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One pill makes you smarter: The myths of the meat machine

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Neuroscience gets invoked these days to explain virtually any behavior—from the actions of Wall Street traders to a "God gene" that makes us devout. The term "neuromyths" has even emerged as a collection of fibs about how the brain works. The biggest neuromyth, of course, is that we only use 10 percent of our brain.
It emerges as the theme of a new movie called Limitless that has actually received a few good reviews. A down-on-his-luck writer pops a pill and is able to think faster, remember every detail from his past life and generally outthink everyone. The pill, again we’re really in la-la land here, takes effect in a matter of seconds and the person who ingests it becomes a mental superman.
The pill, NZT, works by allowing the user to rev up mental processing to take advantage of all neural circuits. The promotions that go with the movie acknowledge that, while it’s true that we have occasion to use all of our brain, we only tap into, say 20 percent of our full capacity at any given time. This too is a bubbe meise ("urban myth," loosely translated from the original Yiddish). The more we find out about the brain, the more we understand that a lot is going on behind the scenes: all news all the time. Do a Google search on “default mode network”.
Okay, let’s give the creators of Limitless a little crumb: suppose that your brain is not going full bore every second and suppose we could via a magic pill like NZT make that happen. With all of the neural machinery running full blast, what would be the result: Gordon Gekko, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso? Maybe not. With everything cranked up, at best, you might be ravenously hungry, sexually aroused and sending tweets while skydiving. More likely, though, things would be a lot worse. A flood of stimulatory neurotransmitters would lead to what the experts call “excitotoxicity,” in which circuit after circuit blows out, the kind of massive brain damage that occurs after a stroke. Metaphorically, your head would explode. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons


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  1. 1. halneufmille 2:40 am 03/23/2011

    Ok, we get it, there is a reason why our neurones don’t all fire at the same time. But apart from this minor detail, the main premise of the movie, the prospect of increasing our intelligence, is far from science fiction. Drugs to increase awareness already exist and scientists have even found a way to increase creative thinking:

    Link to this
  2. 2. the Gaul 11:45 am 03/23/2011

    I’ll wager the military is intrigued . . . a pill to make your head explode!

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 1:33 pm 03/23/2011

    The exploding head analogy has some validity.

    The brain’s composite neurons are not just electronics devices: they also require the availability of chemical transmitters and the extraction of chemical waste products. These processes require support from all the internal organs to provide sustainable nutritional delivery and waste extraction.

    Einsteins neurons were not likely just ‘amped up’, but benefited from some specific structural network configurations providing processing enhancements.

    What these short-cuts might produce is more ‘cranked-up’ morons…

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  4. 4. EyesWideOpen 4:11 pm 03/23/2011

    That’s all she wrote?

    Whenever an article makes a dramatic statement against a major scientific assumption and even dubs it a "neuromyth" — without presenting any proof and only one supporting citation ("Source: Wikimedia Commons") — it’s only a problem when it’s found in Scientific American online! Of course that is because we assume Scientific American upholds high standards of journalism.

    Every premise in this too brief article is hinged on one other source, the infallible internet: “Do a Google search on ‘default mode network’.”

    If the quality of journalism doesn’t improve, what’s the point of reading Daily Digest emails from Scientific American, let alone clicking on the articles?

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  5. 5. GreenMind 5:30 pm 03/23/2011

    I can’t really understand this argument. If I said I only use 10% of my computer’s capacity, almost everyone would understand what I mean. It doesn’t mean that 90% of the components of my computer are not being used. It means that most of the time the CPU is working very little, and it could be processing 10 times more without getting warm. It doesn’t mean that I can raise the voltage by 10X.

    Likewise if I said I was only 10% as strong as my actual capacity, everyone would understand. I just need to exercise (a lot) to use my full potential.

    It should be obvious that most people don’t use their brains to their full capacity. I know that most people are capable of learning 10 or more languages, but most people only know one. I know that some people have eidetic memories, but most don’t. I know that some people can do amazing feats of mathematics, but most of us can’t.

    So what is so controversial about most people using only 10% of their brains? Is it because in order to use 100%, we would actually have to work?

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  6. 6. scientific earthling 6:34 pm 03/23/2011

    The 10% myth comes from the fact that 10% of the cells in our brain are neurons. That is all this myth is based on.

    Do the rest of the brain cells have anything to do with thinking, storing memories etc. Read the Sciam article:

    This is the synopsis:
    Nearly 90 percent of the brain is composed of glial cells, not neurons. Andrew Koob argues that these overlooked cells just might be the source of the imagination

    By Andrew Koob | October 27, 2009

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  7. 7. Andira 7:59 pm 03/23/2011

    I recall a Poul Anderson science fiction novel, Brain Wave from 1954, where the solar system comes out of a kind of field that has been blocking our brains, providing a resistance that we have evolved to compensate for. With the field no longer there people with IQ’s of 70 become geniuses and average persons supergeniuses and today’s geniuses reach levels of mental capacity beyond the imaginable. It is a nice book, but implausible as these brains would require enormous amounts of nutrition and, worse, quite simply burn out, under the assumptions of the story. Still, I recommend it for a late Saturday evening.

