Northern Colorado Business Report
“Opportunity for a New Kind of Self-Awareness”
By Kai Staats
17 December 2010

Growing up I often heard that we use a mere twenty percent of our brain, the rest left to waste, or at best, a relatively dormant lack of application. It was claimed that only true genius, such as that of Albert Einstein, enabled the engagement of anything more than a paltry, minor fraction of our full potential.

As one who hates to waste anything, I took this on as a challenge, motivation to try to gain another three, four–even ten percent of my brain’s function. But without a means by which my desired improvements could be measured, the goal remained elusive and I gave up the effort.

Three decades later, I learned about the nature of evolution of life on this planet and came to understand that nothing gains improved function in advance of environmental or social pressure, meaning it is impossible for our brains to have evolved to a capacity greater than that which we need in any given task. There is no evidence for any such quantum leap in evolutionary progress whereby a single organ gains a capacity far greater than its immediate need and then just sits there, waiting for the rest of the organism to catch up. Our brain is sized and powered exactly to the capacity required for what we do: walking, talking, hunting, eating, even sending text messages on our mobile phones.

The March 10, 2010 issue of Scientific American featured the cover story “The Brain’s Dark Matter.” In this article, a comparison is made between MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans of the past which noted that relevant to a particular conscious activity (such as reading, talking, or catching a ball) the brain would exhibit only a small increase or decrease in activity (confusing, at best) in comparison to what was then deemed “background noise,” an in-discernible wash of electrical activity not associated with any significant brain activity.

While the introduction of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has improved resolution and accuracy of brain activity imaging, it is the relatively recent recognition of the importance of the background noise which has changed our understanding of the human brain. Studies show the noise to be, in fact, the internal communication between the brain’s compartments. What’s more, the number of channels for communication within the brain, to connect one piece to another, far outweigh the number of channels for receiving and processing stimuli external to the brain (body monitoring plus our five senses).

As a species which enjoys a wide variety of external stimuli, we talk about, act upon, and focus almost entirely on our conscious brain, the functions we are immediately aware of through our daily tasks. It seems that as yogis and masters of meditation have claimed for thousands of years, we should spend a little more time looking inside, tapping into that highly evolved, complex infrastructure for internal communication and real-world problem solving.

The Scientific American article went on to show that when an individual is focused on a task, catching a ball or reading a book, for example, it is the re-purposing of the brain’s background processes to that particular foreground task that is more important than the increase or decrease in overall activity.

Now this is where it gets really interesting. When we focus on a particular task, such as reading a book, we have all experienced our minds wandering, causing us to return to the same paragraph three or more times in order to comprehend and absorb the content. The same researchers discovered the ability to predict, up to twenty seconds prior to the event, when an individual will lose focus on any given task. fMRI gives us the ability to see the shift in the brain activity that leads to distraction before it happens.

This level of research is opening new doors in the cognitive sciences which in turn will lead to advances in medicine, therapy, learning, and product development. Soon, real-time brain imaging technologies will be incorporated into portable, personal devices (“iPod EEG App”) and awareness studios adjacent to the food court in shopping malls where you can for just $9.95 see the state of your inner self.

As we are just now beginning to observe the internal reflection of the most beautiful actions which we as a species bestow on each other–love, compassion, and empathy; and the most disturbing displays of anger, fear, and hatred, I am enthralled by the potential for a quantum leap in understanding the human species. I believe if we are to find some semblance of world peace, it will start with a new kind of self-awareness gained not through self-help books, regression therapy, or channeling the dead, but through a truly deep understanding of how we function.

As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” or, “if you want to change the world, start with yourself.” I’ll bet Gandhi was using more than 20% of his brain.