It took a single pill to unlock the hidden depths of Bradley Cooper’s brain power in the original Limitless. The new CBS series of the same name follows Jake McDormand’s Brian Finch on a similar pharmaceutical trip from handsome loser to handsome leader. Cooper is in the Senate now and the pill poppers seem to be flourishing.
The idea of unlocking the brain is naturally appealing (Example 2: Luc Besson’s Lucy), but is access to all of one’s facilities actually a good thing? While the brain-unlocking smart drug NZT is strictly fictional, the concept of an infinite brain is, in theory, scientifically sound. But it’s also profoundly complicated and, on a personal level, complicating.
The idea that everyone has superhuman abilities waiting to be unlocked is central to The Superhuman Mind, an inquiry into mental edge cases by Dr. Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow, who study extraordinary abilities at the University of Miami. The myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains — the brain naturally prunes away unwanted tissue for efficiency’s sake, so it’d be a lot smaller if we really used so little of it — injects the Limitless film and series with some faulty reasoning, but the core problem is elsewhere. There is, as Brogaard pointed out to Inverse, a big difference between brain use and brain potential.
Of the billions of neuronal highways in the brain, some are traveled more often than others. That is, you’ll probably activate the neural connections that let you read a newspaper a lot more often than the ones you once used to pass AP Calculus. Most people struggle to re-activate the latter on their own. But that’s not to say they’ve disintegrated or don’t exist.
Less-traveled neural highways are what Brogaard is referring to when she’s talking about potential. And she has seen those connections become reactivated, but not through drug use: Capabilities are generally unlocked IRL by severe brain injury due to physical violence or stroke. These are the real-life triggers that push the brain to its absolute limits.
Brian Finch’s sky-high IQ and infinite memory are nothing compared to what Brogaard’s seen in her lab. She’s met a farmer who suffered gashes to the head and temporary paralysis after a fall down a slope then developed the ability to paint and write incredible poetry after regaining mobility. A man recovering from injuries caused by diving into the shallow end of a pool transformed into a world-class piano player. A college dropout who sustained a severe blow to the head now sees the world in terms of complicated geometric figures.
These abilities are as impressive as they are unpredictable. There is not one form of mental blossoming. Brain transformations yield wildly unpredictable results. In other words, the likelihood of Bradley Cooper and his protege, possessors of two different brains, getting smart in the same way would be low. If Cooper became a Senator, Finch might become a polyglot or a tap dancer. The only plausible trait shared by the duo is infinite memory.
“It’s not unlikely that we could figure out how to make it happen,” says Brogaard. “There are cases of people with what we could almost call ‘infinite memory.’” (High IQ, however, is not necessarily a corollary.)
Kim Peek, the real-life Rain Man, could read both pages of an open book at once and retain 98 percent of the information he encountered. The memory of a Russian reporter named Solomon Shereshevskii had “no limit to capacity or time,” said Brogaard, citing stories of his ability to recall nonsense mathematical equations after eight years. His infinite memory was tied to his synesthesia, a rare condition in which the senses become entwined. There’s a lot to learn about the neural basis for these mysterious phenomena, but learning how extraordinary brains are wired differently could hold the key to pushing the limits of less ordinary ones.
That none of these people showed any hint of these abilities before their injuries gives credence to the idea of a limitless brain. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a non-violent way to tap into them, although Brogaard does acknowledge that ketamine and psilocybin — the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms — could potentially dramatically increase a person’s openness and creativity with a single dose, although legal issues have stifled studies on their safety and effectiveness.
Limitless gets our limitations right: We’re only held back by our ability to unlock our brain’s full potential. But the extent to which our brains are limitless is, well, limitless. A single blow to the head can make a creative, linguistic, or mathematical savant out of a mental nobody, and when it comes to pushing the boundaries of human capability, there seems to be no end in sight.
“In theory, there are no limits to what kinds of cognitive abilities we could unlock in the future,” says Brogaard.