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'Limitless' asks a surprisingly relevant ethical question: What happens when drugs make us smarter?

March 20, 2011 | 12:04 pm


"Limitless" may have sold more tickets than any other movie this weekend with its story of a man (Bradley Cooper) who finds himself with startling mental powers after stumbling upon a new drug.

But for all the slickness of its premise, the film also raises vexing questions about the nature of identity and pharmaceutical enhancement. The NZT pills, as they're called, turn the human brain into a kind of supercomputer, enabling users to crank out novels, think their way out of dangerous situations, conquer Wall Street and otherwise achieve alpha supremacy.

On the surface the Neil Burger film is a cautionary tale: No drug can help us achieve that level of success, and if it did we wouldn't want to pay the price that would surely accompany its use.

Or would we? Burger, speaking for a profile in last week's Times, points out that most of us already use chemicals to enhance our performance, and barely bat an eye in doing so. "It's a thorny question. You drink coffee and were able to get the job because you were more alert when you went into that interview," the director said. "And college kids are already using drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, repurposing them in much the same way as characters in the movie use NZT."

Putting ourselves through a medical process to enhance mental capacity, in fact, may not be that different from what we do in the realm of cosmetic surgery -- it's just that, "instead of a nose job, [you get] a brain job," Burger said.

In so doing, we raise an existential question about the nature of self. "It's the question that baseball players face with steroids: Who hit the home runs, you or the steroids?" Burger said.

Of course, the larger (and perhaps reassuring?) issue is that such drugs, no matter how much we refine them, may never be able to improve on the human brain's key aspect. It's similar to the question raised by IBM's Watson. We can design a drug that increases efficiency, just as we can design a more ruthless computer processor. But can we design a drug that, on its own, can manufacture creativity where it didn't exist before?

"A lot of what drugs can do is quantitative enhancement. I have to remember all this material and I have to put it all on a test tomorrow. They're making you into a really good accountant," Burger said.

"Someone was saying these [people on mental-enhancement drugs] will be the leaders of the world. But the leaders of the world come up with creative solutions. The way the drugs are being conceived seems to be about processing information faster. And that's a very narrow way of thinking about it. Creative thinking comes out of failure, out of spacing out, out of staring at the wall and not processing a lot of information. It comes out of the juxtaposition of things that are completely wrong rather than things that add up."

-- Steven Zeitchik



Neil Burger ponders the fine line between success and failure

Bradley Cooper's Limitless breaks out in top 5 horserace

Movie Review: Limitless

Photo: Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper in "Limitless." Credit: Relativity Media

Comments () | Archives (16)

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You miss the point. If a person's abilities are suddenly enhanced due to drugs, what has happened is increased neuronal connections -- and when they increase enough, we'll be using more brain power. A person who can add more information through learning will grow exponentially smarter and talented over time, and that does not exclude acts of brilliant creativity. That's precisely what's needed for the human species to evolve into the people who can bring about peace. A more intelligent race. That's us. Maybe enhanced, but why not? If it makes the world a better place, let's build those brains!

The character John Travolta played in Phenomenon got his abilities through a tumor, a growth that caused increased connections and therefore super smarts and super abilities. That's a different cause and effect, but still....

I'm thinking we may be onto something here. Hope for our future, maybe?

Burger asks, "Who hit the home runs?" Not really the same thing.
Steroids don't simply *make* you stronger. They enable you to train much harder, yet recover quickly and more fully from greatly over-working muscles. You still train, you still need skill and timing, you still do the work.

And perhaps it would be not so different with NZT.
Without the basic skills and knowledge, enhanced processing power would not solve problems. It would only allow the user to solve the same problem more quickly than without the enhancement. It would not be the same as wiring yourself to a supercomputer with its own access to vast information and algorithms.

"But the leaders of the world come up with creative solutions." LOL yeah right, sure they do.

ive seen drugs make people smarter, but never more intelligent.

Gov't/corporations would never allow the general population access to such drugs; doing so, if they work, would sure mean their own demise.

