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Cinema Peer Review: Douglas Fields Reviews ‘Lucy’


The premise in Luc Besson’s movie Lucy is the silly trope that 90% of human cerebral capacity goes unused. This is flat-out false. The human brain uses 20% of the body’s total energy but it represents only 2% of the body’s mass.  Natural selection drives biological organisms to minimize waste; why would an animal build such a costly organ and let 90% of it go idle.

The plot kicks into gear as Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is gang-pressed into becoming a drug mule, but then is suddenly able to access the full potential of the human brain when the surgically implanted packet of a new street drug ruptures inside her.  This fictional drug, CPH4, is supposed to be a growth factor stimulating cell division. But runaway cell division is cancer; just how cerebral metastasis enables Lucy to obtain supreme knowledge is a bit murky.  The entire movie is supposed to have taken place in 24 hours, but this is about how long it takes one mammalian cell to divide in two.

Once the drug takes hold, Lucy gains the power of roughly every comic book superhero from Popeye to Superman tossed into a blender and made into a slurry. Among her powers: Super intelligence, super strength, ESP, complete control of all the cells in her body, the ability to control other people’s bodies, mind reading, telekinesis, the talent to tap into mass electronic communications using only her mind in a way that would give Edward Snowden a panic attack. However, a more realistic side effect of a sudden increase in brain cells would be amnesia; recent research indicates that birth of new neurons in the growing brains of young children is one of the reasons we can’t remember events from when our head was still expanding to its adult size. The new neurons seem to disrupt the existing connections between neurons holding memories.

(Children and infants do learn and remember things: The sound of their mother’s voice, how to walk, and how recognize distinct sounds in their native language, to name a few things.  What we lack from our early life experience is declarative memory.  Experience and awareness are necessary to form a “schema,” a complete and coherent combination of meaningful events and emotions in a temporal sequence, related to memories already stored in the mind.)

There are some other scientific boners that crop up in Lucy. Dolphins do not use twice as much of their brain as humans do, and other animals do not use less of their brains than humans. Humans are smarter because of our increased cortical network, which supports more complex information processing. Whales and dolphins may have big brains, but their cerebral cortexes are much simpler in structure than in primate brains or even the brain of your pet dog. Contrary to the movie, echolocation in dolphins is not evidence of superior intelligence.  After all, bats do it.  So do shrews and some birds.  None of these critters are considered Einsteins of the animal world.

Look, I don’t want to be a killjoy.  Why quibble over the delightful goose laying the golden eggs in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or the construction of Icarus’ waxwork wings, because the premise for the fantasy is inconsistent with science?  Fantasy can illuminate human nature in a compelling way.  But in Lucy, the story does not progress beyond the absurd premise.  Look a golden egg!  Wow, she laid another one!  Look another one and it is even bigger…amazing special effects! The viewer gets anxious to see what will happen when Lucy finally reaches 100% of her brain capacity.  When we finally get there, the answer—involving the meaning of life and a thumb drive—is an enormous let-down.  Icarus crashing to earth when his wings melt from flying too close to the sun makes an eloquent point. The message in Lucy is trivial:  that if we could have god-like knowledge we wouldn’t know what to do with it, other than stick someone else with it.

Rating: 1 out of 5 neurons




  1. rochellespencer says

    I loved this review, but I thought dolphins were among the smarter animal species. Can you go into more detail about how the ” cerebral cortexes are much simpler in structure than…even the brain of your pet dog”?

  2. Doug Fields says

    rochellespencer HI.  Yes dolphins are smart and wonderful animals,  Intelligence is especially developed in animals that are social, like dolphins, but other mammals are very intelligent too.  The dolphin cerebral cortex does not have the complex six-layer structure that provides humans and other mammals with increased information processing and intelligence.

  3. TonyCusano says

    Booooo.   This was not a documentary, nor a philosphical movie.  It was fun.  pure amygdala, lateral cingulate nucleus and pre-frontal cortex based fun.  You are a kllljoy. No buts about it.

  4. Doug Fields says

    TonyCusano Amygdala,
    yes.  Prefrontal cortex, no!  The film is sloppy with illogical and
    contradictory sequences.   Absurdly, after all the mayhem and murder to
    battle her way to the evil gang leader to seek revenge early in the movie, Lucy
    gives the gangster a flesh wound.  Then she
    leaves, stepping over a massacre of bloody dead corpses so that he can chase her
    for the rest of the movie.  The villain
    never gets a clue after seeing Lucy toss his bodyguard thugs around like cheap
    china, that maybe he should have his henchmen take a snort of the stuff.  No; a prefrontal lobotomy or a juvenile brain with its underdeveloped pfc
    would only enhance enjoyment of this flick.

