Updated: Jan 27
Can we tap into 100% of our brain like in Lucy?
The movie ‘Lucy’ made a lot of moviegoers believe that we use only 10% of our brain’s capacity. I hate to admit that even I fell into that trap. The 2014 blockbuster starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman, told the story of college student Lucy who gained extraordinary powers after being drugged which let her tap into the remaining 90% of her brain’s capacity. Her powers included shape-shifting, telepathy, immunity to pain and fear, etc. The progression of the movie showcased Lucy gaining various abilities at various stages of unlocking her ‘brain percentage’. She used this to combat evil and bring the drug cartel to justice.
But it all comes at a price. As she reached about 30% of her brain capacity she starts to disintegrate. At 70% she starts to vomit light and energy. At 80% she grows slithery black tendrils and at 90% she journeys through space and time. Finally, at 100% she just disappears and becomes a black shapeshifting flash drive containing all of mankind’s secrets 「(ﾟ<ﾟ)ﾞ?? I actually can't believe I used to love this movie when I was younger (and the fact that a 10-year-old is watching a very violent movie promoting drug use should not raise any concerns) The main questions: do we use only 10% of our brain and can we tap into these extraordinary powers?
It's actually a myth that we use only 10% of our cerebral capacity. While we do not use the entire 100% of our brain at all times, we can tap into the entirety of the brain’s capacity at various instances in our day-to-day life. A Neuroscientist from John Hopkins notes: “We use virtually every part of the brain…[Most of] the brain is active almost all the time.” Even to pick up a pen, we use some percentage of our brain. Most attribute ‘using our brain’ for computation thinking, solving puzzles, or figuring out which movie hall would have the best value for money. But for simple tasks such as walking our neurons need to also work. The set of neurons that work to pick up the pen or walk are different from the set that we use when we paint, listen to music or finish our math homework 10 min before the deadline.
Even so, where exactly did this myth originate from? Scientists believe that it stems from the fact that neuron makes up 10% of our brain. The entire brain has been mapped out and evidence from CT scans and X-rays further showcase that we use all aspects of our brain, just not all at the same time. What if we could use all of our neurons at the same time or 100% of our brain at one time? We can’t because about 60% of our brain consists of neural dark matter or neurons that have no response to common stimuli. They are commonly called the ‘dark matter of the brain.’
“ It proposes that a particular stimulus given to neurons only triggers activation only in a small group of neurons.”
While we do use 100% of our brains, is there a drug that we can use to enhance our brain capacity like the CPH4 in the movie? In the film, the Chinese ER doctors state that CPH4 is a substance that occurs naturally within women during their 6th week of pregnancy that gives the fetus‘ energy’ to build their skeletal structure. This is completely false and ridiculous. At least they got the part where the fetus starts making its skeletal structure at the 6th or 7th week correct.
There is in fact a substance called CPH4, but it is an enzyme that catalyzes the reversible reaction of 7,8-dihydroneopterin 3’-triphosphate with water. An enzyme is a biocatalyst. A catalyst is a substance that reduces the activation energy of a reaction. Activation energy is the minimum energy (or heat) required for a reaction to take place. A catalyst basically provides an alternative pathway for the reaction to occur and hence reduces the energy or heat required for the reaction to be successful. A catalyst does not get used up and stays unreacted. A biocatalyst is basically a catalyst originating from natural sources eg bacteria. In reality, CPH4 basically does nothing except speed up a reaction. 7,8-dihydroneopterin 3’-triphosphate is simply an is an intermediate in tetrahydrobiopterin biosynthesis. There is no connection between any of these substances with our brain.
There is a similar fictional substance in the movie and TV show Limitless, which seems more realistic. The drug in question is NZT-48, which gives the user superhuman intelligence. Eddie Morra’s (the protagonist) girlfriend was frustrated with Eddie’s lack of progression, ambition, motivation, and focus; thus Eddie procures the drug. This drug also has side effects such as when Eddie loses his memory for 18 hours - which he calls ‘time skips’. Other side effects include addiction, sleep problems, psychotic tendencies, and apparently whoever takes this drug ends up dead or hospitalized (Except Eddie because he is ~special~). Users also experience acute withdrawal symptoms.
Similar drugs do exist in real life. A drug inspired by the movie - ‘NZT-48 Limitless’ exists and claims to work like the fictional drug, but it only shares its name. This drug is more like a dietary herbal supplement meant to improve memory. This works like those vitamin B9 and B12 pills. "Vitamin B12 is needed for the production of red blood cells and for a healthy nervous system". Since our brain is made up of networks of nerves, B12 helps our brain function better. But it works on a moderate level and is not like the pill from the movie.
The closest counterpart of NZT-48 is Nuvigil commonly known as ‘armodafinil' and is part of the stimulus drug class. This drug is used to treat extreme sleepiness caused by narcolepsy or other sleeping disorders such as shift work sleep disorder. It helps you stay awake if you have an irregular sleep schedule. This drug augments focus by leaps and bounds. The similarity between this drug and NZT-48 can be summarised by this user’s experience:
“My overall focus? Relentless. Writing, I found, became a superhuman trait (granted, the most boring superhero on Earth, but still). I felt words and their synonyms flow from my fingers like lightning and I was typing verbatim what I was thinking. I felt articulate, concentrated. And I wasn’t the only one. My editors noticed too; all week I was complimented on my creativity and quality/volume of work. The rest of the week not much changed. I was in a constant daze physically, but boy did my mind travel to new places I never knew existed. It’s like a dream while you’re awake -- everything's real and serious, but at the same time, does anything matter? (I think I just found the title to my memoir).”
This user tried the drug as an experiment to examine its similarity with the drug in the movie and tv show (Note - DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME). You can read more about his experience ‘here’. However, everything good comes at a price. Similar to NST-48 users can become addicted to Nuvigil. People may experience severe withdrawal symptoms and experience suicidal tendencies. Other side effects include headache, nausea, nervousness, dry mouth, and sleeplessness (While writing this post I can't help but feel like the small print on packaging labels or pharmaceutical ads informing users about its adverse effects while also promoting the product).
So, we use 100% of our brain, just, not all of it at the same time. At any given moment our brain is working and neurons are being fired up. A drug like CPH4 does not exist. You cannot bend reality by taking drugs (even if you may feel like you are)! Drugs like NZT-48 from Limitless exist, but they just boost your brain, they won’t give you superhuman abs or intelligence. They give the same effect caffeine and nicotine give but are stronger. Maybe the ‘dark matter of our brain’ could help us reach the same effect which caffeine crea, however, current research does not show evidence for this. On a final note - ‘DON’T DO DRUGS AND DON’T TRY ANY OF THE DRUGS MENTIONED UNLESS PRESCRIBED BY A DOCTOR!'
Brown, C., & Ford, M. (2014). Higher level chemistry. Pearson Education.