The limitless capacity of the human brain

by Penny Boreham

In 1908 the psychologist and philosopher William James wrote in his classic text “The Energies of Men”:-

“We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources”

That was over a century ago, but since William James’ reflections countless researchers and scientists have tried to establish and explore the extent to which we underuse our brain’s capacity.

It is often misleadingly and simplistically stated that we only use ten percent of our brain. This has been widely criticized by neuroscientists as a misunderstanding of  the whole anatomy and workings of our brain and nervous systems.

However, what is emerging is new research that shows that we can literally change the wiring and architecture of our brains through how we focus our attention on the internal world of our minds.


Professor Dan Seigel is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who incorporates his knowledge about the science of the brain into his therapeutic practice.  He has coined the term “Mindsight” to describe how the way we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.

He says that with the right practice the brain can change and “we then become captain of our own ship, and learn to move our own minds”. This way, we can change the connections in the brain itself.

Dr Seigel makes the point that “when neurons fire we can get them to rewire.”

At KhironHouse

At Khiron House’s residential clinic mindfulness is used as a way for clients to tune it and track their sequences of physical sensations and impulses both in preparation for, and as part of, the core therapies we offer – Sensorimotor psychotherapy and Somatic Experiencing.

Therapists are skilled at using mindfulness to support their clients’ processes. Meditation, Yoga and T’ai Chi are also part of our programme to both hold and soften clients dysregulated systems, and encourage them to start noticing their systems and use their own awareness more effectively. A mindful approach in combination with the core therapies we offer to treat trauma can transform the brain and the nervous system.

The full capacity of the human brain

The research of biological psychiatrist Dr Dennis Charney shows us how adaptable and flexible the brain can be.

As part of his research into how experience shapes the human brain, and to find out more about it’s resilience, he did extensive interviews with prisoners of war.

His purpose was to evaluate how individuals, who have been exposed to extreme stress, experience changes in their brain capacity.

When Dr Charney spoke about his research he reported that:-

“One of the things we have found in our research is that in general we don’t make full use of the capacity of the human brain”

For Dr Charney the extremity of the experience of the prisoners of war contributed much to his research

“They told us that when they were in solitary confinement for years and all they had was the ability to think, they developed unusual cognitive capacities that they never had before”

The incarceration was a nightmare but the thinking time exercised their brain.

“one individual told us he was able to [accurately] multiply many numbers by many numbers – 12 numbers by 12 numbers … another told us that he was able to remember very early times in his childhood, like remembering the names of the students in his kindergarten class. Admiral Shoemaker, one of the individuals that we came to admire a lot, built a house in his mind nail by nail, cabinet by cabinet, room by room, and then when he got out he built that house, and when we met him he was having a fight with his wife because she wanted to renovate the house and he said no way was that going to happen”

Dr Charney is now following a similar path to Dr Siegel in that he describes how these research findings led to a profound interest in starting to try to understand how we could train the brain to improve plasticity and flexibility, and explore how we can have an impact on the circuits of the brain through mindful exercise. He has witnessed what could be possible in terms of developing brain capacity and is now developing techniques to retrain the circuits of the brain involved with learning and memory mechanisms.

Also he is researching into what is present in those people who are more resilient to trauma and stress to try to identify the components present in order to help those who are suffering to develop these facets themselves.

His intention is to tap into the circuits of the brain linked to the chemistry of human anxiety.

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day. 

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