Mar 27, 2011

Limitless… are the things I don’t know about memory

If you want to see a fun, sexy movie see Limitless. I loved it. Because damn, that Bradley Cooper can wear a suit. But also, because the story is built around an interesting idea.

The premise is the enduring (and false) belief that “we only use 20% of our brains” (I have always heard 10% - maybe we’re getting smarter), and what if you could “access all of it”? And what if a pill could do that?

It's a good hook, and it’s done well.  The sequences showing long-buried and seemingly random pieces of memory dredged up from the depths of the sub-conscious and put to use are compelling.  If only!

Using 100%...the normal way
Picture: Google Images

Using 100% with "NZT"...
Picture: iStockphoto

Some other themes that evoke the times well: 
The transformative power of medication. Especially the newer mind-altering ones such as anti-depressants and others. They work instantly, or seem to, they change behaviour and mood to the extent we are left wondering how much of how I am now, or how I was before, is the drug or absence of the drug, and how much is me? They also have a slow-burn type of side-effect in some cases and we suspect they are detrimental or dangerous in the long run; but millions are on them because they are very effective.

The meteoric rise. In the story the drug is the force behind the meteoric rise of those uber-successful people we all know or know of, those who run the world and keep up with a stressful life’s demands without seemingly breaking a sweat. The Wall Street titans for example, who run complex deals using data that the average person cannot decipher let alone process, and who possess that sense of cocksure entitlement that the average person finds bewildering. (Though Robert De Niro’s character’s phrase “half terrified, half cocky” describes every young and ambitious man on the rise or on the make in investment banking I have known). To the baffling, depressing phenomenon of the meteoric rise of others around us, we could say, It’s okay, I’m not a failure, I didn’t do anything wrong – it’s not them, it’s the drug!

The fear of powerful men (come to think of it this has been a consistent theme in movies forever). What’s scarier than a Wall Street titan? A Republican senator of course!

But back to brainpower and memory. The movie’s idea resonates for the same reason that the current dominant theory of memory, that the brain only stores some memories and discards others, is something I think most of us don’t really believe.

The old theory, that the brain is like a super-computer storing every scrap of information we see, feel, hear, think, touch or experience, is probably closer to what we actually believe – even if much of it has been demonstrated to be false.

We know that memory is not accurate. This has been proven in the lab, and we have also all had it proven to ourselves. Who hasn’t revisited a remembered scene to find it utterly, bewilderingly different from the crystal-clear picture in their head?

Not only are memories not accurate, they also change over time, and false ones can also easily be planted.

And it is generally accepted nowadays that the brain does not work like a computer, not only because we understand neural plasticity and synapses and the nervous system better now, but because there is no computer in possibility which could efficiently store, manage and retrieve memories from such a vast databank in the time it takes us to recall a memory. (Of course, it could be that the idea is OK but the computer metaphor is wrong).

But memory has still not been satisfactorily explained.

Because I think we don’t quite buy the current theory that the brain doesn’t “store” everything. While hypnosis, repressed and recovered memories, and the idea of accurate memory have all been debunked, we do “store” so much that seems random and insignificant that it is difficult to believe that every scrap in our memory is only there because it was formative or significant in some way, or because we are re-creating it to suit the present. Also, when someone reminds you of something in the past, you can usually remember it. Even if part of that memory is false or re-created, some of it is not. It is very rare indeed (never?) to have absolutely no memory whatsoever of something when someone else reminds you of it. It is hard to believe that these memories are not at least partly real. Even if we agree that the brain “stores” or “creates” memories of events and experiences but may jettison insignificant items like the dress someone wore or the colour of a flier wafting down the street as we pass by, the theory seems somehow not quite right. Why do I remember some fliers and tablecloths and street scenes and not others? What causes a short-term memory to be discarded or to pass into “storage” as a long-term memory? And why have I never been faced with an example, via something of which I truly have no ounce of memory, of a “discarded” short-term memory?

That may seem a silly question – you don’t have an example because your brain didn’t keep it – but shouldn’t there be more instances where you come up against “blank” memories for some time or theme or scrap from your past when something or someone reminds you of it?

Or is this a really silly question?! At these times I am reminded of how little I know about the areas I am interested in…

Anyway, for cultural resonance, entertainment and disbelief-suspendability, Limitless beats Inception. That movie was just frustrating.


Links –

Infographic: how we use our minds (according to the promoters of Limitless movie):

Limitless movie:

The myth that we only use 10% of our brains:



  1. Funny, I put Inception ahead of Limitless for all sorts of reasons - though agree, culturally it was a better fit for today. Both films opened up a bevvy of questions for me - for different reasons. MInd you, I'll take Bradley Cooper over Leonardo Di Caprio any day. Those eyes....

  2. Hmmm, I always see the mind as a big filing cabinet and every now and then (and usually when we're sleeping) it sorts through a few files.

    ...some flutter up and land on the desk (recent memory or reminiscences), some get put where they belong (to be recalled whenever you like) and others flutter to the floor, "I don't remember ever saying that."

  3. Hi Pandora,
    i really expected to like Inception - but didn't. Loved Limitless even with its flaws (i.e. some bits made no sense or were not fully explained), because it really seemed to capture a lot of our time... a "zeitgeist" movie. And yes Bradley Cooper didn't hurt either. Think I have a new movie crush.

    Hi Kath,
    Yes! I so agree the brain does sort through things as we sleep; I'm a big believer in doing your best on something and then "sleeping on it" with the thing you're puzzling over being the last thing you think of before you drift off... a solution will often wend its way from the vault / filing cabinet / computer.
    Not always though as I remember from form six maths exam. I went to bed the night before my exam mildly panicked but confident my brain would sort out my crammed test notes in my sleep - but as it turned out this was a task too taxing for my software/filing system.



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