Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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


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


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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