The premise for the movie Lucy is that 90% of human cerebral capacity goes unused, but that’s only the start of the neuroscience bloopers in this new film.
After becoming an unwilling drug mule Lucy is suddenly able to access the full potential of the human brain when a surgically implanted packet of a new street drug ruptures inside her. From “Flowers for Algernon” to “Limitless,” stories about turbocharging brain power are a genre in themselves, but Lucy busts out beyond all reason to throw in nearly every supernatural power ever conceived. Toss every comic book superhero from Popeye to Superman into a blender and the slurry you get is Lucy, a super girl with the power of super intelligence, super strength, ESP, complete control of all the cells in her body, the ability to control other people’s bodies, supersensory reception, mind reading, telekinesis, the talent to tap into mass electronic communications using only her mind in a way that would make the NSA envious and give Edward Snowden a panic attack.
But wait there’s more! Levitation, antigravity, time travel, morphing her body, generating an impenetrable force field, regenerative healing, controlling TV, radio, and cell phone transmission.
But that’s not all! Superhuman speed and agility, X-ray vision, cyber communication, omnilingualism, astral projection, mental projection, telepathy, precognition, electromagnetic manipulation, self-disintegration, … The list goes on and on, but I’m bored trying to list them. There is not space to consider how each of these superpowers may violate the laws of nature or neuroscience. I’ll pick a few issues related to neuroscience that may have some educational value, but first a quick critique of this new film.
The revenge plot that launches the film quickly fizzles out when a side effect of bulking up her brain causes Lucy to lose all emotion and desire. Then the plot shifts to a quest (for knowledge), propelled by a trite Asian mobster chase scenario. The film is sloppy, with illogical and contradictory sequences and amateurishly distracting visual metaphors. To begin with, after all the mayhem and murder to battle her way to the evil gang leader to seek revenge early in the movie, Lucy gives the gangster a flesh wound. Then she leaves, stepping over a massacre of bloody dead corpses so that he can chase her for the rest of the movie. After seeing Lucy toss his bodyguard thugs around like cheap china, the villain never gets a clue that maybe he should have his henchmen take a snort of the powerful stuff. And why is Lucy running at all? Why doesn’t she just turn the mob chief into a pillar of iodized salt using her god-like powers? There is no character development. Lucy appears out of context in the opening scene as if you had channel surfed your way into the middle of a TV sitcom.
The “tell em what your are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them, dialog makes the obvious tedious. Hammered in by repeated scenes of Professor Norman, expounding nonsense pseudoscience lecture as if it were true, the lack of scientific fact checking that went into this movie is astonishing. Couldn’t the screen writers have at least typed “GOOGLE” when they were dreaming up this script?
I don’t want to be a kill joy. Why spoil something like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” with the delightful goose laying golden eggs because the premise for the fantasy is inconsistent with science? It is fine to suspend belief for story telling if this illuminates human nature in a compelling way. But in Lucy, the story does not progress beyond the absurd premise. Look a golden egg! Wow, she laid another one! Look another one and it is even bigger…amazing special effects! A story that never advances beyond the premise is infantile. Lucy lays one egg after another exploiting the same contrivance as former disc jockey Casey Kasem with his hyped-up countdown winding up suspense to hear the top-ten pop songs. Viewers grow anxious to see what will happen when Lucy finally reaches 100% of her brain capacity. When we finally get there, the answer–that the meaning of life is to be found in a thumb drive–is an enormous let-down. The Bible story of the Tower of Babel works the same material as Lucy–man’s quest for god-like knowledge and power, but it does a far better job, and it has a cleaver ending. In return for man’s hubris, God puts lowly humans in their place by dividing them by language. The message in Lucy is trivial: that if we could have god-like knowledge we wouldn’t know what to do with it, other than stick someone else with it.
As for the premise; if you lose 10% or your brain power you will know it. The experiment has been done through disease, injury, intoxication, and prefrontal lobotomy. If you lose 90% of your cerebral cortical function, you will not be able to operate on the remaining 10%. You will be brain dead.
