Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
 Observations HomeAboutContact
 Lucy Film Hinges on Brain Capacity Myth
 By Kate Wong | July 25, 2014 |  2 
 The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of 
Scientific American.
 Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who unlocks her brain power in the movie 
Lucy. Image: Universal Pictures
 On July 25, French film writer/director Luc Besson’s action thriller Lucy 
opens in theaters nationwide. The premise is that the title character, played 
by Scarlett Johansson, is exposed to a drug that unlocks her mind, giving her 
superhuman powers of cognition.  Themovie production notes  
http://www.lucymovie.com/pdf/lucy_production_notes.pdf[PDF] elaborate:
 “…It has long been hypothesized that human beings only use a small percentage 
of our cerebral capacity at any given time. For centuries, speculative science 
has postulated what would occur if mankind could actually evolve past that 
limit. Indeed, what would happen to our consciousness and newfound abilities if 
every region of the brain was concurrently active? If each one of the 86 
billion densely packed neurons in a human brain fired at once, could that 
person become, in fact, superhuman?”
 The notion that we humans have massive reserves of gray matter just sitting 
there waiting to be summoned into service has obvious appeal, but there is no 
scientific evidence to support it. And what’s odd about Besson’s reliance on 
this myth is that, according to the production notes, he allegedly set out to 
make the storyline scientifically plausible:
 “Although Besson believed that the idea of expanding one’s brain capacity made 
for tremendous action-thriller material, he was particularly intent on 
grounding—at least in part—Lucy in scientific fact.”
 Apparently he missed or ignored the many scientists who would have surely 
informed him that the idea that we use only a small portion of our brain (10 
percent, the story usually goes) is wrong. As Barry L. Beyerstein of the Brain 
Behavior Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver explained 
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-we-really-use-only-10/ in a piece 
for Scientific American:
 “…the brain, like all our other organs, has been shaped by natural selection. 
Brain tissue is metabolically expensive both to grow and to run, and it strains 
credulity to think that evolution would have permitted squandering of resources 
on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized 
organ. Moreover, doubts are fueled by ample evidence from clinical neurology. 
Losing far less than 90 percent of the brain to accident or disease has 
catastrophic consequences. What is more, observing the effects of head injury 
reveals that there does not seem to be any area of the brain that can be 
destroyed by strokes, head trauma, or other manner, without leaving the patient 
with some kind of functional deficit. Likewise, electrical stimulation of 
points in the brain during neurosurgery has failed so far to uncover any 
dormant areas where no percept, emotion or movement is elicited by applying 
these tiny currents….”
 Neither do we regularly use only a little bit of the brain at a time, as 
science writer Robynne Boyd reported 
 in a piece for Scientific American. She quoted neurologist Barry Gordon of the 
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:
 “”It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that 
[most of] the brain is active almost all the time,” Gordon adds. “Let’s put it 
this way: the brain represents three percent of the body’s weight and uses 20 
percent of the body’s energy.”
 Yet just because we are already using our entire brain does not mean we can’t 
enhance its powers. Exercise and diet can boost cognitive performance 
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/six-ways-to-boost-brainpower/. And 
some researchers think cognitive training can make people smarter 
 As for cognitive-enhancing drugs, the few that are available, such as Ritalin 
and Provigil, are quite the opposite of the compound Lucy is exposed to in the 
film. Rather than stimulating all of the brain’s neurons to sense everything in 
one’s environment, these drugs work to help people zero in. The results are a 
mixed bag, however, as my colleague Gary Stix has observed 
 “Most of today’s cognitive enhancers improve our ability to focus—but most 
benefits accrue to those with attention deficits. They allow the child with 
ADHD to learn the multiplication tables, but for those with average attention 
spans or better, these drugs can sometimes usher in comic mishaps.
 Instead of cramming for the [Chinese Proficiency Test], as you might have 
intended, you are liable to get sidetracked into the most mundane of 
trivialities: you might get up from your textbooks for a drink of water and 
spend the next two days replacing the leaky plumbing in your kitchen sink. The 
focus of attention ‘sticks’ to whatever is in front of your face and a friend 
with a verbal crowbar has to pry you away.”
 "Lucy" is Wrong; We Use Way More Than 10% of Our Brains
 "It is estimated most human beings only use ten percent of their brain's 
capacity," lectures Professor Norman, played by actor Morgan Freeman, in the 
trailer for the new thriller Lucy. "Imagine if we could access 100 percent. 
Interesting things begin to happen."
 I know I haven't earned my Ph.D. yet, Professor, but I beg to differ. You see, 
we all access 100% of our brains every day. And we don't have to be telekinetic 
or memorize an entire deck of cards to do it.
 In the film, which opens next Friday, Scarlett Johansson's character Lucy is 
forced to work as a drug smuggler in a Taiwanese mob. The drug they've 
implanted into her body leaks into her system, allowing her to "access 100%" of 
her brain. Among other things, Lucy can move objects with her mind, choose not 
to feel pain, and memorize copious amounts of information.
 In a way, the idea that we only use 10% of our brains is rather inspiring. It 
may motivate us to try harder or tap into some mysterious, intact reservoir of 
creativity and potential. There are even products 
http://www.amazon.com/The-Other-90-Potential-Leadership/dp/060980880X) that 
promise to unlock that other 90%.
 As ludicrous as the claim is, however, 2/3 of the public and half of science 
teachers still believe the myth to be true. The notion is so widespread that 
when University College London neuroscientist Sophie Scott attended a first aid 
course, her instructor assured the class that head injuries weren't 
dangerousbecause "90% of the brain [doesn't] do anything."
