The Superheroes

Inside the mind of Batman and other larger-than-life heroes.

Limitless: Some Thoughts About the Film

Would you take a pill to have "limitless" mental ability?

I didn't get a chance to see to see the film Limitless when it was in theatres, but I recently saw it on the small screen. Before I talk about it, though if you haven't seen it, here's an overview, from IMDB:

An action-thriller about a writer who takes an experimental drug that allows him to use 100 percent of his mind. As one man evolves into the perfect version of himself, forces more corrupt than he can imagine mark him for assassination. Out-of-work writer Eddie Morra's (Cooper) rejection by girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) confirms his belief that he has zero future. That all vanishes the day an old friend introduces Eddie to NZT, a designer pharmaceutical that makes him laser focused and more confident than any man alive. Now on an NZT-fueled odyssey, everything Eddie's read, heard or seen is instantly organized and available to him. As the former nobody rises to the top of the financial world, he draws the attention of business mogul Carl Van Loon (De Niro), who sees this enhanced version of Eddie as the tool to make billions. But brutal side effects jeopardize his meteoric ascent... Written by Relativity Media  

See All Stories In

Talent or Hard Work?

Clue: They both matter...

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Note that the concept that we normally only "use a small percentage of our brains" isn't accurate, so a drug that enables us to use "100%" doesn't make sense. Below is this summary from Wikipedia about this myth and its inaccuracy (and yes, I know that Wikipedia isn't always correct, but in this case it's close enough. Here's a link to a Scientific American article about the topic):

Scientific accuracy

At the start of the film a marijuana dealer says that we can only access 20% of our brain (and that NZT lets a person access all of it), referring to a common myth. The mechanism of how the drug actually works is never scientifically explained in the film. Neurologist Barry Gordona describes the myth as laughably false, adding, "we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time",[9] and neuroscientist Barry Beyerstein has set out seven kinds of evidence refuting the ten percent myth.[10]

Physics professor James Kakalios said it was plausible that medical science could improve intelligence, but that neurochemistry is not advanced enough for it to be achieved currently. Kakalios also said the notion used in the film that human beings can only access 10% of their brains is a myth: 100% of it is used at different times. Kakalios said if such a pill existed, a person running out of the supply could actually experience a rebound effect.[11] This is alluded to in the movie, as the protagonist's ex-wife explains that she can't concentrate for more than 10 minutes at a time after coming off the drug.

But that's not what I want to address. I was fascinated by several aspects of the film, particularly the idea of being able to obtain enhanced mental abilities-in essence, a superpower-and its consequences. Medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are sometimes referred to as cognitive enhancers or neuroenhancers because of their ability to help people focus their attention by "enhancing" their baseline level of attention.

If each person could have his or her mental abilities enhanced with medication, what might that mean for society? If all of us could obtain the same superpower, would it be a superpower? To paraphrase Dash from the film The Incredibles, if everyone is special, then in a way, no one is. Of course if such an enhancement pill or procedure were available, the likely reality is that it wouldn't be available to all of us.

If it's only available to some of us, though, then it's not playing "fair" for those special recipients to use it for an advantage. Yet if it were possible to do mental exercises to enhance mental ability (such as reading, attending classes, doing special logic puzzles), that would probably seem fair to most people, as long as these mental exercises were available to all who wanted them (and cost wasn't a barrier–there could be scholarships). Doing such exercises means earning the enhanced abilities. Putting in time and effort. It's analogous to the practice involved to play an instrument at a high level or to be an elite athlete. Such folks may start out with a certain level of talent, but they earn their way into high level so achievement.

What can rankle about the enhanced ability of the protagonist in Limitless is that he didn't earn the ability. He took a mental "steroid" to boost his performance and took advantage of it. He played dirty.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com and she also blogs on  Huffington Post. Her most recent book is The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., has taught psychology at Lesley University and Harvard University. She is the editor of the anthology The Psychology of Superheroes. more...

Subscribe to The Superheroes

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.