Animals do not use less of their brain than humans. Survival of the fittest sees to it that nature is never wasteful. The human brain uses 20% of the body’s total energy but it represents only 2% of the body’s mass. What would happen if an animal built such a costly organ and let 90% of it go idle?
Dolphins do not use twice as much of their brain as humans do and other animals do not use less of their brains than humans. Humans have superior intellect because of the increased cortical network that sustains more complex information processing. Dolphins are not more intelligent than humans. Whales and dolphins have big brains, but their cerebral cortex—the part that gives humans their incomparable intellect, is much simpler in structure than in primate brains or indeed the brains of many other clever terrestrial mammals including your pet dog. Dolphin cerebral cortex is thin. It has poor layering. Humans, primates, and even rodents, have six layers of cerebral cortex. Contrary to the movie, ecolocation in dolphins is not evidence of superior intelligence. After all, bats do it. So do shrews and some birds. None of these critters are considered Einsteins of the animal world.
Life did not begin 1 billion years ago as the movie says; it began 3.5 billion years ago. Not all animals have brains. Worms, insects, slugs, for example, have clusters of neurons stashed throughout their body where they need them instead of having a brain. Not all life has a nervous system; sea sponges for example, not to mention plants. Single-celled animals like the silvery Paramecia swimming in a drop of pond water, move, find food, avoid dangers, even conjugate (in addition to asexual reproduction) just fine with no nervous system at all.
At least the cliché 1950’s premise for super human abilities, radiation exposure, had some biological plausibility from genetic mutations, but the way the drug, CPH4, is supposed to allow Lucy to utilize 100% of her brain is dumb. CPH4 is supposed to be a growth factor stimulating cell division. How a growth factor could give a drug addict an instant high is unclear. Run away cell division is cancer. How cerebral metastasis enables Lucy to obtain supreme knowledge is a bit murky. The entire movie is supposed to have taken place in 24 hours, but this is about how long it takes one mammalian cell to divide in two. Supposedly this growth factor is supplied by the mother’s body and it acts like “an atomic bomb” to energize the formation of fetal bones. Had anyone bothered to fact check this they would have found these developmental facts of life are about as inaccurate as the evolutionary history Professor Norman expounds in his inane lecture. At six weeks gestation the human fetus has no bones. Only the size of a pencil eraser it doesn’t even have limbs yet. It looks like a cashew.
Lucy’s ability to remember suckling on her mother’s breast is impossible. Moreover an increase in brain cells could work to produce amnesia. Recent research indicates that birth of new neurons in the growing brain of young children is one of the reasons we can’t remember events from when our head was still expanding to its adult size. The new neurons disrupted the existing connections between neurons holding memories. Actually, children and infants do learn and remember–the sound of their mother’s voice, how to walk, recognize distinct sounds in their native language. What we lack from our early life experience is declarative memory, which is the memory of facts and events, but this requires understanding. Experience and awareness are necessary to form a “schema,” which is a complete and coherent combination of meaningful events, emotions, in temporal sequence and in relation to what is already stored in the mind to make a declarative memory. Infants are still just trying to make sense of the world. Moreover, human beings are born long before their brain is fully formed. The brain develops after birth so that environmental experience can help guide the process of wiring together our 100 billion neurons properly.
Icarus crashing to earth when his wax wings melt from flying too close to the sun makes an eloquent point with lovely unforgettable imagery, but Lucy is mind-numbing. On a scale of 1 to 5 neurons, a neuroscientist would rate Lucy “one neuron” because the science is abysmal. Filmgoers and literary types will concur because of the juvenile plot and lazy production. Philosophers will rate it two neurons in appreciation of the eastern philosophy patina, especially in the nirvana-like final scene. Those who spend their time staring semi-comatose at reality TV will find the car-chase scenes in Lucy much more exciting than watching fishermen land crabs or realtors flip houses, so they will give Lucy 3 neurons. Taking the mathematical mean, I give Lucy a rating of two neurons– but not cortical pyramidal neurons; just small inhibitory interneurons.