I Loved Lucy – And I’m A Neuroscientist

When I first saw the trailer for Lucy, I felt like every astrophysicist must feel when yet another space-based movie enters theatres: miffed and very, very nervous. In a neuro-doped world ridden with misinformation, I wasn’t ready for more poorly-researched brainporn. I am glad I held my breath though, because as it turns out, this movie is completely self-aware, and as a result, pretty fantastic.

First things first – it’s not a high-action thriller, as the trailer might suggest. Lucywas written, directed, and filmed by French filmmaker Luc Busson, who has had quite a prolific and varied career. But this movie is more The Fifth Element than Taken; and I highly recommend watching the former before you watch this film. Once you appreciate his style (if you’re not familiar, think a slightly more odd Tarantino), you can recognize the weird, brilliant things he accomplishes in this movie. Each scene has a gem in it: a rich bad guy performs surgery, gets blood all over his face and hands but not on his crisp silver suit; Lucy calls her mother in the middle of getting stomach surgery and explains that she misses breastfeeding; finally, Lucy meets “Lucy,” i.e.australopithecus afarensis, in a completely ridiculous remake of The Creation of Adam. And then there’s the completely absurd science, packed with largely fabricated statistics about brain power, the space-time continuum, and quantum physics.

Besides the quick cuts to Discovery Channel montages and quirky, but not openly comical scenes that slowly, slowly make you realize you should be laughing, I think this movie might have actually done something positive for the public understanding of neuroscience. Yes, I know every informed person out there is rolling their eyes and going, “ugh, the 10% myth was so 1960’s” – but that’s the point, aren’t we beyond it? Aren’t we so far beyond believing this myth that we can listen to Morgan Freeman tell us that earlier species only used 5-8% of their cerebral capacity, and that dolphins use more of their brains than humans, and knowingly smile? I sat through Morgan Freeman’s lecture – given to a room full of enthusiastically-nodding scientists, and laughed. Because we should laugh at what a ridiculous idea it is.

Of course, being able to realize the humor here is contingent on knowing that the 10% thing is indeed a myth. Well, thanks to this movie, it’s now very explicitly out there that believing in the 10% myth makes you a complete fool. Almost every review or summary points out that it’s based on a long held neuroscience myth:

  • “It’s a fallacy, long rebuffed by science, that humans use only about 10% of their brain power.” – Time
  • “That human beings use only 10 percent of their “cerebral capacity,” is a complete falsehood, incidentally.” -The Atlantic
  • “So let’s start with the enticing premise of Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” starring Scarlett Johansson: Human beings only use 10 percent of their brain capacity. Imagine what it would be like if we could access all of it? Well, wow. It would be sort of like … nothing new. Because, it turns out, in real life, humans pretty much DO use their whole brains. DARN!” – ABC News

Ultimately, many people missed the joke and accompanying insights, and the reviews for Lucy have ranged from “beyond-the-pale sloppy” (The Atlantic) to “truly, madly deeply watchable” (NPR). I attended the movie with a cognitive scientist and a psychologist, and we all loved it. Defenders of science: don’t go into this movie with swords drawn, just sit and enjoy the ridiculous humor. Once you suspend belief – in the same way you suspend belief for anything remotely fantasy – the movie becomes all the more enjoyable.