10 Years Later, I Still Want The Pill From Limitless
In my restless dreams, I see that pill: NZT-48, the brain-unlocking super-drug from Limitless.
In the hours before this piece came to fruition, I sat empty-headed, dead-eyed in the Great Before, staring at the unassailable path to words on a screen. Looming over me, like my fingers had been put on mute, was the self-loathing realm of writer’s block.
Inspiration lies dormant until most inconvenient; you’ll be showering, or teetering on the edge of a good night’s sleep, when a brainwave hits – and then it’s gone, like a suicide bomb of creativity. If only our cognitive abilities were… *raises eyebrow* Limitless.
Today marks 10 years since Neil Burger’s movie. Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a disheveled, struggling author battling his own mental wall in New York City. Despite looking like a normal bloke, he narrates: ‘What kind of guy without a drug or alcohol problem looks this way?’
As he sits down to finally pen his masterpiece, he has a strategy: ‘Today was gonna be the day I kicked its ass. Just put in the time, stay in the room, don’t leave the room.’
Of course, like any great procrastinator, he leaves the room and goes for a drink, where he meets an ex-brother-in-law equipped with an exclusive, powerful new drug, said to let you break through that 20% barrier of your brain and access the whole organ.
Obviously, this pseudoscience is actually a myth perpetuated by the likes of Limitless, Phenomenon and Lucy. We use all of our brains all the time, even when we’re sleeping.
Nevertheless, within 30 seconds of taking NZT-48, Eddie’s life improves: the world opens up around him like a fish-eye lens, he can recall the tiniest, most insignificant passing memory like its scripture, he has deductive powers ‘like a gift from god’ which can be used for persuasion or later, playing the stock market like a fiddle.
He also transforms from straggly-haired Cooper into a cocktail of his virile, chiselled Hangover persona with strokes of Jordan Belfort, Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes.
As I write these words, it’s hard not to crave that uninhibited prowess. Especially right now, so many people have been working from home for months, if not almost a year, without the usual tête-à-têtes, meaningless interactions and doses of normal life to keep us stimulated, if not relaxed.
At first, Eddie dubs it a ‘drug for people who wanted to be more anal-retentive’ – but its wonders eventually come clear. ‘I wasn’t high, I wasn’t wired – just clear. I knew what I wanted to do and how to do it,’ he says.
We’ve all had waves of that feeling, whether it’s a flurry of paragraphs in a feature, ploughing through a to-do list like there’s no tomorrow, a 15-kill game on Warzone with a dub at the end, or even the clatter of background clutter grooving into a symphony. ‘I was blind but now I see.’
Of course, for mere mortals, that’s all it is: a wave. In university, I heavily relied upon ProPlus to get me through long dissertation shifts. Three tablets and a can of Monster; a few hours of shaky-handed energy and an afternoon of the sh*ts later, it’d be time to top up. Drink, wipe, repeat.
Others perform certain tasks better with an alcoholic drink in them. While I’ve been known to indulge in this on some pretty stressful late nights, let me take this moment to pledge to my editor that I’m not drunk on-shift.
It’s not like Limitless paints a totally harmless portrait of acquiring a four-digit IQ, either. Before I’m accused of missing the point of the movie, I’m aware how dangerous the pill is throughout, causing chronic illness and death in some cases. It’s only when Eddie irons out the toxic bugs that he basically becomes superhuman – this is the version I’d seek, if at all, not the debilitating side-effects.
What’s the first thing you’d do if you had the pill? Would you write a book; learn a second, third or fourth language; become a stock market extraordinaire and achieve fame and fortune beyond your wildest imagination? Riding along with the film, I found myself asking this over and over.
The fact Limitless, a ridiculous movie propped up on the universal appeal of its conceit and Cooper’s irresistible performance, has endured so long is a bit miraculous. Most of the time, its dialogue rattles like an idiot trying to talk like a smart person, with empty, grandiose statements like ‘brockering the biggest merger in corporate history’.
The best writing in the film is gifted to Robert De Niro’s financial magnate Carl Van Loon. In a rare moment away from the perils of illness, meaningless mumbo-jumbo, eastern European mobs and hitmen, he tells Eddie he’s a ‘freak’ and warns him of acquiring such intellectual might without working for it.
He tells him:
Your deductive powers are a gift from God or chance or a straight shot of sperm or whatever or whoever wrote your life-script. A gift, not earned. You do not know what I know because you have not earned those powers. You’re careless with those powers, you flaunt them, and you throw them around like a brat with his trust-fund.
Since Limitless, one field has taken on seismic expansion: nootropics, drugs and supplements designed to boost your cognitive function beyond a jolt of caffeine or glug of booze. However, these don’t let you yield your full brain – rather, they’re known to eliminate the distractions and keep you focused.
Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, earlier told BBC Future: ‘With smart drugs, all you’re doing is taking the brain that you have and putting it in its optimal chemical state. You’re not taking Homer Simpson and making him into Einstein.’
However, nootropics are far from a sure thing. Despite the many, many options available (the US has an eye-watering smorgasbord of pills), other medical experts and neuroscientists are dubious of how effective they are, and if they’re even advisable to take – it’s easy to imagine being addicted to the feeling of pure, unabated concentration.
Perhaps this is why, despite my infatuation with NZT-48, I’ve never dived in and tried to boost my brain with a real-life product beyond the usual tools – I’d name a few, but I don’t want this to be a nootropic endorsement.
Maybe the dream is better than the reality, maybe I’m too frightened of any side-effects, or perhaps I know deep down that using meds to overcome lapses in concentration is a cheat’s game, just like Van Loon says.
But regardless of the warnings in Limitless, its small doses of wisdom and current of absolute nonsense, the pill speaks to something we all want: to be better, smarter, more free, confident, intelligent, happy, more so now than ever. If NZT-48 was sitting in front of you, in its original form: ‘Worth the risk? What would you do?’
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