It’s a myth that we only use 20% of our brain, but I can see why it’s popular: It’s the perfect excuse.
How can I excel if the tools I need to do so are in a place I can’t access? If only there was a miracle drug…
Still, many a movie has been made about said miracle drug, including Limitless, a film starring Bradley Cooper as a hard-up writer. After he discovers NZT-48 and finishes his book in a day, he makes millions in the stock market and enjoys his newfound life as a genius — until the side effects kick in.
It’s a nice movie to fuel our daydreams, but it also makes for a strong wake-up call because, as Lars van der Peet says in a video essay about the film, “it explores something we are all aware of: The perception that we are unfulfilled potential; that we aren’t doing everything we could and should be doing.”
Our frustration with our brains shows on many levels: You might be angry that you can’t remember what you wanted to say, feel depressed after being stuck on an important project for months, or watch movies like Limitless in lack of motivation to write your novel.
As understandable as these frustrations are, they are born out of misconception: Our brain was never something we were meant to have 100% control over — it is simply a partner we must work with.
There is no exact science on how much of our brain activity happens “below the surface,” but chances are it’s a lot more than what we process and register in a conscious manner. Whether it’s 80–20 or 60–40, the point is: Your subconscious is much larger than your consciousness, and you can’t force everything into the realm of awareness. Even if you could, you’d probably feel overwhelmed and wouldn’t be able to synthesize the information in a useful way.
Your brain is an iceberg. Most of it is under water. It is not your job to try and turn it upside down. Your job is to navigate whatever lies above sea level. Even the small terrain up top is constantly changing, and in order to navigate it well, you must trust in whichever part the iceberg decides to reveal.
“Make your unconscious your ally instead of your enemy,” Lars says.
Accept that creativity requires breaks, and that in those breaks, your subconscious is working for you, not against you. Your mind can process even when you don’t, and usually, it does its best work while you do none at all.
Organize your surroundings. Give your brain every chance to structure what it sends you by structuring your sensory input. A brain fed with views of a chaotic room will only feed you chaotic thoughts. Clarity on the outside, however, breeds clarity within.
Make new connections. Structure and routine lead to insights on the regular, but if they become too rigid, only a change of pace can provide stimulation. In the long run, your brain can only give you new ideas if you give it new input.
Finally, never let a good idea go to waste. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scrambled for my phone to make a note, and I expect myself to do so many times in the future. Inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime, and it is foolish to think it’ll repeat the favor just because you’re too lazy to take note right now.
Towards the end of the movie Limitless, the main character realizes he never needed a smart-drug in the first place: His limitations were mostly self-imposed. Instead of blaming his brain, he starts using it.
Your brain is not you. It will never define who you are, and yet, you must live with it every day. Treat your brain like a partner: You don’t control them, but together, you can achieve a whole lot.
In that sense, I think the real message of the movie is this: We have everything we need. We just have to work with it rather than against it.