we can contribute to better public policy discussions about mental health.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.