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  8. 8. GAry 7 8:30 pm 03/23/2011

    As far as chemically induced burn out is concerned, just check with users of cocaine, speed and psychedelics(all psychic energizers). Perhaps someday, we’ll have drugs that can really amplify intellectual functions, while exacting a delayed price. If we could be really smart for 24 hours, being really dumb for a day to repay the investment might be acceptable.

    ,,,but I’m a big fan of cyborg enhancement.

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  9. 9. ramesam 9:00 pm 03/23/2011

    Quote: "With all of the neural machinery running full blast, what would be the result: Gordon Gekko, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso? Maybe not…"

    True. Neural machinery running full blast, one could turn epileptic!

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  10. 10. rajnish 1:44 pm 03/24/2011

    I just tell people again and again that everything that happens in living world is to propagate the gene of their own kind. It is a fact without any exception. Even those individuals who can’t reproduce(such as worker bees) work to propagate their own kind. Extra analytical or synthetic individual intelligence is therefore foolishness because it is not all about propagating individual’s genes but gene pool of whole specie. That is the only motivation. There is nothing like God gene it is only motivation gene.

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  11. 11. zstansfi 3:07 am 03/25/2011

    I’m a little bit confused as to what "major scientific assumption" you think is being questioned here. No neuroscientist would ever claim that we "only use 10% of our brains", so I certainly hope this is not what you are refering to.

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  12. 12. zstansfi 3:28 am 03/25/2011

    Clearly some individuals here (commenters #4 and #5, in particular) appear to misunderstand the myth that is being referenced here. The myth claims that humans, in all instances, never use more than 10% of the brain’s "capacity". Almost as though there were–to use the appropriate computing analogy–a cap on the brain’s bandwidth. Hence, the claim is not that "most of the time, humans are not achieving their maximum potential", but that there is some sort of strict limit on that potential, which might be lifted as a result of some magical process: such as taking a "superdrug" or achieving some kind of zen-like state. This is a complete misrepresentation of what we know about how the human brain functions, and as such, is most definitely a myth.

    Now, it is certainly true that at any given time many of the cells in your brain are not necessarily going to be at their most active. However, this is not to say that these cells are "inactive". Anyone who has taken basic biology should be familiar with the concept. All of the cells in your body, including those in your brain are constantly consuming energy to perform the myriad basic cellular activities that required for them to stay active.

    Now, certainly some individuals who are familiar with how the brain functions (but perhaps not too familiar), will point out that at any given time many cells within the brain are not involved in "electrical activity": firing action potentials and the like. And certainly, it is true, that neuroscientists will speak about cells which are firing electrically (and presumably sending chemical signals as well) as being "active". But this does not mean that when cells are not firing action potentials that they are not being used to their full potential. In fact, brain function relies on cells being electrically inactive most of the time. Think about it this way. One of the best characterized circuits in the brain is the visual circuit. Light hits your retina and is transduced to an electrical signal by photoreceptors. This signal passes down a series of cells all the way to the occipital lobe at the back of your brain. Once there, chemical transmitters activate specific cells which correspond to the image that you "see". But, and this is important, most of the cells do not fire! If they all did, then you would probably see something like a blur of white light.

    So, to put it simply. Cells need to be "inactive" in order for "activity" to produce any kind of meaningful signal.

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  13. 13. zstansfi 3:34 am 03/25/2011


    (As a separate point, there are also cells which are constantly active that transduce a signal by being turned off!).

    In a nutshell, this is why the myth that we only use 10% of our brains cannot be in any way true. Not in the sense that "most of the time only 10% of the cells in our brain are active"; not in any sense.

    That said, it is certainly true that there are drugs which will affect how your brain functions. And it may well be true that we will be able to design drugs which will produce major "enhancements" in intelligence, memory or even creativity. But this is far different from "achieving your full potential". This is essentially, choosing to selectively supercharge specific neural circuits to improve performance. Whether or not this is a worthwhile pursuit, I do not know.

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  14. 14. GreenMind 4:32 pm 03/26/2011

    Thanks for your comment. I understand your explanation at a biochemical level, but I had understood the whole idea incorrectly to begin with. I had thought that it was something like observable performance that was being commented on, like how many languages or how adaptable we are to new situations or how good we are at solving problems. But the post by scientific earthling answered my question. The myth came from the observation that 90% of the brain consists of glial cells that were assumed to be inactive. That turns out to be untrue.

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  15. 15. fabrizio 5:04 am 03/29/2011

    quote "With all of the neural machinery running full blast, what would be the result: Gordon Gekko, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso?"
    Unfortunately, these naive assumptions about the nature of "genius" are well established also among some true scientists. The mere processing capability of our neural machinery is just one feature of our brain, and probably the one which varies the least among the whole population. What matters much more is the "content", i.e. which data is fed to the brain, learning by readings and culture in general, and the "algorithms", i.e. the mental attitudes we have in processing the data, such as the ability (or habit) of making innovative associations and non obvious connections. Content and algorithms can vary widely between population depending on culture, family and individual experiences – no pills can replace a sound education.

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  16. 16. Mustang55 10:29 pm 04/18/2011

    Looks like these guys ( are trying to put together a "limitless" pill. Does anyone know if the studies on Magnesium L-threonate have any effects on memory? Read a few things but not much out there.

    Link to this

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