Earth & Conservation

One Pill Makes You Smarter: The Science Behind Limitless

Seeker’s Bad Science podcast examines the 2011 hit film starring Bradley Cooper.

Dumped by his girlfriend, behind on his rent, struggling to finish his novel, writer Eddie Morra gets a break in the form of a pill that lets him put more of his brain to work. His newfound abilities allow him to wrap up his novel in record time and make a killing in the stock market — but they also get him embroiled in a whirl of corporate intrigue and tied up with a murderous loan shark.

In this episode of Bad Science, host Ethan Edberg and his guests take on the 2011 film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, and Robert De Niro in a kind of cautionary tale for the age of Adderall. Joining him on the show are Teagan Wall, a behavioral neuropharmacologist and science communicator, along writer-producers Dave King and Steve Hely from The Great Debates.

“I don’t love Limitless, but in terms of movies about people who get smarter, it’s not one of the worst ones,” Wall said. “At least it’s not Lucy.”

The plot kicks into high gear with a longstanding myth about how little of your brain’s capacity you actually use. If you’re just scraping by at 20 percent, wouldn’t being able to draw on more of that grey matter give you an advantage? Not necessarily. Wall said different parts of the brain control different processes, and it all gets put to work at some time or another.

“The fact is you use 100 percent of your brain,” she said. “If you used it all at once, you would have a grand mal seizure and die.”

Limitless went on to inspire a TV show of the same name, in which a character uses his expanded brainpower to help solve crimes. But the film was a great test of Bradley Cooper as a movie star, King said: “It’s not the best story, but I kind of kept watching because of him.”

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And Wall said Eddie’s ups and downs can be seen as metaphor for bipolar disorder, which can produce episodes of intense, manic energy followed by a plunge into depression and lethargy. When Cooper’s character says “I just felt clear,” that’s “exactly what a manic episode feels like,” she said.

What products actually do — and don’t — boost your brainpower? Would mastering piano, foreign languages, and finance in a matter of days make you kind of a jerk? Can you take a drug by drinking the blood of someone who’s already on it? Hear the guests debate those questions and discover Ethan’s grandmother’s favorite movies in the latest episode of Bad Science.