  5. Ztrails says

    Thanks for writing this article! I still want to see the movie, but now I will go into it not expecting any of the science to be true.

  6. Erwin says

    When a scientist glibly points out the massive scientific errors in much of today’s popular culture (in this case, a movie) the significant point seems to always go unnoticed: There is an enormous and rapidly-expanding chasm between the tiny scientific elite and the overwhelmingly vast majority of nonscientific “laypeople”. This indicates an abject failure of the scientific community to meaningfully engage the wider public (still feeling quite as glib, Dr. Fields?). More importantly, it also points to a serious threat to a free society. We’re alarmingly close to the point where scientists assume the function in our society of a holy priesthood, to whom the “unenlightened” public will need to turn in order to access the mysteries of reality, safeguarded only to them. Science is becoming a new church, ironically it is a “Church of Reason”.

  7. nbartlett says

    @Erwin It’s not the job of scientists to “engage” with the wider public who would much rather indulge in fantasy, pseudoscience or religion. Scientists are paid to do science, period.

  8. Jim says

    Great review.  It makes me pine for the no doubt forthcoming review of Sharknado 2 by a Marine Biologist who is also a Meteorologist.

    I really do find your review interesting and educational but I’m glad that I usually don’t read these kinds of reviews until AFTER I’ve seen the fictional film.

  9. RicardoPeres says

    Great Review, albeit generous because 1/2 a neuron would be more than enough for one!

  10. NeilFarbstein says

    its one out of ten brain cells. the other 9/10 are glial cells. so you are probably using all of your neurons but they account for a tenth of total brain weight.

  11. TonyCusano says

    @Doug Fields TonyCusano  Use of PFC – You can’t have a movie with any kind of emotional buildup to denouemet if the bad guy goes out in the early sequences.

  12. Daniel_Schegh says

    @Erwin While your argument sounds reasonable for a single field point of view (science), but not as you step back and look at society as a whole. The progress of society is largely generated by specialization and trade, the mathematical value of which is described by economists as comparative advantage. If you live on your own in the wild it is possible to know all of the areas you need to survive, but at the cost of very low standard of living and associated risks. Prosperous increase in standard of living comes from more and more reliance on others to do what they do best. 
    You don’t need to understand, or be able to design and build, a smartphone in order to benefit from its value. No single person even has that knowledge, from mining the raw materials to a finished product. That lack of understanding doesn’t stop us for appreciating the value we get from it. Nobody suggests that smartphone makers have failed to meaningfully engage the wider public because of people’s failure to understand it all. Or law, or accounting, or automobile mechanics, or medicine, or cybersecurity, or any of the many different types of expertise, simply because Hollywood builds fiction around false information in those subjects.

    I take that back. People in those fields often do. Medicine, biology, business practices, banking, engineering, and all sorts of fields do quietly criticize Hollywood when they get things wrong. My wife, and ER nurse, cringes as the Hollywood use of defibrillators, CPR, getting that antidote 10 seconds before the “24 hour” poison kills them, and people getting back on their feed as if nothing happened after all of these things.

    The common denominator is Hollywood, or at least fiction writers. It is impossible for all of these fields to actively educate the public to counteract the fantasies of fiction. The public can’t possible learn it all, and the burden of these fields increases with the more common and outlandish the fiction. The source problem is the fiction itself, not the “public engagement” of the fields. Either we live with the consequences, or we somehow hold the writers accountable for misleading people, if that is in fact a problem. I don’t see how it is possible, or even fathomable, to place the burden on the fields that are subject to the misinformation.

  13. erwinvilluendas says

    I could not agree more. This fiction cinema is just getting out of hand. Filmmakers should include a neuroscientist as advisor in their teams. And also a physician, as the kind of things that a human body goes through in these films are just unreal. People will think their bodies are undestructible. I just saw this “Transformers” film and this Michael Bay guy has no respect for physical laws. And this Luc Besson, did you see his “Fifth element”? I mean, does he want us to consider water and fire elements? How come chemists tolerate this? Movie scripts should be approved by a scientific commitee. I wouldn’t be suprised if they start making films about dead people coming back to life next.

  14. TonyCusano says

    JamesDiGioia Sheesh.  So only logic leads to good art?  Haven’t seen or read Slaughterhouse 5, then?  Poo-tee-weet.

  15. Erwin says

    nbartlett  Most scientists work at universities (many of them publicly funded) where an important part of their duties involve education. From my own admittedly personal perspective, I’d say these duties are often woefully met, and even purposefully so (since a typical professor faces much more pressure to publish research than to do a good job of teaching) and the results (as you mention) speak for themselves.

