This is the premise of Scarlett Johansson’s new sci-fi action thriller, “Lucy,” opening July 25.
Directed by Luc Besson (The Professional, The 5th Element), Johansson stars as the title character, forced to work as a drug mule for the Taiwanese mob. When the drug leaks inside her body, she is suddenly endowed with super intelligence.
As explained by Morgan Freeman’s neuroscientist character in the film, the drug allows Lucy to use 28% of her brain’s capacity rather than the 10% most people use.
Of course, the ability to stop time or control people’s minds – other super-powers Johansson’s character acquires in the film – are purely the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. But what of this idea that we possess a greater intelligence hidden away inside our brains?
Is it really true, as many people believe, that we only use 10% of our brain’s capacity? And could such a “wonder drug” – one that allows you to tap your brain’s true potential – ever exist in real life?
Neurologists seem to have discredited the “10%” myth.
For one thing, brain scans show just about every part of the brain lighting up with activity when subjects are performing even simple tasks like talking or walking.
“Numerous types of brain imaging studies show that no area of the brain is completely silent or inactive,” say Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman and Dr. Aaron E. Carroll in their book Don’t Cross Your Eyes, which debunks many common medical myths. “Detailed probing of the brain has failed to identify the ‘non-functioning’ 90 percent.”
And here’s another thing – people who suffer severe brain damage from a stroke or head injury probably wouldn’t have been affected too badly if the “10%” myth were actually true.
Our brains require a huge amount of energy to run – as much of 20% of our body’s total energy. So it would make no sense, from an evolutionary viewpoint, for humans to have evolved such large brains and use such a small fraction of them.
So, it seems we really do use all of our brains.
And yet, in a few rare cases, real-life people do suddenly acquire extraordinary mental “super-powers.”
This Tacoma, Washington college dropout was more interested in bar-hopping and working out, with little to no interest in academics, until a severe beating suddenly turned him into a bona fide math genius.
In 2002, Padgett was a 31-year old, self-described “goof” who worked as a salesman at his father’s furniture store and had never cracked a math book in his life.
Everything changed for him in September of that year, when he was jumped by two men as he was leaving a karaoke bar. They beat him unconscious, kicking him repeatedly in the head.
At the hospital, Jason was released after being diagnosed with a severe concussion and a bleeding kidney.
But the next morning, Jason could suddenly see fractals – complex geometric patterns – emanating from water spiraling down his shower drain.
His vision became like a “slow-motion film,” as if he could see frame-by-frame life unfolding in front of him.
He started seeing geometry everywhere – in his morning cup of coffee, in leaves. Soon, he was making painstaking drawings, composed of hundreds of triangles, to illustrate mathematical concepts such as pi.
He is now studying advanced numbers theory, and this spring he published the memoir Struck By Genius:How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
But as remarkable as Jason’s case is, he’s not alone.
Jason has “acquired savant syndrome,” and there are only 40 other people in the world who, like him, developed extraordinary intellectual, artistic, or musical abilities after an injury or a disease.
Neuroscientists who have studied the brains of Jason and others like him believe their new mental “super-powers” stem from the release of important brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that happens after a traumatic event.
Neurotransmitters are essential for learning, forming memories and processing information, and even for regulating your moods.
During a trauma (such as Jason’s bar fight), large levels of these neurotransmitters flood into neighboring areas of the brain, and in cases of “acquired savant syndrome,” the changes can become permanent.
Berit Brogaard of the Univ. of Miami, who studied Jason’s brain, believes this remarkable potential is dormant inside everyone, but that the injuries just allowed Jason to tap into it.
“It would be quite a coincidence,” she said,” If he were to have that particular special brain and then have an injury.”
So what does this mean for you, and your chances of becoming the next Einstein, Da Vinci, or Steve Jobs?
What about the possibility of a real-life “wonder drug” that can activate this like the drug in “Lucy?”
It turns out, research is being done that shows here may be a way to activate more neurotransmitters in your brain, allowing you enhance your mind’s natural abilities.
Although not quite the wonder drug of Hollywood thrillers, these brain enhancing chemicals are known as “nootropics” – think of them as “performance enhancing drugs” for your brain.
While many of these trade on the “10%” myth – which, like the villain at the end of an action film, refuses to die – to make a quick buck on those hoping to get a quick boost to their IQ, there does seem to be some evidence that a few of these may be effective at stimulating memory, focus, and mood.
Bill Sharpe, lead researcher at Live Cell Research, cites evidence that compounds such as Huperzine A, found naturally in the moss Huperzia serrate, has been shown to stimulate production of acetylcholine, one of the key neurotransmitters for learning and memory.
“While we are certainly using all of our brains, there is evidence that we could be using our brains more efficiently,” said Sharpe. “One proven way to do that is by boosting your neurotransmitter levels. Our brains stop producing as much of these chemicals as we age, and that’s why we start to lose some of our sharpness and memory. Nootropics can help with that.”
Nootropics such as Cerastim, produced by Live Cell Research, combine several of these new natural compounds to promote brain health.
We’re just now discovering the true potential of the human brain. And while we’re a long way off from the kind of super-drugs seen in films like “Lucy,” it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility. Just as science made the seemingly-impossible sci-fi fantasies of a hundred years ago – such as space travel or robots – possible, perhaps the mysteries of the brain will likewise be decoded, allowing everyone to achieve much more than is currently thought possible.
Now, if only there were a drug that would make Scarlett Johansson find me unbelievably attractive!