On Sunday I watched “Lucy” with friends. An entertaining movie. Scarlett Johansson is hot, in an interesting way, and the cinematography is well done: the cuts keep up the tension of the story very well, and some of the computer graphics are superb. The acting isn’t bad either. The story of the movie is that a naive exchange student (Johansson) is abducted by Korean gangsters and has a bag of drugs implanted into her body to force her to smuggle it to Europe. The drug bag bursts and gives her nervous system superpowers.
What was a bit irksome for me was the supposed neuroscience background for her transformation into the Übermensch. Supposedly, according to a lecture given by supremely authoritatively sounding Morgan Freeman playing a famous professor, regular humans only use 10% of their cerebral capacity. Using successively higher proportions will lead to superb superpowers. “What about using 100% of our cerebral capacity?” asks one audacious student: “He can not even imagine” answers the Professor. Such a high brain usage would be the realm of science fiction.
Uhm, that’s really not quite true.
If you are incapable of using even a small part of your brain you will be in trouble. And that kind of trouble happens all the time: it’s called a stroke. Miss a few percent of your cortex, and you might not be able to speak, see, walk right or recognize your wife even while being able to see her. Using “only 10% of your cerebral capacity” as is claimed in “Lucy” that normal humans do, will certainly leave you as a brain dead vegetable. Ok, ok, I know this movie is not meant to be a documentary, but you could ask for some kind of realism, can’t you? Is the general public really so scientifically illiterate that it can be fed baloney like that without cringing?
After contemplating the issue a bit more, though, I came to the conclusion that the scientific illiteracy in “Lucy” is no worse than what I see in some of academic neuroscience.
“Lucy” is in many ways no less scientific than a promo video for the Blue Brain Project. Both feature fancy computer graphics of flashing neurons, plus a lot of buzzwords. “Building a brain in 10 years”? That claim is only gradually less absurd than the pseudoneuroscience out of “Lucy”. Vacuous pseudophilosophical babble about a conscious universe? You’ll get that both in the movie and in the academic outreach video. Also, the computer-woman fusion at the end of “Lucy” is no more ludicrous than the claims by the folks who stick a lot of well-connected chips onto one circuit board and then claim that’s somehow like the brain (uhm, it’s not). And these are just some of the harshest examples of ludicrous scientific hyperbole aimed at shamelessly garnering research funding and publicity. “Lucy”, while offering nothing scientifically, at least has some really nice shots of Scarlett Johansson’s superbly athletic legs.