“Limitless” and Buick Ad Get the Brain All Wrong

Bradley Cooper in "Limitless"

Tracing the influence of present-day brain research on mainstream media and the film industry is a fascinating but routinely frustrating endeavor. The hope is that filmmakers and advertising executives would use their powerful platforms as an opportunity to engage their viewers and buyers with real science, and to use the few opportunities they have to slip in a brain reference to really make sure they are saying something that is based on current understandings. The optimistic result could be a gradual correction in the public consciousness of some prevalent urban legends about the brain.

But more often than not, we see mass media take the easy road– the road that doesn’t require consulting real scientists or taking a genuine interest in scientific accuracy. Instead, the brain is often used for the alluring and impenetrable aura it exudes to further a fantastical plot or sell more products. It is one thing to stay entirely in the realm of fantasy– it is another to claim a basis in the real world and then to get your facts wrong, leading a viewership on to believe that what you’re saying is right.

In the past years, we’ve seen Avatar– with some significant gaps in logic though overall a genuinely intriguing take on a global neural network– and Inception, which, in my opinion, made the mistake of trying to ground its fantastical worlds in actual insights about actual dreaming that humans do (Ellen Page’s endless scenes of rationalizing how this was all possible), but seemed to take absolutely nothing from modern sleep and dreaming research.

Today there are two more significant mentions of the brain swirling in mass media. One is the trailer for the film Limitless, which opened this past weekend in the U.S. Let’s just deal with the trailer, which first grabbed my attention when a male character says the following to Bradley Cooper:

“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain? This lets you access all of it.”

Cut to flashy digital animations of brain tissue. And another generation that will continue to believe that what “they” say about only using a fraction of your brain is still correct. This is an incredibly lazy and irresponsible tidbit to include in a trailer that has now been seen by millions of people around the world. From a Scientific American article published in 2008:

Though an alluring idea, the “10 percent myth” is so wrong it is almost laughable, says neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period. “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

In the same vein of mainstream irresponsibility, a new Buick car commercial currently running on all the major networks makes an outrageous claim about the brain’s daily function.

The voiceover begins: “Humans have three thousand thoughts a day. The engine of the Regal Turbo has a hundred and twenty five million thoughts a second.”

I could not believe this ad copy could make it through any rational modern day chain of command. Where did this tidbit come from?

And it goes on, making a completely impossible comparison between the “thoughts” of a mind, however you quantify those, and the “thoughts” of a car’s engine, attempting to mine the allure of the brain to sell more cars.

One can’t even begin to counter this ad because it’s not clear where their research process began and ended, and where they plucked that number from. If you ask any respectable and humble neuroscientist today, the answer you’d get is that there is no way we can even quantify a single thought, let alone figure out how many we have in a day, with current scientific methods. Not even close.

But if you had to guess, just feel it out, does 3,000 a day– which averages out to somewhere between 2 and 3 thoughts a minute– seem intuitively right to you? If the guy driving that car in the Buick ad is having just 2 or 3 thoughts a minute I pray his car is really having 125 million a second, for his safety and the safety of us all.

Perhaps Buick ripped the 3,000 thoughts a day factoid from a quote by A-Rod’s performance coach, Jim Fannin, in a 2004 New York Times article:

”Superstars don’t think like everyone else,” Fannin said. ”The average person has 2,000 to 3,000 thoughts a day, and 60 percent of the average person’s thoughts are in chaos. The superstar has 1,100 to 1,300 thoughts a day. They eliminate worry, envy, jealousy, embarrassment and anger. The superstar thinks a lot less and holds a thought longer.” [source]

If A-Rod only has 1,100 thoughts a day, that may make sense. And maybe Jim Fannin now writes copy for Buick ads.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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  • Yeah – Limitless was laughably bad. It made more sense as long as I only used 5% of my brain while I was watching it.
    Nice subtle jab at A-Rod!

  • My main issue with that Buick ad is that in that “3000” thoughts number, they obviously discount the endless calculations and subconscious thoughts that let you breathe, eat and walk around every day, then turn around and count exactly that type of stuff as the “thoughts” of their fancy car engine…

  • I think that we are missing the point. Yes the science may be wrong, but it that is not Hollywood’s job, their job is story and fantasy. What is interesting is that they are bringing the brain into the mainstream, it is creating conversation.

    With the platform being set on a mainstream level, it is now up to scientist to use it to create further awareness.

    I that its great that we are so interested in making ourselves better that even movies are talking about it. The mainstream element can only lead to further spread of knowledge on how the brain works, which is only a good thing.

  • I agree with Araceli, it’s not hollywood’s job to provide a perfect scientific representation of todays’s understandings.

    Inception is a brilliant movie – if they’d have added real data from sleep and dream research though, it might have turned out worse.

    Regardless, presenting facts like the 20% brain and 3000 thoughts nonsense is indeed ridiculous..

  • Araceli and David: I hear what you are saying, but there’s an important difference between bringing something to the mainstream and bringing it to the mainstream still with the attached baggage of outdated views. I’d almost rather the brain be left out of a film like that or that commercial than have it presented as it was. I think hollywood does have an important responsibility here, that is rarely took seriously– thousands, maybe millions, might never read about the brain and then see this trailer or see that commercial, and a myth is perpetuated, whether they have realized it or not. That is powerful, and to my eyes it is a result of laziness.

    Incorporating data from real sleep and dream research into Inception does sound boring. We don’t need data in films, we just need creative decisions that are based on something real if they purport to be revealing something about a real phenomenon, like dreaming. The extent/entertainment of these creative decisions is up to the filmmaker– I’m talking about the scientific basis, which seems to be brushed aside, or lazily avoided, in the cases discussed here. What science has revealed in the last century about the brain is much more interesting to me and forms a much more interesting (and responsible) launchpad for creativity than the popular hearsay myths we get in these examples.

  • So, a point that we’re all missing is that philosophers, psychologists and neuro-scientists admittedly accept how little they actually know regarding the human brain. If you wanted to incorporate ‘facts’ and ‘scientific truth’ in a movie that’s merely trying to illustrate fantastical concepts regarding our very beautiful human brains, then all you’re doing is drawing a parody.

    There is so much room for thought regarding the human brain, who cares what Hollywood is trying to do? Scientists themselves have very little idea about what they’re researching. Giving life to such a complex issue through fictional film making is fun. And I disagree that it is misleading, as there is very, very little (on the verge of nothing) on the topic that is concrete. Just ask a neuro-scientist, or, if you don’t have any neuro-practitioning friends, read a book.

    And ‘inception’ was a great film, at least through my own eyes. The acting was great, the plot was riveting, and the themes behind it make a lot of sense. If you can get past all of the ‘dream stuff,’ there is a higher ‘truth’ to be taken.

    To me, the whole point of it was to demonstrate how that if we get an idea so ingrained within our subconscious mind, then it will become real for us. Or, as I preferred to take from it – reality is an individual experience, so what is real? That’s the question that really made an impression in my mind.

    Anyway, what do I know. I only have a human brain, not a cool, blue avatar one. That’d be sweet.

  • In an examination of brain function and motivation, we are putting together an experiemental scifi horror short – Abel and Cain. It begs and answer to “What inspires you?” Intellect or Physical Desire. Funny how often we blame our biology on shortcomings.

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