Reviewed Books & Films

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Amazing Potential Meets Hidden Dangers

APA The film Limitless, about a protagonist who must deal with newfound supermental powers, raises some interesting themes of interest to psychologists and the general public. Mary Spiers, in her review of the film, reflects on the film's core theme by discussing the current trends and research in neuroenhancement, in which drugs are used or studied as methods for improving cognitive performance. Addiction and physical and psychological side effects loom large with these drugs, yet uncharted self-improvement and societal change hold an irresistible allure for many.

What would you suggest are the ethical parameters for the use of such medications? Should a line be drawn with such medications? What are the hidden, potential dangers of pursuing neuroenhancement? In your future practice, a client will likely be speaking to you about similar medications; how might you provide a balanced point of view to help him or her arrive at a useful decision?

Read the Review
ReviewNeuroenhancement: Do “Smart Pills” Have Limits?
By Mary V. Spiers
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2011 Vol 56(31)



In the film, Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper) went from a procrastinating writer wannabe, to a successful politician with the aid of a "smart pill". With the pill, he was able to utilise 100% of his brain, with productivity as high as Albert Einstein. Nevertheless, a bunch of side effects and ethical issues are brought about with the neuroenhancement. Apparently, the drug is highly addictive when all these creative ideas were generated and the potential of one's brain was extended to its max. Eddie underwent severe withdrawal symptoms like memory blackouts, and psychologically, he couldn't face his real self anymore. Indeed, the drug brought lots of pro-social effects, given that it is put to appropriate use by an appropriate person; it can be of great risk if it's possessed by the evil.

Moreover, if similar drugs are legalised in reality, is it fair to the ones who have no access to the pill? Will it further exaggerate the wealth gap between the rich and the poor? Is education even necessary? Owing to the technological innovations, it is highly likely that smart-pills-alikes could be found in the market. How dangerous will it be compared to the existing drugs? Some artists confessed that most of their greatest masterpiece were competed after medical influence, like marijuana. The line between appropriate and overly usage is unclear, and obviously hard to take control of.

If Einstein took the pill, we probably are gonna live in a totally different world which is out of our imagination. However, when considering the costs and benefits, I would suggest that the social price of the drug is so high that it overweighs the benefits, especially when this drug is capable to alter one's self to the limitless. Essentially, neuroenhancement (still a new subject) is definitely topic where lots of researches, consultations and reviews are yet to be conducted before we can draw a line under its moral concerns.


Personally, I believe the superdrug taken by Eddie in Limitless can be justified if one can afford it. The superdrug like any other drug or materialistic supplies in the world are already distributed to those who are able or are capable of owning it (for example, cancer patients who can afford chemotherapy vs those who cannot afford it). Therefore, to address whether it is fair that certain people have the advantage of having it, I believe it is a social cycle where the gap between the rich and the poor will never be resolved because the society cannot be full functional if everyone is rich or everyone is poor.

To answer the question of ethical limitations.I personally believe the line has to be drawn when an individuals performance on daily life depends on the drug, hence developing withdrawal or tolerance effect. It is also vital in deciding whether the drug-takers would use these drugs for trafficking as well as using the drug to cheat the social system, then stricter guidelines must be implemented.

If a client requests the use of drugs,it would be helpful to have the client understand the effects of the drugs and only under strict prescription must the client agree to part-take. Therefore, the client wont abuse the drug and it will not cause after-effects if over-taken the proper amount of dozage.

Lastly, although neuroenhancement is a relatively new field in science. I do believe it can benefit a lot of people and it would give them the confidence in achieving something they thought they could never do; hence bring positivity in their lives. However, it is important that the drug could not be abused and it must always be prescribed under strict ethical guidelines.

Adrian Mark

The book raises an interesting question. But initially, I would like to speak about effects of drugs. Cocaine and amphetamines possess strong impact on the discharge of excitatory neurotransmitters and consequently stimulate mood of abusers.

Another example - some athletes are in an attempt to alter body conditions to obtain performance in sport. They would intake substances to modify the mass of body muscle improving faster oxygen delivery to be able to sustain a longer (or harder) training so as to get the training routine that they are after.

Illegal drug abuse is certainly not ethnical, because it develops tolerance and withdrawal issues among users. What about the substance for athletes? Are we considering it as a grey area?

The distinction between rehabilitation and improvement are blurring in nature these days. When one takes a medicine for cure, but in some other situations this drug taking habit may become overly an abuse of use when problems occur.

Criticisms do challenge authorities from time to time. For instance, marijuana use is legalized by the government of Netherlands. Thus, counting on the legal body to assure public health is fine but it may not be proactive and ideal enough. No matter the type of drug (e.g.: stimulant, Asthma, cognitive), everybody needs to be educated and informed in a perpetual manner to be able to make judgment call when they envisage the use of drugs.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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