Lucy’s Brain: Use it or lose it

With the Lucy movie coming out, we’ve been really curious here at NeuWrite about what marvelous new life skills Scarlett Johansson will accrue, now that she can use more than 10% of her brain. As forward-thinking neuroscientists, we’ve been speculating: what would Lucy be able to do with such incredible and unprecedented brain power? The plot unfolds.




Waking up

The moment she opened her eyes, Lucy was acutely aware of her surrounding world. Chemical substances in the air nearly instantaneously identified and seemingly random vibrations in the air interpreted as meaningful signals. Even though the room was completely dark, she could approximate its dimensions by the echoes of her own breath. Suddenly, a pinpoint of light appeared – a single, lonely photon. Still, Lucy perceived this light as if it were made up of a million photons decisively oscillating at the same frequency. Approaching 96 million photoreceptors in her retina,[1] the orphan light particle struck a single light-sensitive protein, changing its conformation and initiating a stunning chemical cascade to amplify the signal.[2] As the light intensified, photons colliding with multiple layers of biological light sensors triggered a daunting burst in neural activity through her thalamus and back to her visual cortex.[3] Here, 300 million neurons efficiently collaborated to configure a gestalt of her bedroom, dimly lit by a bright rectangle. Accompanying this flood was a deafening hurricane of air vibration, but Lucy quickly adapted, resolving these oscillations into a strange ringing sound. The visual and auditory information seamlessly combined to create a percept of an object. Lucy suddenly realized what it was: her phone alarm. Time to get up.


Eating Breakfast

As Lucy ground her coffee, miniscule pieces of the beans vaporized and meandered into the vicinity of her finely-tuned nose, capable of identifying over a trillion smells.[4] When she inhaled, tiny coffee particles were propelled through her nostrils toward the nasal epithelium where 5 million chemical sensors identified the molecular structure of the particles, immediately transmitting this information to associative areas of her brain.[5] The molecular profile of this aroma matched positive associations in the amygdala, while she compared it to memories of similar smells using her hippocampus. She was always happy to smell her coffee in the morning; unfortunately, this batch was getting old. Nevertheless, she took a sip. Lucy usually took her coffee black – like her leather – but the electrical impulses traveling from her taste buds to her sensory cortex were not ideal. She decided to add a touch of sugar.




In need of a quick breakfast, she grabbed a handful of granola and chowed down. Powerful enzymes in her stomach effortlessly deconstructed this food into its constituent parts, which would soon be absorbed and restructured to fuel her gas-guzzling brain. Lucy had powerful chemicals in her brain now – including an adenosine and GABA antagonist from the coffee that increased her alertness.




Reading the Paper

Suddenly there was a loud SMACK. Before she even noticed, neurons in Lucy’s brainstem had compared the sub-millisecond difference[6] between when the sound had arrived in her left and right ears and relayed this information to the superior colliculus, which signaled motor areas to initiate a reflexive movement: turning her head and eyes toward the source of the sound. It was the front door. Accessing memories of previous mornings, she calculated a high probability that the sound was merely caused by the newspaper. Amazingly, Lucy only had to think about getting up and walking over to pick up the paper; circuits in her spinal cord did the vast majority of the work concerning her balance and gait on two legs. Once she opened the door and picked it up, her eyes instinctively began scanning the paper. Lines upon lines of black squiggles were recognized by her visual cortex as the shapes of letters. Brain regions storing distributed meanings of words contributed to the perception of each individual letter as her left hemisphere went into overdrive. Lucy was amazed that as she read she could use her imagination to picture what the writer described – it was as if she could turn the words into images with the power of her mind alone!




Getting Ready

After three years in her Taiwan apartment, Lucy had accumulated a respectable collection of clothing. With a flutter of hippocampal and visual cortex activity, she flipped through outfit after outfit in her mind armoire – Monday’s cute power suit, Tuesday’s red heels with accompanying skirt, and now, Wednesday. Her prefrontal cortex chimed in and she predicted, today’s going to be a tough one: definitely leather pants.[7] “But your thighs…” her insula insisted, overtly aware of the body it was monitoring. “No,” Lucy assured herself, “I’ve been working out.”




Driving to Work

Traveling at speeds that merely 10% of a brain could not have imagined, Lucy effortlessly maneuvered her high-tech vehicle around countless obstacles, themselves moving at ludicrous velocities in unpredictable directions. In fact, this feat was so second-nature to her, she often performed it without thinking, instead using her expansive mind power to create a detailed model of every minute of her upcoming day. Over and over, she created scenarios in her mind palace that could unfold over the coming hours, running through them at warp speed, and then running them backward, to see if she missed something. She didn’t. Unaware of a looming object in front of her, she still diverted her mental faculties in time to comfortably avoid it. Lucy decided to keep her attention on the present for now, as she was approaching her target. A few more maneuvers through the random projectiles and she pulled into her destination: a patch of concrete, with lines painted on either side, and a sign that read: “RESERVED: LUCY.”




As she unmounted her bike, Lucy settled into her new brain-body reality. Perhaps using 100% of her brain didn’t feel much different than any other morning. Except she had slept for a whole 9 hours. Maybe that was it. Now, off to fight the bad guys.





We hope you enjoyed our rather unique take on what might happen if Lucy really could use 100% of our brain (you know, just like the rest of us). This was also a NeuWrite first: a collaborative post between authors Ethan McBride, Ashley Juavinett, and Maya Sapiurka.



[1] Curcio et al., 1990. Human photoreceptor topography. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 292: 497–523. doi: 10.1002/cne.902920402

[2] Helga Kolb, Photoreceptors.

[3] Matthew Schmolesky, The Primary Visual Cortex.

[4] Bushdid et al., 2014. Humans Can Discriminate More Than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli.  Science..

[5] Bekkers & Suzuki, 2013. Neurons and circuits for odor processing in the piriform cortex. Trends in Neurosciences.

[6] Ashida & Carr, 2011. Sound localization: Jeffress & beyond Current Opinion in Neurobiology.

[7] Dixon & Christoff, 2014. The lateral prefrontal cortex and complex value-based learning and decision-making. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.