 How did this misconception come about, anyway? We may be able to track its 
earliest roots back to psychologist William James, who wrote in his 1907 text 
The Energies of Men that "we are making use of only a small part of our 
possible mental and physical resources." I tend to agree with this sentiment 
when I spend my evenings on the couch watching reality television, but, of 
course, James didn't intend to lend credence to this "10% myth."
 But someone else did, Lowell Thomas, in his foreword to Dale Carnegie's 1936 
book How To Win Friends and Influence People, reinterpreted the statement and, 
it seems, sprinkld in a few of his own ideas. "Professor William James of 
Harvard," Thomas wrote, used to say that the average person develops only 10 
percent of his latent mental ability."
 Here's the thing: the brain has rapidly tripled its original size across two 
million years of human evolution. Despite only accounting for 2% of our body 
weight, the brain gobbles up a whopping 20% of our daily energy intake 
 Our brains are also remarkably efficient, having evolved gyri which have 
dramatically increased our cortical surface-area-to-total volume ratio relative 
to other species. The "we only use 10% of our brains" claim would mean that 
we're effectively evolving in the opposite direction-and that we're doing this 
very quickly.
 Another obvious way we know that we're using more than 10% of our brain at 
once is through approaches like functional magnetic resonance imaging and 
positron emission tomography. fMRI and PET are imaging techniques that reveal 
areas of relatively high brain activity in real time. Imaging studies tell us 
that not only are many brain areas recruited when performing even the simplest 
of tasks,like watching a movie 
http://www.ncigt.org/pages/Research_Projects/FunctionalMRI), but that the 
activity between these areas is extremely dynamic.
 Plus, the "use it or lose it" adage seems to hold particularly true in brain 
health. A 2012 study 
http://stevenslab.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/dori-neuron-paper.pdf) by Schafer 
and colleagues at Harvard found that neural immune cells called microglia can 
remove idle, but otherwise healthy, synapses (connections) between brain cells. 
If we were only regularly using only 10% of our brains at any given time, we 
might all be prone to cerebral atrophy, resembling patients with 
neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
 The "10% myth" may have been perpetuated by something that _is_ true. Despite 
the brain having nearly 100 billion neurons, this cell type is vastly 
outnumbered by another: glial cells. Glial ("glue") cells are responsible for 
maintaining homeostasis, providing structural support, insulating neurons with 
myelin, and removing pathogens and debris. The actual ratio of glial cells to 
neurons is disputed 
 although many texts claim that it may be roughly 10:1. In other words, neurons 
are only 10% of our entire brain.
 Think about yourself right now. Are you engaging your muscles to sit yourself 
upright? Using your hand to scroll your computer mouse (or thumb on your mobile 
device)? Perhaps you're eating something? Listening to music? Breathing? Rest 
assured, you're using more than 10% of your brain right now.
 You may have played God in a movie, Morgan Freeman, but clearly you need a 
primer on how your most incredible creation-the brain-functions!
 Originally published at The Conversation UK.
 Lucy’s Based on Bad Science
 Wired Magazine 
 BY ANGELA WATERCUTTER http://www.wired.com/author/awatercutter/   
   07.23.14  |   
   6:30 AM  |   
 Luc Besson (left) directs Scarlett Johansson in Lucy.  Jessica Forde/Universal 
 Luc Besson’s Lucy is based on a lie.
 The general premise is that a young woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) gets 
abducted by a gang in Taipei and forced to carry a bag of drugs in her abdomen. 
But when the bag bursts, the drug gives her access to the 90 percent of her 
brain that most of us never use, making her superhuman. The idea that we only 
use 10 percent of our brains, however, is a myth—a fact more than a few recent 
stories recently have taken pride in pointing out. The writer/director, in 
turn, would like to remind them it’s fiction.
 “It’s not true,” Besson says. “The good thing with movies is that you mix up 
everything and then in the end it looks real.”
 There are a few more true tidbits in the film for science buffs, though. Like, 
for example, the fact that Lucy is named after the skeleton 
http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/fossils/al-288-1 of the 
Australopithecus afarensis found in 1974 that is our most famous early human 
ancestor http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/09/060920-lucy.html. 
WIRED got on the phone with Besson to ask him about neuroscience and some of 
Lucy‘s other secrets.
 Besson Knew the ’10 Percent’ Figure Was Wrong, But Used It Anyway
 Although it gets bandied around a bit, the idea that we only use 10 percent of 
our brains is a scientific myth 
 Still, the brain does have billions of neurons processing a lot of data that 
we’re basically in the dark about. “The numbers of communication per second is 
absolutely phenomenal,” Besson says. “And we have no access to this 
information. So it was very easy to me to say, ‘What happens if one day we have 
access to our information—if our brain suddenly makes that connection, and then 
we can have access to it? We could change our blood pressure; we could change 
 Lucy Is Intentionally Out of Order So That the Science Makes Sense
 The opening of Lucy shows scenes of cell division and prehistoric wildlife 
intercut with the eponymous heroine being forced into ferrying drugs. 
Initially, it seems a little out of place, but more than an hour later Besson 
ties it all things together. “I wanted to de-structure the storytelling, 
because I wanted the people to be ready at the end to believe something 
unbelievable,” Besson says. “If I was too straightforward, without cheetahs, 
without cells, without anything, it would be like a thriller and then the end 
would be weird. So I needed to prep the audience from the beginning, like ‘You 
have to be ready for everything.’”


Reply via email to