Unlike simply speeding up the clock cycles of a computer, there are a lot of different kinds of human "intelligence" to be "enhanced". Just as an example, folks with Asperger's (a type of high-functioning Autism) very often also have high IQ's. So while they may have a great facility for certain types of detail (like programming) and other minutiae, the subtleties of typical human interactions are usually lost on them. Or as Dilbert asks the President of the local Mensa chapter , "if we're so smart, why do we work here?" Who replies, "intelligence has much less practical application than you'd think."

It s not a matter of what you gain using drugs.
Its a matter of what kind of potential internal inteligence you are able to reach. If you don' t have any, drugs are useless.
There' s not a drug that can give ME a perfect home run !

We rely on drugs all the time. I have been relying on Celebrex for the last 6 months due to a herniated disc in my back - but society has placed a negative stigma on non prescription drugs - or at least drugs that have not been prescribed by a doctor. If NZT was prescribed by a psychiatrist would it be looked at differently?

The newest part of the brain, evolutionary-wise, is actually the cerebral cortex, the seat of empathy and moral reasoning. Simply increasing intelligence without the emotional or ethical judgment to guide it, leads to very clever yet narcissistic, and even sociopathic predators like a Bernie Madoff, Charlie Manson, or a Ted Bundy.

Amber, I think it's great that want greater peace to be obtained, however I do not believe that we war because we are not "smart enough" to stop warring...we fight bc no matter how smart either side is, or how advanced the weapons are, we refuse to accept other peoples beliefs. I bet if you ask any civilian in any warring nation today what it is they want out of the war....they would say "to be free, to not be told what to do, or be held back from what i want to do bc someone else thinks its wrong." although to be fair Amber, if the world were smarter then maybe we would put less value on materialism and alot of senseless violence would stop

Very interesting line of thought. The concept of performance enhancement brought to the brain, not just the body. I think this is a great step forward for society...the fact that we are even talking about brain power as desirable. America is generally so anti-intellectual that we strive for and admire physical perfection, but mist-trust smart people. To brag about what a great athlete your kid is, is acceptable. To post video of how fast you can run, or what a great dunk you can slam is encouraged. Talking about how smart you are, or how well you did on a test is taboo. I can say I am stronger/faster than you...but can't say I am smarter than you.
The director makes a salient point about ADHD drugs used illicitly. These are performance enhancing. Your kid will do better in school on these drugs even if he doesn't have a diagnosis. Should we put our kids on them? We don't know the long term side effects...but we have been using them for more than a decade and haven't seen any negative effects yet. Do you want your brain surgeon on them? We like the idea that there are serious side effects so we can make a point about not taking the "easy" way out. But what if there are truly no long term side effects? Would it be wrong for kids, students, college students, adults in the workplace to use them?
If we ever get to the point where we have trading cards for Nobel prize winners and an intellectual draft where the smartest people in college get paid millions to think deeply, then we will have everyone on these meds/drugs.

Guilty of Adderall use, got all A's!

Jaskal has a good point, the government would never let this happen. People would question authority/govt and they would eventually make it illegal. They wouldnt have control over the people. Look what happened with lsd.

"Creative thinking comes out of failure, out of spacing out, out of staring at the wall and not processing much information"

You don't think much of history's progress and innovation isn't already directly attributable to drug use??? I only know of one admitted example (noble prize winner Francis Crick, I think maybe Bill Gates too), but I guarantee you it is ubiquitous throughout history worldwide.

i have used hdhd drugs in the past that do in fack inhance my abillity to think focus and all at a fast pase but what i noteced is that is does not work the same for every person. it all depends on how your brain works i think different than other people. here is how i can explane it when i am thinking about something i am very deataled but i am very slow at prossesing it it seems like all the adderall does is make your brain prosses faster see right now i have no care about spelling and puncuation but if you gave me 4 30mg addies my brain goes into super mode and i feel like the king of the word to lay it down to me the pills in the movie where just as i feel on adderall

That is a good question. What if it really happens? Well, this will just remain as a good question. Maybe you could answer this question. What if you will become more beautiful/handsome? This would surely happen. Just try Dr. Stile and you will be enlightened that what you think which is impossible is more than just possible. I 'll assure to you, no regression at the end.


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