A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

Science/Fiction: Lucy

Surprise me!

Oh boy. I knew this day was coming, the day when I would have to address the elephant in the room full of films with bits of science. Which elephant are we talking about? Well, I think you have already read the title and know we are going to take a look at Lucy and what it did wrong and right (mostly wrong though). I am pretty confident there are lists on the internet with things done wrong in Lucy, especially one everybody talks about…

Without further ado, let’s jump into it.

So Lucy is about forty minutes of exposition and thirty minutes of action spiced up by about ten minutes of philosophical thoughts here and there. Going through such a long exposition was a bit boring even with all the funny things that were said during it but the action was fun. Sadly, speaking about science means I will focus more on the exposition than the action.

Now, before I dive into the science bits and pieces, know that I have done my homework and read that inserting the 10% myth was a choice (you can read it yourself here and here if you do not believe me). Fine. So instead of repeating how the myth that we only use 10% of our brain is a myth, I can only say that freedom of speech does include the freedom to tell silly things on the silver screen in front of millions. So no, I will not attack directly the 10% because it has already been done over and over again during the six years this film has existed. Time to move on and bring a bright new light to this film! Let’s dive!

Right from the start, we are given the key to the end. For my neurons’ sake let us admit we do use all the potential of our brain: so we use 100% of our brain potential but that the brain can evolve and develop further (damnation… all there was to do to please the scientist community was to change a couple of words and add a 0). Indeed, Lucy is not a film about unlocking untapped potential but rather an hypothesis thrown out on a screen: what if our brain was more powerful than it is right now? Entertain us then my dear Mr. Besson.

About 16 minutes into the film, we are introduced to Samuel Norman (a.k.a. Morgan Freeman) delivering a speech in front of an awe-struck audience of hundreds! First of all, I have been in quite a few scientific conferences and about 20% of the room would be doing something else. Then we are introduced to several scientific “facts” that are quite far from being scientifically accurate. The writing is quite commendable, it gives a dynamism to the speech that may be lacking from many scientific presentations in real life. Alas, we are not here to dwell on the writing…

Let us start with this statement: “one neuron, you’re alive […] two neurons, you’re moving”. Although it is quite true that two neurons are necessary for simple movements such as reflexes, I can hardly say that the first half of this statement is true. An organism does not require any neuron to be alive. Just look at the closest green plant around you, or if you have the luxury of having a microscope near you, your saliva will provide a full range of interesting bacterias. For the more knowledgeable about the animal reign, sponges and trichoplaxes will do.

This is not a living being according to Dr. Norman.

As Dr. Norman goes on with his speech, it becomes more and more evident that he is a dreamer, not a scientist (only hypotheses and no preliminary work to back them up). He tells us that the dolphin has a more powerful brain than the human and that is why they have a sonar. Following this logic, it means that bats also have a more powerful brain and so do tenrecs! Is this the case? Well the truth is: we do not know. Measuring brain power on one scale only is completely irrelevant because for each animal species it is developed in a different way. Bats and dolphins can echolocate not because their brain is “powerful” enough for it or “evolved” enough but because its neurons are wired to echolocate from inputs they get from sensory receptors. The brain alone is not able to do anything!

We are already in the realm of science-fiction (although this is stated only much later in the film). We are told we get control over our body when we increase further our brain capacity, then control over other people, then control over matter. Don’t we already have all of this? Animals control their body movements and temperature, they interact with other animals (which is not control, fair point) and with matter that surrounds them. Even birds understand the basics of physics to interact with matter! We can pretty much do all that is stated in the film. So what is the film about?

Lucy is about a brain able to interact directly with the world, without using the body as an intermediate! Why didn’t nature think of that before? Well, you guessed it right, there are several problems with that.

To begin with, it is not stated in the film that the brain cannot act or perceive alone in its current state (even with more neurons or glia, it cannot). Neurons are nothing without eyes to give them visual information or ears to give them auditory information. To perceive, we need specialised cells to transform sound or light or whatever into electrical signals and the brain does not have such cells. As it stands, the brain is sensible to electrical signals and chemical ones (coming through the blood, like alcohol), that’s it. Hence to heighten our senses, we need new receptors.

My second problem comes with the ability of the brain to act on matter. My neurobiology background is quite lacking in physics but I can only imagine the energy necessary for such a feat! The brain would need to create an electrical signal strong enough to reach through the skull to a useful distance (longer than our arm obviously). If we are only able to affect objects in contact with the head (like EEG electrodes), we may as well use our hands. Currently, the human brain represents 2% of the mass of the body but it uses 20% of the energy. I cannot fathom how much energy is necessary to reach out further than one metre but I am pretty sure that even a sugar perfusion directly into the brain would not be enough.

I could go on for much longer with Dr. Norman’s speech but it would then become dull exposition, which is something one needs to avoid. I will give credit to him for one thing in his speech: “life has only one purpose: going through time”. As far as our knowledge goes, this statement is right. The sole purpose of life is to last despite the ordeals nature throws at it.

Finally, let us take a look at one scene with Lucy (the character, not the film). Lucy has had a drug overdose and that gave her powers instead of killing her. I also read comic books, so I cannot say anything about this except maybe a cautionary “don’t try this at home”. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, when our protagonist dives into the bad guy’s brain to get his memories. Lucy puts her finger on the forehead and search into another person’s memory for specific information. Put in scientific terms, it means a simple contact of her fingers on a forehead allows her to analyse the brain networks and their current state to find the memory engram! Without going into energy considerations, these fingers are a mix of IRM, EEG, PET (without the need of a tracer) and more… Please excuse the abreviations and obscure names, just remember that one of Lucy’s finger would solve the problems of many neurobiologists.

The dream of every neuroscientists: having glowing fingers.

So in the end, I survived through this ordeal and got the action scenes I was waiting for and the ascencion to godhood metaphor. One can say I am alive and well and yes, I know there is much more to discuss in this film, like the laboratory in a library (terrible idea, even though I get the symbolism about knowledge and its transmission) but I think most of the rest is irrelevant.

If you fancy a deep dive into science-fantasy, Lucy is there. If you are into hardcore science-fiction based on facts… well perhaps you should avoid the film. If you think intelligence is about more than computational skills and tremendous knowledge, then the film will not bring anything new to the table. Lucy becomes a lifeless robot spurting out knowledge and to me, this is not intelligence.