The lab on Lucy

Lucy is a new science fiction movie based on the idea that humans only use 10% of our brain capacity. From a neuroscientific point of view this idea is a myth, complete bollocks. But that is not the only theoretical flaw in the movie. As overenthusiastic neuroscientists we tried our best to separate science fiction from facts. This is our lab on Lucy.

What happens if you put a bunch of neuroscientists in a room and let them watch a science fiction movie based on neuromyths? They probably can’t stop themselves from analysing every aspect of the movie and spot the errors. That’s exactly what happened when we watched the movie Lucy together on one of our lab socials.  

You might wonder: But it’s a science fiction movie, why bother to spot errors? It’s made up of SCIENCE - FICTION!

Unfortunately, many people still believe myths like this. And it’s only normal that the average moviegoer can’t tell the difference between all science fiction and fact. Even for us it can be quite difficult to separate them. Still, we tried our very best. Here’s our top five of science fiction in the movie:


5. Indians on horses
At some point Lucy has acquired the skill to go back in time, swiping her way through history. This is when Native Americans on horses passed in review and when colleague Daan jumped up from his chair.

It’s quite unlikely that the Native Americans we saw in the movie actually rode horses. Wild horses were absent in North America until the late 15th century. Only in the early 17th century Manhattan became colonized by Europeans who supposedly introduced domesticated horses. 

The Native Americans in the movie seemed to date back from way before this time, when Manhattan was still covered in marshes.

Regardless of all the the science myths in this movie, such historical anachronisms are disruptive and totally unnecessary


4. Mental power ≠ physical power
Early on in the movie Lucy got forced into some serious drug trafficking. This particular drug is supposed to act on the brain, gradually increasing the amount of brain capacity that can be used, up to the full 100%.

When the drug got accidentally released in Lucy’s body, she suddenly gained surprising amounts of physical strengths. That is simply impossible.

The brain cannot affect our physical strength to such an extent. It cannot make our muscles grow stronger. If our muscles do not work well because they are weak or because of a disease, even the best brain cannot make much of a difference.


3. Laws of physics
In addition to gaining physical strength it is also unlikely that any drug in the brain can make us break laws of physics like gravity or thermodynamics, as we saw Lucy do. Nor does it seem plausible that drugs can coerce nonliving objects to start emitting energy, or enable the brain to call into existence huge quantities of energy from the void (without the necessity of physical (causal) interaction). They do not allow you to call matter into existence from the void.

Drugs in your brain may make you think you’re doing these things though…


2. “I can feel my brain”
Lucy’s brain capacity kept increasing. At some point she said she could feel everything, even her brain and the deepest parts of her memory (inside her brain!).

Even though the brain is a huge network of nervous cells, the brain does not have sensors for touch, vibration, temperature or pain. We cannot feel our brain in our head, because there is no machinery in the brain to translate any external stimuli into impulses that we can perceive.

Even if we were able to poke in our own brain, the only thing we would feel is the brain touching our finger, not our finger touching the brain.


1. We only use 10% of our cerebral capacity.
A theory put forward by the prominent professor Norman, very convincingly played by Morgan Freeman, is the premise of the movie. With great frustration we witnessed the scene in which the professor lectured about his theory. The biggest neuromyth of all! And the most difficult to bust despite many thorough efforts by neuroscientists. 

Do we really use only 10% of the brain is one of the most popular questions when non-neuroscientists find out you’re a neuroscientist! According to a current paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience about half of almost a thousand teachers from all over the world believes this myth to be true.

The origin of the myth is a mystery in itself. A lot has been written on it since it arose (probably late 19th or early 20th century). See here for some ideas about it or be brave and type in “ten percent brain myth” on Google.

The fact is, we get to scan a lot of human brains. When looking at measured activity we see most of the brain being active during the tasks we ask participants to do. Also we know of the vast scientific literature on brain function that all areas of the brain serve some function. No parts remain unused. 


So how about the film facts?
We did not only spot science fiction. Some science facts were actually quite accurately described in the lecture given by professor Norman.

Yes, there are indeed more connections in the human body (in fact, even in the human brain) than there are number of stars in the universe as we know it.

We and other organisms reproduce when our habitat is favourable (depending on your definition of “favourable” of course).

Dolphins developed a sonar system naturally.

And most importantly, without time we would not exist.


This blog was written by Lieneke Janssena PhD student at the Motivational and Cognitive Control lab. A special thanks to Daan van Rooij en Monique Timmer for their valuable input.