  16. TonyCusano says

    JamesDiGioia Does it sound like I am?  No, just noting that logic is not necessarily a necessity for good art.  You don’t like Lucy because you can’t get the illogical events or the bad science out of your head as you view the action and emotional story play out..  Obviously others can.  That’s why they call it taste.  But you should not categorize a movie as bad just because your taste is violated.  Some people can’t stand to sit and watch the sun go down and feel peace, contentment and awe.  Others can.  So what is the quality of a sunset?

  17. JamesDiGioia says

    TonyCusano Without getting into a metaphysical debate about “quality,” it’s not the illogic of the movie on its own that’s the problem; it’s that the illogic of the movie makes for a bad story. I watched and looooved Crank, which is as pure an action movie as you can get, but its story is stupid and terrible, and I would never all it “art” nor a “good” movie. You can enjoy a bad movie, just like you can enjoy bad music or bad tv, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s bad.

  18. EdAdams2 says

    and why does hollywood promote historical idiocy?  almost all historical and biographical films are outrageous distortions of reality which lead the unwary into false ideas about reality. they can’t even get their greek myths straight.

  19. VicP1 says

    Doug Hi: The cerebral cortex is layered just like the visual cortex and roots into the lower or old nervous system just like the eye so the cerebral cortex is a sensory organ itself as opposed to a computational system which is how Hollywood and popular culture portrays it in the Matrix movies. Likewise even our visual system is more like our hands as opposed to a TV camera system or our visual field is structured like our hands, palms and fingers so we grab with our visual field. Sounds controversial but closer to what nature does as opposed to modern engineering and science fiction.

  20. Touch McFeely says

    Um….it’s a movie. It’s fantasy and entertainment. It’s not based on any kind of factual science, nor does it need to be. Therefore, the writers and producers are allowed full play to do whatever their little imaginative hearts desire. If you would like to discuss the actual science of the human mind, that’s fine. But to argue against a fantasy is ridiculous. Sit back, grab some popcorn, enjoy the show and shutup so you don’t ruin it for others. Did you do this for Star Trek or Lord of the Rings?

  21. JamesDiGioia says

    Touch McFeely Star Trek, yes: http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/2014/07/phasers-tricorders-happen-star-trek-science/

    Additionally, the idea that we only use 10% of our brains is an extremely persistent myth, and movies like ‘Lucy’ help keep a myth like that alive. Entertainment and pop culture has a significant impact on how we understand ourselves, even if we consciously know it’s not supposed to be real.

  22. TonyCusano says

    JamesDiGioia Touch McFeely …And God forbid anyone wants to mess around with how people use the understanding that science bestows upon us… Why scientists can’t win.  Too many think they need to be the thought police, and mess it up for the ones who just want to have fun.

  23. JamesDiGioia says

    TonyCusano Touch McFeely  We’re not trying to tell you how to how to think or not to have fun (although I didn’t like the movie, and have said as much). What we are trying to do is promote scientific understanding and criticize things that promote misunderstanding. This movie and the myth on which the whole premise is based promotes misunderstanding. No one’s telling you not to enjoy the movie.

  24. Touch McFeely says

    This because actuality and reality is boring stuff. It’s difficult to make a movie entertainingly long enough if you don’t alter the story. The average human who is a step above a talking monkey knows this. [Fact]In the movie there is a girl named “Lucy” who indeed has a brain.[End of fact]. After that, everything else is make-believe. The movie industry doesn’t have a responsibility to be accurate or educational UNLESS their goal is to create something which is actually meant to be as such. But, people being nitpicks will pull something apart which never was designed to be what THEY think it should be. I have a friend I absolutely hate watching movies with because of this. He simply cannot watch and accept a movie at the value of what it is. Two other friends, one being a psychobiologist/psychologist and the other a sociologist/theoretical physicist will watch the movie and say it was cool (if it actually was). They know it’s for entertainment purposes and a temporary escape from reality.

  25. TonyCusano says

    JamesDiGioia Touch McFeely Why do you feel the need to promote scientific understanding in a movie that is not meant to be educational?  It is not promoting misunderstanding if it’s not making declarative statements about scientific facts or truths.  It is art – telling us truths based on our own narratives, and not based on scientific facts.  Those truths, but the way, are often truer that factual truths.  They change us in ways that facts often cannot.

  26. JamesDiGioia says

    TonyCusano Touch McFeely Because whether or not the movie is “educational” doesn’t change the fact that it helps perpetuate untruths. If you thought you only use 10% of your brain, and then watched a movie based on that, you’re going to not only continue to believe it, but believe so even more so than before.

