The Seduction of Cognitive Enhancement

“It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of the brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 percent; interesting things begin to happen.”

Scarlett Johansson-Lucy-Italian-posterThat is a comment by Morgan Freeman, delivered in his compelling baritone voice, in a trailer for the movie “Lucy.”

This Italian poster reads: “Una persona in media usa il 10%…” – That translates (per Google) to “A person on average uses 10% of his brain capacity. She will arrive at 100%.”

– From an Italian review page of the movie.

A Forbes magazine review links to an interesting article on the topic: The Ten-Percent Myth, by Benjamin Radford, Managing Editor of the Skeptical Inquirer.

A Wired magazine review: Lucy’s Based on Bad Science, and 6 More Secrets About the Film by Angela Watercutter) summarizes:

“The general premise is that a young woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) gets abducted by a gang in Taipei and forced to carry a bag of drugs in her abdomen.

“But when the bag bursts, the drug gives her access to the 90 percent of her brain that most of us never use, making her superhuman.

“The idea that we only use 10 percent of our brains, however, is a myth—a fact more than a few recent stories recently have taken pride in pointing out. The writer/director, in turn, would like to remind them it’s fiction.”

The review links to a Scientific American article: Do People Only Use 10 Percent of Their Brains? By Robynne Boyd, who writes, ‘Though an alluring idea, the “10 percent myth” is so wrong it is almost laughable, says neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

‘Although there’s no definitive culprit to pin the blame on for starting this legend, the notion has been linked to the American psychologist and author William James, who argued in The Energies of Men that “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” It’s also been associated with Albert Einstein, who supposedly used it to explain his cosmic towering intellect.’


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“My Adderall helps me think so much clearer.” [From an ADD forum.]

Who wouldn’t want that? It’s easy to be lured by the promises of a smart pill or cognitive enhancer that could help us not only think more clearly and access more memory, but feel good about ourselves and be tireless and endlessly confident.

“Imagine a drug that makes your brain function with perfect efficiency, tapping into your most fundamental resources of intelligence and drive, releasing all the passive knowledge you’d ever accumulated. A drug that made you focused, charming, fast, even attractive.”

– From book description for “The Dark Fields” novel by Alan Glynn, later released as a tie-in book for the movie: Limitless: A Novel.

Steven Zeitchik says in his article about the movie “Limitless” (2011) that “down-on-his-luck New York writer Eddie” (Bradley Cooper, above left) takes a magic potion – a “miracle street narcotic in the form of a translucent pill, NZT that enhances mental performance beyond any reasonable expectation. (Yes, it’s fictional.)”

As film reviewer Roger Ebert noted, “it is a pill that suddenly puts his entire brain online. He finishes his novel at typing speed. He wins at poker, invests in the market, and runs it up to millions. He fascinates a woman who had rejected him as a loser.”

Zeitchik notes that as much as “Limitless” concerns “the emotional and ethical implications of a mental-enhancement drug…its real preoccupation is the value and cost of success.”

The director of “Limitless” Neil Burger made the acclaimed movie “The Illusionist,” but was involved with many projects that never got produced.

“I definitely would get to the point where I felt like this is never going to happen, and I didn’t quite get what’s wrong,” Burger said. “Or how to make it right.”

Zeitchik commented, “A suburban Connecticut childhood spent drawing fictional worlds — space colonies and the like — led the director to a fine-arts education at Yale University.

“It might seem like a charmed life, but soon after graduation he had moved to Los Angeles and found himself, like many struggling young filmmakers, in a dismal existence, living next to people like a “washed-up makeup artist who’s in the business, but not really.”

A dream of creative success

Burger comments on one of the underlying ideas of the movie: “There was something I responded to about an artist with this dream of success, and it’s just not happening and it’s never going to happen. And you never know: Is it that you don’t have it, whatever it is, or lightning just hasn’t struck?”

[From article ‘Limitless’ director Neil Burger’s career reality has plenty of ups and downs, By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times March 17, 2011.] [Click image to view larger.]

That sort of existential angst is one of the things I liked about the movie, along with the seductive idea of chemically defusing that anxiety with a drug (even one that is definitely not FDA-approved) like speed or Adderall, that also boosts cognition and performance and enhances creativity. Pretty hot stuff.

See my related post Boosted Cognition and Enhanced Creativity, in which I quote Jonathan Wai, Ph.D.: ““Although the idea of such a pill becoming a reality anytime soon is unlikely, what struck me was his sudden ability to focus his mind once on the drug. And not only was Cooper’s character more focused, but his ability to creatively problem solve was increased.”

Deutsch: Blaue Adderall-Tablette, enthält 10mg...

More on psychostimulant medication Adderall

It may help people with ADD/ADHD, but according to psychiatrist Ronald Ricker and psychologist Venus Nicolino, “Estimates are that somewhere between 20-30 percent of college students regularly abuse Adderall. Calling it an ‘upper’ is like calling a hydrogen bomb a grenade.”

They also warn, “Overdose with Adderall is nasty. Results include Cardiac and/or pulmonary arrest, death, severe and lasting mental effects/defects. Which one happens to you is a matter of chance. If you’re in an Emergency Room and still alive your chances are relatively good. If you overdose at your apartment and are alone, the chance of your living is slim.”

From their Huffington Post article: Adderall: The Most Abused Prescription Drug in America.

Joshua Foer explained in an article about Adderall: “Usually prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (read Sydney Spiesel in Slate on the risks and benefits), the drug is a cocktail of amphetamines that increases alertness, concentration, and mental-processing speed and decreases fatigue. It’s often called a cognitive steroid.” [From “The Adderall Me – My romance with ADHD meds” Slate, May 10, 2005.]

weed girlBut the appeal of a cognitive steroid is strong, especially for people in high-demand jobs. A couple of decades age, I used speed occasionally to stay “energized” for work on 12-18 hour a day film production jobs.

And many talented people of different ages have a “rage to achieve” as therapist Belinda Seiger, PhD notes in her articles: The Special Challenges of Highly Intelligent and Talented Women Who Are Moms, and Weed Girl – numbing her “rage to achieve”.

Aside from potentially dangerous drugs, there are other choices for cognitive enhancement.

Programs such as Lumosity Brain Training have been shown in some research studies to improve cognitive functions like working memory, processing speed and fluid intelligence.

One related software program is Neuroactive Program Complete Brain Training.

Cognitex (a supplement from Life Extension Products) – contains Phosphatidylserine (PS), “a crucial building block in the brain” (the site explains).

“Aging causes a decline in the PS content of cells throughout the body including brain cells, which can lead to cognitive decline…Cognitex contains a compound that mimics the naturally occurring PS in the brain.”

Obviously, this topic of cognitive enhancement is very complex and extensive. I read every once in a while about research on nutraceuticals and nootropics – but this is not a topic I keep informed about.

Are you aware of any really safe smart drugs?



  1. […] The Seduction of Cognitive Enhancement — “My Adderall helps me think so much clearer.” [From an ADD forum.] — Steven Zeitchik says in his article about the movie “Limitless” that “down-on-his-luck New York writer Eddie (Bradley Cooper)” takes a magic potion – a “miracle street narcotic in the form of a translucent pill, NZT that enhances mental performance beyond any reasonable expectation. (Yes, it’s fictional.)” […]

  2. Umm…..there are safe “smart drugs” they are the racetam family (piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam, and pramiracetam). There is also vasopressin, and, although not entirely safe, modafinil is much safer than adderall.
    These and a few more (mustn’t forget the acetycholine precursors) are the active ingredients in a super smart drug that was featured (and put to the test) in Wired magazine.

What do you think about these topics?