William James, Harvard philosopher and psychologist, is often called the father of American psychology. James is credited with the founding of the psychological school of pragmatism, and is famous for his major, groundbreaking contribution to the study of religion, On the Varieties of Religious Experience. James’ prominence and larger-than-life stature in his field may explain the outsize influence of the following words, written in his 1911 monograph, On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men & The Gospel of Relaxation:1
It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon: deeper and deeper strata of combustible or explosible material, discontinuously arranged, but ready for use by anyone who probes so deep, and repairing themselves by rest as well as do the superficial strata. Most of us continue living unnecessarily near our surface…
Of course there are limits: the trees don’t grow into the sky. But the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.
It can be argued that the myth that human beings only utilize some ten-percent of their brains comes from James’ postulating vast reserves of untapped physical and mental energies. James and a colleague at Harvard, an immigrant Berditchever Jew named Boris Sidis, are said to have even tested such theories in the upbringing of Sidis’ child, named William James Sidis after the philosopher. The younger Sidis was a prodigy of immense promise, who himself enrolled in Harvard at age 9, and was lecturing on the mathematics of four-dimensional bodies within 2 years.2
Another prominent early example for the propagation of the so-called “reserve energies” theory can be found in the foreword to the 1936 first edition of Dale Carnegie’s popular How to Win Friends and Influence People. There, the great journalist and broadcaster Lowell Thomas cites James:
Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten per cent of his latent mental ability. Dale Carnegie, by helping business men and women to develop their latent possibilities, has created one of the most significant movements in adult education.
The ten-percent idea, as it has come to be widely understood, thus theorizes that we leave the preponderance of our mental capacities unused. Often attributed to luminaries like Albert Einstein, it is largely a myth usually coupled with various empty promises of tapping into this power using some program or another. The idea finds expression in contemporary pop culture as well, most notably in the Scarlett Johansson vehicle Lucy (2014), and Limitless (2011), starring Bradley Cooper. The tagline for the former, appearing on promotional materials, states “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.” Both films traffic in the notion that the other ninety percent can be accessed using sophisticated nootropics.
While the simplistic idea that quantifiable reserves of vast mental capabilities remain locked away in our brains remains a myth, Jewish texts, especially in the mussar library, lament our unused potential and urge us to exert ourselves to our fullest spiritual and mental capacities. Similarly, stories of tzaddikim abound wherein these rarified individuals are said to have transcended ordinary physical constraints. Many of us has been privileged to meet especially righteous people who seem to possess near-clairvoyant powers of insight, understanding, and empathy. Surely, we all are capable of pushing ourselves to higher intellectual vistas and of elevating ourselves to spiritual planes which at the present may seem completely out of reach or only the portion of such tzaddikim. Indeed, we are promised by the prophet Isaiah (60:21), “Thy people shall be all righteous (=kulam tzaddikim): they shall inherit the land for ever.”
It is for these reasons, anecdotal and emotional, I think that a version of the ten-percent myth may actually be true. Spiritually speaking, it is evident that ordinary human beings are capable of staggering feats of ‘sacred attunement.’ People are able to cultivate an ethical and moral awareness that mirrors the form of God with which their existence is cast. Examples of this are our spiritual life’s blood: a palace outcast can commune directly with God, and a shepherd boy can compose the truest poetry ever, the sweet songs of Israel in the tune of the Divine.
This bears a thousand contrasts to “a pill which can make you rich and powerful”, as the tagline for Limitless suggests. This is not some techno-fantasy wherein some hapless schlub gets the modern equivalent of a bottle and three wishes. Actualizing one’s full spiritual potential is a matter of intense personal work and struggle, and many stumble before that arduous journey can even begin. Nevertheless the promise of personal transcendence is there — available to anyone. All may climb the ladder of R. Pinhas b. Yair’s beraita, which leads, inexorably, to pure Divine inspiration, ruah ha-kodesh.3
A striking fragment written by R. Kook draws our attention to this possibility, and highlights the limitless spiritual potential we possess:
The more one appreciates their own spiritual level, they will begin to understand that there needn’t be any limit to their creative imagination. Au contraire, their imagination should illustrate anything within its ability, and even if some truly powerful images come to light, one still hasn’t approached a drop in the ocean of the revelation, elevation, and loftiness they are capable of. And no matter the level of contentment which fills you, derived through this introspective freedom — even when the ways of ‘proper imagination’ guide it, one still hasn’t approached a fraction of a thousandth of the veritable eden that may be discovered within existence, itself entirely a revelation of Divinity at play, the eden of the rock of all worlds.4
Within us inheres a Divine soul, an infinitesimal shard of Godliness that animates our inner life and can be completely sullied or polished to perfection during a lifetime. Deep personal introspection and serious engagement with one’s imaginative faculties can allow us to fashion visions of what our spiritually expanded consciousness might be. That holy attention to inner life allows one to perceive Divinity as it manifests itself in the workings of our mundane existence. A kind of vast understanding and equanimity descend upon the soul, as the inner Godliness is realized — an entirely humbling process that is only possible through humility. Cultivated properly, the Divine spark within us finds itself drawn closer to the fire of God from which it emanated. Profound insight and Divine inspiration course through the soul of the adept, as the self is obliterated, united with creation. This world is no longer the shadowy, fragmented hellscape of suffering and concealment, as they are revealed to be a mere overlay upon the primordial Garden of Eden that remains unspoiled, with the voice of God dancing and echoing through its verdant landscape.
I like to imagine that even in our own times, souls like R. Kook’s operated at this level, tapped into the spiritual riches of pure inspiration, ruah ha-kodesh. I also like to imagine that this is the lot of all those who call out in God’s name truthfully, and once we attune ourselves to this fact, the possibilities are absolutely limitless.
1. This quote was brought to my attention by Maria Popova’s excellent “Brain Pickings” blog, a highly recommended curated resource for ideas and texts. The full monograph is available here, and the quote appears on pp. 5-6. ↩
2. The story of William James Sidis, once claimed to have possessed the highest IQ of all-time (an obvious exaggeration), is a deeply fascinating and tragic one of genius failed. Sidis was said to have known 40 languages, one of them his own invention, and at 9, was the youngest undergraduate at Harvard. ↩
3. The beraita’s causal chain of righteousness constitutes the outline of R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim (see our first essay on Daf Aleph, “I Have Wasted My Life”), and is found in the bavli on Avodah Zara 20b and Sotah 49b. ↩
4. Shemonah Kevatzim 1:585; Also appears in part in Orot ha-Kodesh 1:176↩