Movies that incorporate science can provide journalists with great teachable moments. It’s fun and educational to discuss what movie makers get right and what they get wrong. And why not take advantage of these intersections between science and pop culture to delve into the plausibility of traveling back in time, building antimatter super-bombs, reanimating frozen people, endowing apes with speech or erasing memories of bad relationships.
Cognitive enhancement is a poplar futuristic plot device, but the movie Lucy is also based on the persistent old canard that we only use 10% of our brains.
The movie plot also depends on the assumption that tapping into the unused mass of grey matter would make us 10 times smarter, though I’d guess that if the 10% story were true, the other 90% might be just as stupid as the part we already use. If anything, activating it would only give us the ability to think of stupid ideas 10 times as fast.
According to one review, there’s a long monologue in which Morgan Freeman’s scientist character says that dolphins use 20% of their brains, while other creatures use just 3%, which ridiculous.
Wired featured at least two pieces. There’s a Q and A: All You Need To Know About the 10% Brain Myth, in 60 Seconds by Christian Jarrett. It includes interesting speculation on the origin off the myth, which may trace to a goof by a journalist:
Thomas misquoted the brilliant American psychologist William James as saying that the average person specifically “develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability.” In fact James had referred more vaguely to our “latent mental energy.”
There’s also some survey information to suggest that most Americans believe the myth.
Also in Wired is a listicle by Angela Wattercutter: Lucy’s Based on Bad Science, and 6 More Secrets About the Film. It includes an interview with the filmmaker, Luc Besson, who says he’s well aware that this figure is a myth.
“It’s not true,” Besson says. “The good thing with movies is that you mix up everything and then in the end it looks real.”
At NBCnew.com, Alan Boyle presents some of the same material along with a section on so-called junk DNA in Beyond ‘Lucy’: 10 Percent Brain Myth Debunked — How About Junk DNA?
In Slate, Jane Hu tells us How to Use More than 10% of Your Brain.
In Scientific American blogs, Kate Wong tells us that Lucy Film Hinges on Brain Capacity Myth
The smartest of these stories was by Steve Novella at the Skeptics Guide to the Universe: New Movie, Lucy, Promotes 10% Brain Myth.
He addresses an evolutionary problem that I’d been considering: The question of baby head size vs. the human female pelvis. If we don’t need the our big heads for intelligence and most of our brain matter goes to waste, surely our difficult childbirths would qualify the whole species for a Darwin Award.
Yes, indeed, as Novella explains, we humans get our big brains at a high cost, both in terms of energy consumption and dangers that childbirth poses. The evolutionary argument is interesting and likely engage the brain matter of lay readers.
Most of these pieces don’t mention much about the actual movie, and several writers admit they haven’t yet seen this summer blockbuster. Reviews are mixed, with some calling it madly deeply watchable, and others, painfully stupid.
By Faye Flam