As part of the promotional unveiling of their forthcoming TV schedule CBS recently released the first trailer for Limitless, their small screen adaptation of the 2011 film starring Bradley Cooper.

Cooper returns for a cameo in the series which looks to expand the world created by the film, and the effects of the magic pill, NZT, which grants whoever swallows it full access to their brain. It allows for instant recall of everything they have ever learned, enables them to make precise calculations and, as the trailer below has it, become the smartest person in the world.

This altering of the mind is not a new premise for fiction. Philip K. Dick’s Substance D,  Can-D and Chew-Z are just a few examples of their potent place in science fiction. Indeed, Luc Besson’s recent film Lucy took us, and Scarlett Johansson, to the very edge of sanity with its synthetic drug CPH4 and then promptly threw us over. Taking the similar theme of a nootropically-enhanced brain seeing the world in a very different way, Lucy’s abilities in the film are put to the test against wave upon wave of hitmen out to reclaim their prize. Guess who wins?

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With the advancement of special effects it has become easier for directors to visualise the enhanced effects, the altered states, of an affected mind. However, when looking back at the numerous examples the narrative hook of these stories is the search for truth, whether it be of one’s own potential, or an ominpotence and the perspective which comes with it – the truth is up there.

To see the world in a new way is at the heart of a film such as The Matrix, with the red pill/blue pill conundrum which opens the doorway to the ‘real’ world. The scene below is the perfect example of how altering the mind brings with it certain interesting options. Namely, to have knowledge uploaded.

The truth in The Matrix is self-evident, and the narrative journey is built around the exploration and subsequent mastery over the brave new world. The awakening of Neo was a centerpoint in modern science fiction. For many moviegoers this was the film which asked of them, for the first time, what if everything you know is a lie? It’s a crisis of self which is routinely explored through fiction, and The Wachowskis did a fine job of juxtaposing the comfort of the constructed world with the nightmarish bodyfarms of their post-apocalyptic reality.

Stepping carefully through the pyschotropic minefield of rabbit-holes in mind-altering fiction allows us to stay in the real world, and alter our minds for a distinct purpose. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind offered us an alternative to the painful process of forgetting with a commercial service of erasing memory. The opposite of Total Recall’s implanting of false memories, the Eternal Sunshine has a similar effect, that of psychological incongruence and the inability to find firm mental footing in real, or imagined memories.


Twenty years ago Kathryn Bigelow’s vastly underrated Strange Days posited a world on the edge of the new millennium, where memories and emotions can be recorded, and thus stolen or sold. The bleakness of this world, and of others here, is not necessarily due to the violence or the crime in the stories being told, it is due to the fracturing of the mind, the disassociation and distrust it brings. To forget, or the inability to forget, prevents us from learning from the past. What’s the point in being the smartest person in the world if you can’t trust what you know?