Fact vs. Fiction: The Science of ‘Limitless’

  • Share
  • Read Later

Maybe it’s Bradley Cooper’s particular brand of smirky hunkiness or the draw of DeNiro, but Limitless wound up the #1 movie in theaters this past weekend. We’re guessing the real reason the power fantasy beat out the other new releases is because just about everyone harbors the desire to be smarter, to be more than what you are.

In the movie, Cooper plays Eddie Mora, an author with an epic case of writer’s block who comes across a less-than-legal drug called NZT. The shady substance unlocks Mora’s untapped neural potential, letting him finished that stalled novel and make a killing on the stock market. As out there as the premise of Limitless is, there is some basis in reality for the movie’s plot. Scan the web and you’ll find stories of wannabe writers taking drugs like Adderall to help them concentrate, while other creative types swear by the shot glass or caffeine rush to channel their creativity.

So, what are the stakes when you decide to chemically alter your grey matter to “unlock” some extra smarts? The persistent myth is that people only use 10% of the brain’s potential, but clinical and research psychologist Paula Caplan says “We have no idea how much of the brain is actually used.” Moreover, she adds, “Most people have the impression that if a brain researcher claims they found something, then the finding must be true, when the fact is, at this stage of research on the brain, there is no way to quantify the use of the brain in terms of percentage.” Caplan talked a bit more to Techland about about where real-life science matches up with Limitless.

It’s not like recreational drugs, where people get high for pleasure, so why do people pursue psychopharmaceutical enhancement?

People actually can get high from certain prescription drugs that are sold to treat psychopathologies, if they take the right amounts. So this mood-altering effect could cause people to want more, as Bradley Cooper does in the film. In general, people seek prescription psychoactive drugs because they feel or function badly and want to feel or function better. These people believe what the experts tell them, or in the case of Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless, believe the pill pusher and feel that a pill will be an easy fix to a pressing problem. In the United States, the average worker works much more than they did even 10 years ago. Many people feel they don’t have time for psychotherapy or other activities that could help, so the idea of simply taking a pill in order to get rid of their problems becomes very attractive. However, in real life as in Limitless, taking a pill as a quick fix may have far-reaching negative consequences.

What real-life drugs come closest to the fictional drug NZT? What are the kinds of results do people see with these pills?

Drugs similar to the fictional drug NZT in a couple of ways would be any stimulant medication. These kinds of drugs move a person toward increased ability to concentrate and away from distractibility. The better one can focus, the more information one can take in. Concentration and distractibility exist on opposite ends of a continuum, and the person taking a stimulant will be affected based upon their position on that continuum. In this, a stimulant will affect someone much differently if they are mentally closer to the distraction side of the continuum vs. someone who is closer to the focusing end. One problem with such drugs, as illustrated inLimitless, is that when they wear off, there can be a rebound effect, in which the problem being treated gets worse than ever, and doctors and patients mistakenly conclude that the patients need even more drugs.

Eddie Mora beats up some assailants after remembering some kung-fu movies he’d watched. Would an increase in brain function necessarily correlate to an increase in physical prowess? What would be the actual bodily repercussions of such enhancement?

[vodpod id=Video.5807860&w=425&h=350&fv=%26rel%3D0%26border%3D0%26]

For the most part, no. If someone wants to be a better golfer, watching an expert golfer carefully might help give this observer the edge over a fellow novice who did not watch the expert, but to be proficient at a high level, the person must have physical practice. A person on NZT, like Eddie Mora in Limitless, might need less physical practice because he has a perfect memory of the activity he is recalling, but it would be difficult to translate perfect memory in to physical strength or agility. The physical repercussions of a novice forcing their body to do things they have watched an expert do would probably be the same aches and pains as would any of us have, whether they are on a drug with the effects that NZT supposedly has or not. And if NZT acted like stimulant drugs, the pain would be experienced more intensely, because all of their concentration will be on the pain.

Bradley Cooper’s motivation for taking NZT is to get over writer’s block. What part of the brain handles that kind of creativity and what would you need to do, chemically, to jumpstart it?

No one really knows the part of the brain responsible for writing creatively. I know people who were put on stimulant medication to help them concentrate, but they found that they became less creative. This may be because the person needed a kind of distractible mind to allow it to jump rapidly from one thing to another, which inspired a diversity of thought and creativity, a kind of creativity that focusing more narrowly could have eliminated. For other people, focusing more is essential to their particular approach to writing, which could involve thinking through carefully a variety of directions in which the writing might or might not go. Writer’s block might occur because of shame, anxiety, or fearfulness. In Limitless, it was because Eddie Mora needed to be motivated. In Eddie’s case, the imaginary drug NZT appeared to have allowed him to maintain a diversity of concepts, yet at the same time focus on all concepts simultaneously, drawing out of them amazing content and story. In order to jumpstart the creative process without chemicals of any kind, one might want to do relaxing activities, like walking, or swimming. Having a stiff drink might even help but, of course, that is another kind of chemical.

What are some non-chemical things people can do to make their brain function more efficiently?

A lot of good research has shown that exercise positively affects mental health. There are also certain foods one should eat and certain foods one should avoid in order to maximize one’s cognitive functioning. Low levels of certain B vitamins can cause negative moods in some people, for example, and foods which cause sudden highs and lows of blood sugar might have difficulty thinking clearly. Participating in pro-social activities is shown to affect positively some cognitive functions and mood. Memory exercises can improve memory. It has been shown that elderly people who walk regularly have generally better memories than elderly people who do not. Many times, I’ve seen actors doing crossword puzzles just before they come on stage. In their case, concentration via crossword puzzles sharpens their mind and seems to help them focus intensively once they get onstage.