Eddie Morra’s life is falling apart – he can’t finish his book and his girlfriend has left him. A chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law introduces him to a new drug that will change Eddie’s life. The pill enhances his brain functioning, allowing Eddie to easily access remote memories, make quick connections between observations, and become generally more cognizant. He is able to finish his book in mere days before turning his sights on the stock market. Soon, his quick rise to success and wealth gets the attention of some dangerous individuals. Eddy must deal with the life threatening side effects of the drug while evading those that would steal his secret and see him dead.
Neuroenhancement: Do “Smart Pills” have Limits?
Mary V. Spiers
Previously published in Spiers, M.V. (2011) Neuroenhancement: Do "Smart Pills" Have Limits?”[Review of the Film Limitless, 2011] PsycCRITIQUES, 56(31). Doi:10.1037/a0024650.
Copyright APA. This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record.
What if there was a “smart pill” that could make you excel at everything? Limitless (2011) examines the power of the mind and how one struggling writer, Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, deals with his newfound super-mental powers. The film begins by re-asserting the popular myth that we use only a small portion of our brain’s potential (Beyerstein, 1999) and
proceeds to show both the upside and downside of neuroenhancement...
Limitless is timely in that it echoes the current interest in neuroenhancement. It has been estimated that more that 100 drugs may be under consideration as cognitive enhancers (Soyka, 2009). For example cholinesterase inhibitors were originally developed to delay memory decline in dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, and prescription stimulants are routinely used to improve attention and focus in disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They are now being used “off label” and are increasingly sought by healthy people of all ages with no diagnosed medical condition who want to sharpen their memory, attention and focus (Larriviere, Williams, Rizzo, & Bonnie, 2009; McCabe, Teter, Boyd, Knight, & Wechsler, 2005). In addition, cognitive enhancement can also occur through the use of non-invasive brain stimulation techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Currently in clinical use for treating depression (D. R. Kim, Pesiridou, & O'Reardon, 2009), brain stimulation has also been demonstrated to show improvements in healthy people in working memory (Ohn, Park, & Yoo, 2008) language learning (Floel, Rosser, Muchka, Knecht, & Breitenstein, 2008) and complex motor tasks (Y. H. Kim, Park, Ko, Jang, & Lee, 2004)
There is much debate in the medical and psychological community pertaining to the ethical use of medications to enhance neural performance and Limitless speaks largely to the personal safety issue. One of the primary dangers of NZT is that its physical addiction creates life-threatening peril. Eddie begins to have memory “blackouts.” Without NZT, his mind and body crash, he can’t concentrate and he goes through a physical withdrawal that could kill him. While the film’s depiction of addiction may be played up in the name of dramatic tension, prescription drugs and brain stimulation used to enhance cognition for healthy people is not without risk. For example, prescription drugs carry a variety of risks related to safety and addiction, and TMS carries a risk, albeit rare, of seizures (Wassermann, 1998). These risks have led some experts in the field of addiction research to raise serious concerns about the use of neuroenhancement (Soyka, 2009).
There are a number of larger ethical questions that neuroenhancement brings up. For example, do cognitive enhancing drugs create unfair academic and work related advantages similar to those discussed in sports doping debates? Will neuroenhacements be able to alter not only cognition, but social and moral thought? NZT does give Eddie Morra an unfair advantage in every area of his professional life. He secretly employs his power to gain personal wealth and fame. While his power is initially used for his personal gain, after a number of personal crises, in the end, Eddie turns to politics. Whether this choice is pro-social or the ultimate in power seeking is left up to the viewer. The issue of how the “self” may be altered by neuroenhacement is broached more directly by Eddie’s girlfriend Lindey. After she takes NZT she admits she may have done things that she wouldn’t have done without the pill. Eddie, however, argues that he is the same. This issue, although just hinted at in the film, represents perhaps one of the more contentious issues related to the future of neuroenhancement. Studies using neurostimulation suggest that people can be influenced to alter aspects of their moral reasoning. TMS to the right parietal junction influenced participants to disregard the intention of an act in favor of a morally reasonable outcome (Young, Camprodon, Hauser, Pascual-Leone, & Saxe, 2010) and inhibitory stimulation to the frontal cortex had an effect such that “self-interest” often trumped a more typical “fairness” response in a reward seeking task (Fecteau et al., 2007).
If neuroenhancement can affect not only cognition, but mood and social and moral reasoning, do we then move into the brave new world of altering or creating entirely new selves? Currently there is no one drug that is Limitless. Even in this film, the pill’s effect is largely on learning and cognition. But Limitless opens the door to bigger questions: How far can neuroenhancement take us beyond our current limits, and do we want to go there?
Beyerstein, B. L. (1999). Whence Cometh the Myth that We Only Use 10% of our Brains? In S. D. Sala (Ed.), Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain.
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Young, L., Camprodon, J. A., Hauser, M., Pascual-Leone, A., & Saxe, R. (2010). Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgements. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA(107), 6753-6758.