Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cognitive Enhancement in the Movie Limitless Through a Lens of Structural Racism

By Nadia Irfan

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

The Western society familiar to most of us attending the Neuroethics Network conference in Paris is certainly one that values and glorifies financial gain and socio-economic upward mobility. We are obsessed with the notion of the “optimal” self: an idealized image of a self that never tires, never ages, and is always running at its top performance. The Neuroethics Network CinĂ©ma du Cerveau movie Limitless raises an interesting perspective about who represents this image, who achieves and maintains this lifestyle, and whether this optimal version only has value in a competitive context.

I think when representing cognitive enhancement, it is important to note the lens it is viewed through. Eddie Morra, the main character in the film, is played by Bradley Cooper, “a young, able-bodied, white, cis-gendered heterosexual male,” as noted by Dr. Karen Rommelfanger at the conference. This white male image, when paired with idealized cognitive enhancement, appeals to young and old demographics, with the young wrapped up in the sexiness of the drug, and the old fascinated by anti-aging.

An indirect display of inaccessibility to the drug is the social power to maintain possession once receiving it. Studies show that there is an implicit tendency for white participants to associate white faces with pleasantness and black faces with unpleasantness [1]. Taking this a step further, studies even show that race bias engages the same neural circuitry as a conditioned fear response [2]. This is already clearly reflected in society when you look at marijuana-related arrest disparities between African American and Caucasian citizens. Despite similar reported rates of use, African Americans are on average three times more likely to be arrested for carrying illegal substances than their white counterparts. All this is to shape how we contextualize the question: who gets this drug? Given the innate biases that already dictate how we criminalize certain groups, a cognitive enhancer such as the one depicted in Limitless may only further exacerbate issues of race and class inequalities and the audience is not forced to understand how with Eddie Morra as our lens. This is exemplified in Morra’s rise to political power by the end of the film. If financial access is dominated by the white majority of large-scale business owners and cognitive enhancement moves them to places of political power, the drug is reinforcing a social dynamic that is already in place. Further, Morra receives the drug through familial connection. Trickle down effect of obtaining the drug through connections like this would be nearly impossible since distribution would be kept to those deemed trustworthy. Cultural perception of trustworthiness is subject to earlier mentioned racial bias perpetuated by media such as the movie we are discussing now. And for those not in the know, at $800 a pop the price is a direct display of inaccessibility. Its use carries tones of Wall Street cocaine abuse, a designer drug.

Image courtesy of Flickr user, Claire.
At the end of Limitless, we are meant to celebrate Eddie Morra’s rise to the top. We are given no indication that he will necessarily do good with his superhuman ability, and yet the tone is very clearly to root for him. Would we still share this opinion if the main character wasn’t the epitome of where western ideology dictates power should be distributed? The drug here appeals to a world in which productivity overshadows moral values, but the audience’s discussion of who is “responsible” enough to gain access to this productivity changes when our lens does [4]. Inherent racial bias prevents an image other than a white male from possessing the fortitude and social responsibility to utilize the drug.

A second question sparked by this film was that of accountability. Are you the optimal self and if so, are you then accountable for all the actions performed under the drug? The subplot I have in mind for this question is Morra’s possible murder of a prostitute. The panel raised the issue of whether or not his lapse in memory warranted the disassociation between Morra and the murder. I think immediately of the case of Domenico Mattiello who manifested sexually abusive tendencies after developing a brain tumor. The same issues are raised in this subplot of what our limit is for holding someone accountable for the consequences of their actions when they may not have been coherent when making them. The difference in this case is there is now the added layer of responsibility of choosing to take an unapproved drug. The movie uses the mystery of the drug to take responsibility away from Morra and the audience celebrates as he gracefully slips out of the accusation. Again, we have to wonder if an audience would be so accepting of this if our lens were not through the character played by Bradley Cooper. Prejudice towards minority groups predict stereotypes of untrustworthiness that would not allow the potential murder to be swept under the rug so completely [1].

At the end of the movie Eddie Morra comes out singularly on top, creating a way to maintain enhancement without depending on a faulty substance. By doing this he beats out his competitor, Carl Van Loon. It is interesting that we do not root for Van Loon, as he embodies the struggle it takes to climb to the top. Similar to the discussion of race disparity, Van Loon has attributes that make him less appealing to root for. He’s older, he’s not as flirtatious or attractive, he didn’t do it first, and he’s a step behind. Our values change to support competitive edge [3]. Morra is ultimately the most appealing when he is at the very top, and this competitiveness discourages cooperation and solidarity [3]. The other component of this argument, made by Dr. John Harris at the conference, is that enhancement such as this is simply the next step of evolution, and that striving for progress is what benefits society the most. However, again I say this argument is largely due to the lens we’re given. Morra’s competitors were another wealthy businessman and an unintelligent Russian loan shark. Nothing is lost in this competitive scenario because the characters losing are not worth rooting for. We do not see the drug presented to a more collectivist-based culture, where the benefit of one is the benefit of all. Progress above all else is again reflected in Western contexts, and it would be interesting to see this drug’s value and whether it is still considered a gateway to the optimal self in a context where competition was not so favored.

Overall, I can honestly say I enjoyed the movie, but was even more captivated by the neuroethical implications found within it. How drugs such as these are presented to the public is an ethical concern in and of itself as it shapes the way we understand moral issues of the drug. In the movie and in the real world of cognitive enhancement, is it important to take into account the progression of Western socio-economic gain and how it is fostered by unequal distribution, how this competition feeds back into power structure dynamics and the political and justice system, how these structures relate to inequalities due to inherent structural racism as well as varied cultural values and how might they inform notions of fair or useful competition in society.


1. Amodio, David M., and Patricia G. Devine. "Stereotyping and evaluation in implicit race bias: evidence for independent constructs and unique effects on behavior." Journal of personality and social psychology 91, no. 4 (2006): 652.

2. Olsson, Andreas, Jeffrey P. Ebert, Mahzarin R. Banaji, and Elizabeth A. Phelps. "The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear." Science 309, no. 5735 (2005): 785-787.

3. Cabrera, Laura Y. "How does enhancing cognition affect human values? How does this translate into social responsibility?." In Ethical Issues in Behavioral Neuroscience, pp. 223-241. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014.

Want to cite this post?

Irfan, Nadia. (2016). Cognitive Enhancement in the Movie Limitless Through a Lens of Structural Racism. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/08/cognitive-enhancement-in-movie.html

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