  27. Touch McFeely says

    Wait until I start drinking this weekend. You’ll probably get to see what a lot less than 10% useage looks like.
    An old friend of mine used to say, “The masses are asses”. This holds true today because our world is filled with ignorance and blatant stupidity. This movie is not perpetuating anything which isn’t already there. Face it, people are stupid. They don’t want to learn. They are perfectly conrent with their ignorance regardless what they may blame it on. 10%, 20%… is doesn’t matter. I’ll wager if they read this thread they’d show a moment’s indignance, shrug their shoulders, say “meh” and forget it all five minutes later. I honestly believe your efforts are wasted. People (or “sheeple” as I like to refer them as) simply don’t care. Why do you think the US is so screwed up? Ignorant, mindless, illogical morons. You can lead a horse to water, but the only way you’re make him drink is to stick a hose down his throat, and I don’t he’s gonna let you.
    Okay. Great discussion, but I’ve had enough. Have a happy.

  28. Evan says

    how do we really know what untruths are?  just recently for instance the Earth Science people admitted that earthquakes in one area might actually influence other areas  prior to that it was categorically denounced… or further back that you would sail off the edge of the earth if you went too far – a round earth was an untruth at that time.  I think that trying to debunk something is sort of a slippery slope and allowing that the current ‘best’ knowledge at the time something may be something not be observable does not absolutely make it wrong…   imagine if 5 years ago someone said that some brain cells communicate without electrical currents – at the time that would have been an untruth – until the author of the above Lucy paper found out that it in fact happened.  History is filled with continuous corrections to known beliefs.   so, who is really to say this is one of those?

  29. Touch McFeely says

    Why do you seem so surprised? Think about it. You see it every day. Am I so wrong?

  30. ScottCleaves says

    Sorry Douglas, but you are way off on your neuron count on this one. Why? Because I don’t believe you understood the point of the movie. Here’s my take: When 100% Lucy travels back in time and touches the fingertip of <10% Lucy, she alters “old” Lucy’s genetic code to become a 100%er. Consider the significance of that moment. In other words, the entire history and evolution of humankind will be transformed and we ALL evolve to become 100%ers. Sound a little more interesting, eh?

  31. Abigail Van Der Wert says

    Why is no one addressing the point that maybe she was hallucinating the entire movie…..from the point where she awoke chained in the cell……all simply drug induced hallucination.

  32. hombretangencial says

    TonyCusano JamesDiGioia Touch McFeely Wait, now you are receptive to be educated? Mahahaha!

  33. michael r a wilson says

    Mr. Fields. My 18 year old is getting ready (in slightly less than 2 weeks) to begin an undergraduate degree in cognitive neuroscience; with the hope of eventually becoming a psychiatrist.  I went with her to see Lucy about 2 weeks after it opened.  She was absolutely enthralled by the movie. As we walked out of the cineplex, her first comment to me was “That movie completely validates my choice to take neuroscience as a degree!!!”. On leaving the theater, as we spent the 25 minutes or so required to drive home; we had an absolutely wonderful conversation about the concepts addressed in the movie.  This brilliant young woman recognized the myth of the unused 90%.  This however became a starting point for a conversation on unique brain abilities, the idea of the savante…in short, an absolutely engaging discussion about the science of the brain.   

    You say the glass is empty, my daughter saw it as an opportunity to talk about the glass itself.    This is a young woman who is completely charged about the science of brain function.   Perhaps the “trivial message”  that you were receiving is not a function of a faulty message, or of the transmission itself, but rather represents an inadequate or malfunctioning receiver???  Just a thought.

  34. science1000 says

    I loved the movie–a fun ride from beginning to end. If I wanted science I would’ve taken my pad, pencil and a flashlight.

  35. hombretangencial says

    science1000 if you don’t want science why do you come to a science blog?

  36. science1000 says

    hombretangencial science1000 To learn. I attend the World Science Festival every year, am enrolled in World Science U and am now finishing Max Tegmark’s new book, “Our Mathematical Universe.” If I wanted science in a movie I’d see a documentary or perhaps “Interstellar” in which Kip Thorne is involved. How accurate was the time machine in H.G. Welles novel?

  37. Astriaicow says

    I thought the 10% brain myth came from the fact that approximately only 10% of the neurons fire during any given time, kind of like in any give time, only 3% of the piano keys sound in a melody, and is supposedly part of a theory of optimal information processing. I heard that people who activate more neurons at any given time would have something called a seizure, which is an over-activity in the brain. I thought there was a study that showed that if you slice brain into slices, you will see only 10% of the neurons light up, and that’s where the myth come from.

  38. BartKerstens says

    Abigail Van Der Wert No drugs causes such intense hallucinations. CPH4 will neither cause any hallucinations.

  39. BartKerstens says

    Does science know what happens if men can use the 100% of the potential brain capacity at once?


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