Behind the Power to be Limitless

Liya Lomsadze | liya.lomsadze@yale.edu May 12, 2011

The movie “Limitless” tells the story of a writer who discovers a secret drug that provides super human abilities by enhancing brain function. Image courtesy of Imdb.com.

Humans have quite a difficult time coming to terms with the limitations of their bodies. Fueled by the realizations of our own fragility and the forces of ambition and imagination, our species seems to be constantly bent on bettering itself. As a culture that has generated genetically engineered enhancements and popular superhero icons such as Superman, we reach tirelessly to leap further, be stronger, and think faster.

Director Neil Burger explores our fascination with enhancing mental abilities in his new movie Limitless, which came out in theaters on March 18th. In the movie, Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, an out-of-luck writer who stumbles upon a top-secret drug that allow him to “access 100 percent of his brain.”

Dumped by his girlfriend and unable to start a book that was due four days ago, the protagonist is dejected and disheveled at the opening of the movie. However, he soon has his life turned upside down when he meets with his ex-wife’s brother, Vernon Gant. Gant, played by Johnny Whitworth, offers Morra a top-secret drug called NZT. “You know how they say that we can only access 20 percent of our brain?” Gant asks Morra. “This lets you access all of it.” With nothing to lose, Morra swallows the clear pill, and his adventures begin.

NZT allows him to recall, process, and use information much faster than before, and he quickly finishes his novel, forsakes writing, and learns to manipulate the stock market, skyrocketing to immense wealth in a matter of days. Along the way, he attracts the attention of business tycoon Carl Von Loon and a mysterious man in a tan coat, both interested in Morra’s incredible powers and his miracle drug. Caught between their manipulations, NZT’s escalating side effects, and the sudden disappearance of NZT, Morra’s life becomes a race for survival.

In the midst of his transformation, Morra muses, “How many of us ever know what it is to become the perfect version of ourselves?” The movie is based around the appeal of this idea of achieving perfection and discovering our untapped potential. The underlying premise of our mind’s inherent inadequacy stems from the age-old 10 percent myth, the idea that we are only able to use 10 percent of our brains. Though a convenient scapegoat for any shortcomings, the notion is false, handed down from a time when there was much less scientific knowledge of the human brain.

However, the origins of this myth are unclear, and some believe that the myth arose out of a misinterpretation of certain observed phenomena. For example, Psychologist Karl Lashley conducted experiments on rats in the early 1900s, excising different parts of the rats’ cerebral cortex and examining the effects on their memory in mazes and performance in visual discrimination tests. He found that even with more than half of the cerebral cortex missing, rats could still perform certain tasks and exhibit some forms of learning. Today, we know that these results are a reflection not of the useless¬ness of the excised brain portions but rather of the resourcefulness and ability of the brain to redistribute functions when faced with certain losses.

Modern brain imaging has shown that while at any given point in time, only a fraction of the brain may be active, but over the course of any entire day, each part of the brain is in fact functioning. For example, if you are at rest, only 10 percent of your brain may be active, but over the course of 24 hours, different areas get activated during different activities, and thus you do end up using 100 percent of your brain, just not all at once. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have conducted experiments with mice and demonstrated this phenomenon. Their study showed that only 20 percent of the neurons in the lateral amygdala of the midbrain in mice are used to make memories. In a series of memory-making events, this percentage of neurons involved stayed the same, but the individual cells that made an appearance in the process changed each time, indicating that while there may be an upper limit to the amount of brain cells involved in any given action, there seems to be no completely unused reservoir of brain matter.

Though tempting, the possibilities presented in Limitless are unrealistic. It appears that there is no magical, untapped grey matter within our skulls waiting to be harnessed. While mood altering substances and drugs like Adderall can affect and improve our cognitive processes, something on the order of NZT only exists in the realm of science fiction.