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Can a Pill Really Unlock New Parts of Your Mind? An Expert Debunks the ‘10 Percent of Your Brain’ Myth

In Limitless, which hits theaters tomorrow, Bradley Cooper lucks upon a secret new drug that, in one simple dose per day, transforms him from slovenly failed writer to … total genius baller. He writes a novel in four days, dominates the stock market, learns new languages, and cliff-dives into the ocean with Louganis-level form. He even talks shit to Robert De Niro! How does this remarkable drug manage such wonders? The old “Open Your Unused Mind” trick, of course. Limitless, like many movies before, posits that we only use 20 percent of our brains (this is up from the standard “10 percent” claim; apparently movie science has recently unlocked a new cortex for everyday use). But is that actually true? Could we all dominate the world like Bradley Cooper, if only we could access the other 80 percent of our mind? Vulture spoke with Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, to find out.

How true is the idea that we only use 10 or 20 percent of our brains?
It’s a complete myth as far as I can tell, and I’ve always wondered where this came from … we use all of our brain. It’s not parcellated like that. Those percentages that get bandied about are complete fabrications.

Is there any breakdown in terms of how much is conscious versus unconscious use?
A huge amount of what our brain does is not conscious.

What percent?
It’s impossible to allocate a percentage to that. For most of our lives, much of what we do is sort of automatic.

So how do enhancement drugs like Adderall work, in terms of targeting the various parts of your brain?
There are a number of ways that they help. One of them is about attention — they allow you to concentrate on things and it allows you to filter out distracting things.

In Limitless, he writes a novel in four days — could those existing drugs help you do that?
Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, they push you towards the more focused direction. It’s a gross exaggeration, but it is the case that it might help someone who is otherwise being distracted filter out the distractions and have some focus on what they’re doing and just grind it out.

Is that kind of like using more of your brain?
It’s sort of like your brain can be in different states, and what the drug is doing is helping focus your brain into a particular state that is effective for that task.

Would the same attention that is required to write a novel be able to help you with crazy math problems or gaming the stock market?
That gets a little more complicated, because that suggests a kind of creative insight — you’re looking at this big problem and there’s a kind of way of connecting things together, in a way you hadn’t really seen before. These kinds of drugs, to the extent that they might help, don’t help with divergent thinking, because that’s where you don’t want to have focus; you want to let your mind wander.

Is there a different class of drugs that assists with that divergent thinking?
Well, alcohol. Which is why some people have thought — if you look at writers, for example — the incidence of alcoholism tends to be quite high.

But there’s no drug that’s going to help actually write the novel to begin with?
The pieces have to be there, the earlier work has to have been done, to get to that stage where you’re sitting down and getting it organized and focused and putting what’s in your head onto paper.

Switching to other movies: In the movie Phenomenon, John Travolta has a tumor that unlocks new parts of his mind, and he’s suddenly really good at science and can also predict the future. Is that possible?
Certainly predictive powers make no sense at all. I think what you’re describing is unlikely, but there are some instances where visual artists have had brain damage, or a stroke, and they continue to work, and their artwork after that changes. In some cases, critics end up liking their artwork even more than what it was like before they had brain damage. If you damage certain components, there's a shift in the equilibrium, and the other parts of the brain are what end up being expressed. It’s not plausible that you would develop superpowers that didn’t exist; it’s a question of the balance of different abilities that are already there. You can shift that balance, depending on what’s available and what’s not. And in some instances, shifting that balance may be useful, but it’s context dependent.

So your brain is always working, it’s just reappropriating its attention.
Right.

In Scott Pilgrim, there's a guy who claims to be a vegan psychic: His brain isn't jammed with dairy, so he can see the future. Would diet have any sort of effect on how your brain processes things?
Diet can certainly have an impact generally. Data are more clear on deficiencies, like for certain B vitamins. But I do not clam to be an expert on that. There is nothing we can do to see the future. It would be like him saying now that my brain isn't jammed up with dairy, I can fly.

How about Inception — is it true that one’s subconscious is more active and available when asleep, making it easier to invade dreams?
The subconscious is always active — when you’re asleep, there are different stages. When people are dreaming, if you look at the electrical activity in the brain, it turns out it’s very much like when someone is awake. The major difference is that some of the output to our motor systems — it’s like they’re switched off. We don’t act out our dreams. It’s not the case that when you’re asleep somehow the ghosts and goblins of your subconscious come out of the closet. They’re always there.

Finally, are there any natural alternatives to these drugs? Besides just ... concentrating?
There are some very basic things. One, we are all in this culture, sleep-deprived, which is not good for our brains. Getting adequate sleep is really, really important. There’s pretty good data that aerobic exercise helps for all of these things. And the third is generally being pretty mentally active.

Like crossword puzzles?
It’s not so clear that crosswords per se do all that much, but reading, being interested, being engaged.

Photo: Dark Fields Productions