Image via Universal Pictures
In Luc Besson's latest sci-fi flick, Lucy, Scarlett Johansson plays a student who due to some funny workings of fate (which I won't disclose because I'm not a total party pooper) starts using more than 10 percent of her brain, which causes her to acquire superpowers. In Lucy, the theory that humans only use 10 percent of our brains is a known fact. But Lucy is a film, and films often stretch the truth—do we really use so little of our gray matter?
Dr. Miquel Aguilar is a neurologist at the Mutua University Hospital in the Spanish city of Terrassa. I called him up to ask him if he could review the film for me and the interview turned into a introduction to neurology, with each statement or pause being accompanied by a diagram or sketch. I left the meeting carrying stacks of double-sided notes.
VICE: Is it accurate to say that we only use 10 percent of our brain?
Dr. Aguilar: The idea that we use only 10 percent of the brain is very old. But every person has a different set of capabilities and no person is the same as another. I would say there two things to take under consideration here; one is the localization of brain activity—different parts of the brain have different functions.
The other is the very important notion of connectivity. While there are certain areas of the brain that are more active than others, our brain is completely connected. To speak of "10 percent" is incorrect. It's all so much more complicated. There, I've already demolished the 10 percent theory in less than two minutes.
Can you check what percentage of their brain a person uses with some kind of test?
No, there is no such test because everyone is different. See, one section of the brain generates movement, another helps us receive sensations, within another we see, we use another to hear, to speak. But we also see movement, notice feelings, hear what we say… All of this happens in the front part of the brain, which once upon a time people thought was the silent or mute area, but is actually the organizing and planning brain; everything goes through it.
Regardless of all this, genetics determine individuals. In turn, throughout our lives our genetics are altered and empirical information is transmitted which affects our brains. A father and mother, for example, pass on their genes, which define their child’s appearance, their behavior, their reactions and abilities. Not only what we call phenotypes (our observable traits), but also genotypes—the set of genes within us. Our parents as well as our environment determine our genes. In many ways our family influences our lives from the start making each person different and with differing uses for their brains’ functions.
Dr. Aguilar's notes on the different functions of the brain (where we hear, where we process language, etc.)
Could you at least roughly tell me what percentage we use to smile or to clench a fist?
No. In relation to brain activity, these questions are extremely complicated. Any answer I could give you would only be a reflection of the brain’s response to stimulus. Many of these actions take place in the bones and stay there. The commands enter through one door and leave from the next. There are other reactions that enter through the same door and go higher, but still remain spinal. But there are others that are cortical. This is getting very complicated and I'm sure you can't understand a word I'm saying. Why? Well, because there is also memory and memory requires learning.
Are you trying to tell me that the older we get, the more advanced our brains get because of the learning we have acquired thanks to memory? Do old people have superpowers?
As we grow older we build an increasingly large network of contacts, through experience and learning. Think about it; we are constantly exposed to a barrage of information received through the eyes, mouth, tongue... Everything is then processed through the brain. Each time the brain receives information, which it translates to learning and improvement.
All this also affects our brain’s resistance. Our brain is composed of neurons, which are like thorns connected to stems that, as we grow, fill up with new information. That is to say that the stem of learning is one that can fill an empty stem with new information and transform it into a memory thorn. The more information you learn the more memory you have, but also the less space.
An old person will be full of memory thorns but few learning thorns, and that doesn’t make for much of a superman. For example: We have a boy, his father and his grandfather. Grandpa has more experience, but the other two have more empty thorns. If we put all three in a university for the same amount of time, Grandpa will have nothing against his rivals. Nonetheless, if we give him more time maybe he can beat the other two thanks to his vital pre-acquired experience.
Dr. Aguilar’s diagram of memory
What about less rational things like the act of falling in love—is there a logical development in our heads?
When you fall in love the effect it has on your brain is similar to that of a disease. It's essentially passion, and passion is equal to a loss of control. When you are walking down a street you do not pounce on a woman you like, right? Why? Because you have learned that there are rules and laws. They might be different in each country, but essentially these regulations control such impulses when a part of your brain asks: "Why not?" Of course reasoning and justifications provide another form of regulatory control.
How do you explain the paranormal activities that take place in Lucy or real-life displays of telekinesis or hypnosis?
Everyone possesses a hidden potential for such behaviour. How does a mother living in Spain know what something has happened to her child who lives thousands of miles away? Has something been transmitted? Somehow all of that information is hidden or more developed in some brains whereas lacking in others.
Why do some people experience extraterrestrial contact? Is it psychosis or reality? There are some people who can explain it coherently. There are many things we do not know and cannot deny or explain. We use the whole brain, but there are energies that we cannot yet reason with objectively.
Notes on the case of a mother who felt her child was facing a problem and the alleged tunnel we see when dying
So is there anything real about the plot of Lucy?
In the film, there is a scene where Scarlett Johansson sees what goes on in the mind of others. Why not? Everything is magic. There are all kinds of magical things in the world for which there is no explanation. The magic of the brain is wonderful. We do not know if it's real or fictitious to see a light at the end of a tunnel when we die, nor do we know what causes this and if it actually happens.
There are different types of intelligence: emotional, musical, mathematical, physical—there is no single unique intelligence. Take the example of a boy who has the ability to memorize an entire telephone directory because he has a tremendous visual memory. Does that not sound like an almost made-up skill? Human beings have so much potential. However, everything has its limits and nothing can outgrow its means—when talking about the brain, it does have a clear capacity. Wouldn’t it be a disaster to know it all? Would you really like to remember absolutely everything that you ever experienced?