As a kid, I would often let my mind wander, dreaming of the amazing things that we’d one day be able to accomplish as human beings.
I can’t remember who told me this, but someone, somewhere mentioned that we only use 10% of our brains at any given moment.
The most likely source was probably a schoolteacher in a science class.
I loved science, still do. I’ve always been inspired by the way that it seemed to open up all of the right questions, shedding light on so many hidden misconceptions, helping propel us to the stars, healing diseases, creating better mental health — the list goes on.
One of my all-time favorite afterschool cartoons was Inspector Gadget.
If you’ve never seen this show, it’s about a bumbling inspector that has been retrofitted with different augmented capabilities.
He’s got arms that can stretch, rockets in his shoes, secret communication abilities. My younger self was fascinated with the idea of those capabilities, especially the little book that Inspector Gadget’s niece Penny carried around.
Nowadays, we’d instantly recognize this as a tablet of some kind, but this was like a kind of scientific magic back then.
We’ve probably all heard the saying by Arthur C. Clarke that,
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
That was absolutely true to my younger self, only I knew that this magic was something we could use, change, and make better.
It was magic that we could control.
For the longest time, I dreamed of becoming a scientist or a doctor one day, and I spent a lot of energy paying attention in my science classes in school, whereas the rest of my academic career wasn’t quite so rapt with attention.
But when I first heard that we only used 10% of our brains, I didn’t see this as a limitation; I thought of this as something that we’d eventually solve, more of a challenge than a blockade.
Looking back, if I could do it all over, I’d probably try to get my degree in Neuroscience or a related field, instead of the M.A. in the Humanities that I ended up with.
Life is like a one-way street, though, and all we can do is make today and tomorrow better, so I won’t spend too much time worrying about the past.
I’m most curious right now that, like in the film Limitless with Bradley Cooper, we’re capable of vastly more than we think.
In the movie, Bradley’s character Eddie comes into possession of a pill that allegedly gives him command of 100% of his brain, instead of the usual, lower, but oft-quoted limit.
This upgrade in cognitive capabilities gives Eddie the ability to find overnight success in the stock market, along with making just about every aspect of his life easier and quicker.
While this might have seemed far-fetched in 2011 when the picture was released, in today’s world, we are getting tantalizingly close to achieving some of these capabilities, using some of the same neurochemical pathways that we already have.
In other words, we are currently learning to unlock the power of our own potential, without relying on the class of external drugs, usually called nootropics.
The other day I listened to a podcast featuring a leading neuroscientist from Stanford.
During the two-part show, he mentioned something that absolutely piqued my curiosity in a way that made me realize that we are much closer to this type of reality than we might know at the moment.
The guest on the show spoke about some research currently happening with some patients who had already undergone brain surgery.
These patients had opted into a few studies where they inserted electrodes into their brains at the time of operation since they were already undergoing that type of procedure.
While the process sounded a lot like Elon Musk’s Neuralink presentation that I watched a recently, this went even farther.
According to the doctor on the show, these patients are being studied for the ability to use super-high doses of dopamine in conjunction with extremely accelerated learning.
Just as a quick refresher, dopamine is the “feel good” hormone that gets released into the brain whenever we achieve a goal or in response to positive outcomes.
This is the chemical responsible for helping us calibrate our learning process and, in more negative outcomes, responsible for driving addictive behaviors.
Dopamine works to help mark specific outcomes in the brain as worthy of attention and focus.
When we get a massive release of dopamine, whatever we were doing at the time gets a large amount of attention from the brain, essentially rewiring our neurobiology to do more of whatever that was.
It’s the reward system, and this is how we calibrate what our idea of success is. This is also much like the mechanism behind a specific type of Artificial Intelligence called “Reinforcement Learning.”
This is an entire subfield of research in the machine learning community, and it’s modeled in many ways after our human reward system. However, there are obviously no chemicals involved, just mathematical representations of success for calibration.
During the show, the Stanford professor said that there are currently trials happening where the use of massive amounts of dopamine in conjunction with learning a skill is enabling the retention of information on a scale we’ve never seen in human history.
For example, he talked about how they are seeing it possible in these trials to go from almost zero knowledge of a language to fluent within a matter of hours or days, instead of the usual timescale on the order of years.
Imagine, like in the movie, The Matrix, essentially downloading information at will, absorbing and retaining all of it.
At some point soon, we may see the ability, for example, to simply absorb all of some particular subject on Wikipedia, if not the entire thing, within a matter of hours.
According to the show’s neuroscientist, this probably still seems almost entirely science fiction to most of us, yet we are within range of these types of breakthroughs right now.
I won’t have time to get into the subject here, but this brings up many ethical concerns, primarily how this technology will be distributed, and fair access to ensure that inequalities are not widespread.
But with that aside, it seems that humanity is now on the cusp of achieving similar capabilities, as shown in the Limitless film.
The most spectacular part about these capabilities is that they are not yielded by ingesting external, lab-created chemicals but merely manipulating our own brain chemistry.
Oh, and that whole misconception about using 10 or 20 percent of our brains?
We now know this is entirely untrue.
According to neuroscience, we’ve always used mostly our entire brain, with some caveats, only we haven’t quite understood how this works until now, though we still have a considerable distance to go.
There’s still a long journey to travel with these kinds of breakthroughs, but we are starting to see some serious gains.
And to me, this means that we are already Limitless; we just haven’t known exactly where the boundaries of this have been, since the beginning of our species.