No truth at all in movie Lucy's capacity to thrill

Movie featuring Scarlett Johansson's Lucy perpetuates myth we only use 10pc of our brain

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 1:14am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 2:52am

Scarlett Johansson's character of Lucy, in the eponymous hit film now showing in Hong Kong cinemas, has such a highly functioning brain that she develops telepathy and telekinesis.

When Lucy is accidentally drugged and harnesses her brain's full potential, she achieves superhuman powers.

The action thriller's production notes suggest that French director Luc Besson "was particularly intent on grounding [it] - at least partly - in scientific fact".

However, its premise is based on a myth of unknown origin that humans use only 10 per cent of their brain's capacity.

Author Kate Wong writes in a Scientific American blog: "The notion that we humans have massive reserves of grey matter just sitting there waiting to be summoned into service has obvious appeal, but there is no scientific evidence to support it."

She quotes neurologist Barry Gordon, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in Baltimore, in the United States, who says: "It turns out that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time.

"Let's put it this way: the brain represents 3per cent of the body's weight and uses 20 per cent of the body's energy."

Given that - as the film has suggested - we could all be using our brains to change the laws of physics, rewind time and control people's thoughts, just like Lucy.

Wong says that Barry Beyerstein, of the Brain Behaviour Laboratory at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, writes in Scientific American that it "strains credulity" to believe that evolution allowed the brain to be the size it is with such a massive amount being underused.

Beyerstein also says that, because we use all of our brain, there does not seem to be any area that can be destroyed by strokes, head trauma, or some other manner, without leaving some kind of functional deficit.

L. Dade Lunsford, a distinguished professor at the Department of Neurological Surgery, at the University of Pittsburgh in the US, has not seen Lucy, but says he knows about its flawed premise.

"The concept we only use 10 per cent of our brain is dramatically over-exaggerated," says Lunsford, who in 1987 performed the first Gamma Knife brain surgery in North America, in Pittsburgh. At the time it was only the world's fifth such procedure.

"It is not a scientific fact, but so what if it's in a movie? It's a pattern in movies that has been explored for a long time with superpowers emerging."

Lunsford says the brain is an extraordinary organ in its own right, even without the superhuman exploits of Lucy; science understands only about 10 per cent of how the brain operated.

He mentions, for example, how we can "see", in our mind's eye, the vision of someone we once met, even years before.

"Somewhere that memory, that full-colour vision, has been embedded in our neurological circuitry and under the right circumstances we can bring that up," he says. "I don't think anyone has a clue how many billions of neurons have to fire to bring up that image."

While we will not be able to gain superhuman powers, Lunsford says we can improve our brain function and memory and delay cognitive deficits of age by training our brains through exercises, such as doing crossword puzzles and exercising our body to stimulate the replacement of neurons.

Even though the film's premise is flawed, he says there is no reason not to enjoy a movie like Lucy.

"Watch it for entertainment and excitement," Lunsford says. "A large part of what Hollywood produces isn't related to reality, but that doesn't mean it can't be entertaining."