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Get Smart by Using 10 Percent Less of Your Brain

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

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The movie Lucy has become a teaching moment in the last month or so for scientists and journalists to  remind the world—time and again—that we don’t just use 10 percent of our brains. All of the three pounds of jelly underneath our hardened domes is there for a good reason. It’s not just a terabyte hard drive with a lot of unused space.

In all fairness, the brilliant filmmaker Luc Besson of Femme Nikita fame probably understood this and decided to build the plot around this idea anyway. No different really from George Lucas spinning a fantasy about space ships traveling faster than light. It  might have been more instructive in these finger-wagging critiques  to point out why shutting down some brain function might be the royal road to cognitive enhancement.

An article I edited, “Accidental Genius by Darold Treffert, appeared in Scientific American’s August issue. It highlighted cases of acquired savantism in which brain injury, strokes or other mishaps result in the precipitous emergence of  previously unrecognized musical, artistic or mathematical abilities. The article also talks about new technology—transcranial direct-current stimulation—that may be able to induce such a state for a brief interval. What may be happening either after an accident or after exposure to external stimulation (wryly referred to at times as cattle prods) is the tamping down of some neural circuits, allowing brain activity that had played a secondary role to now takes its turn as soloist in the great neural symphony orchestra. From the article:

Using transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), these researchers induced savantlike abilities in human volunteers. The technique generates a polarized electric current to diminish activity in a part of the left hemisphere involved with sensory input, memory, language and other brain processes while increasing activity in the right hemisphere (the right anterior temporal lobe).

The investigators then asked study participants to solve the challenging “nine-dot” puzzle either with or without tDCS—a task that requires the creativity to search for a solution in an unconventional way. Participants had to connect three rows of three dots using four straight lines without lifting a pen or retracing lines. None of them could solve it before stimulation.  When 29 subjects were exposed to “sham” stimulation—electrodes emplaced without any current to test for placebo effects—they were still at a loss. With the current switched on, however, some 40 percent—14 of 33 participants—worked their way through the puzzle successfully.

It is also useful to consider what would happen if you could turn up the volume and fire up more brain circuits across the board? Perhaps not such a great idea after all.  I wrote about this once before when the really terrible Limitless came out in 2011. The film had a plot that revolved around a pill (NZT) that made a ne’er-do-well (Bradley Cooper) infinitely smarter. A snippet:

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, you might, at best, be ravenously hungry, sexually aroused and sending tweets while skydiving. More likely, though, things would get 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.

My colleague Daisy Yuhas has recently issued an open-ended call to visitors to our site to compile wish lists of their most desired brain upgrades. For me, a hemorrhagic stroke doesn’t sound too appealing. Maybe, rather, some mythical chill pill might do the trick—a dimmer switch for the mind.

Image Source: Universal Pictures



Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

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

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  1. 1. evelyn haskins 9:52 pm 08/25/2014

    Jelly? Jelly?

    I thought it was “Chunky Custard”. At least that is what we Australians have in our skulls :-)

    Link to this
  2. 2. Iahmad 11:38 pm 08/25/2014

    Neuroscience very well written and explained in a simple language.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Marinakea808 2:21 am 08/26/2014

    A mythical chill pill, huh? Sounds like a good name for a band… ABOUT DRUGS!!! Lol, this guy is hysterically naive.

    Link to this

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