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Limitless as a neuro-pharmaceutical experiment and as a Daseinsanalyse: on the use of fiction in preparatory debates on cognitive enhancement


Limitless is a movie (released in 2011) as well as a novel (published in 2001) about a tormented author who (plagued by a writer’s block) becomes an early user of an experimental designer drug. The wonder drug makes him highly productive overnight and even allows him to make a fortune on the stock market. At the height of his career, however, the detrimental side-effects become increasingly noticeable. In this article, Limitless is analysed from two perspectives. First of all, building on the views of the French novelist Emile Zola, the novel is seen as the report of a closely monitored experiment. Subsequently, building on the phenomenology of Ludwig Binswanger, I will show how the cognitive enhancement drug not only boosts the protagonist’s information processing capacities, but also modifies his experience of space and time, his sense of spatiality, his way of being-in-the-world. On the basis of these (complementary) analyses I will indicate how genres of the imagination (such as movies and novels) may play a significant role in assessing the societal implications of emerging technological developments such as neuro-enhancement, especially during the preparatory or anticipatory stage.

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  1. “There’s a lot of hype about smart drugs—you know, enhance your cognitive performance, develop rapid mental reflexes, all of that—but most of what we call smart drugs are just diet supplements, artificial nutrients, amino acids, that kind of thing—designer vitamins if you like. What you took was a designer drug” (Glynn 2001/2011, p. 41).

  2. It doesn’t have a name yet—I mean it’s got a laboratory tag, but that’s just letters and a code. They haven’t come up with a proper name for it yet. They’ve done all the clinical trials, though, and its FDA approved (idem, p. 14).

  3. Armed with his laptops (plural), he seemed “some kind of Frankenstein monster, [unleashed] into Cyberspace” (p. 96), a “one-man panzer division” (p. 98).

  4. For Sloterdijk, the omnipresence of words, symbols and numbers in our life-world (our highly symbolical environment, that is), not only stimulates and facilitates intelligent behaviour, but has had a noticeable impact on the shape, density and flexibility of our neurological networks: the bio-electrical landscape of our brain.

  5. This idea is notably developed in an ego-document (a dialogue about his work) with the telling title Selbstversuch (1996), see for instance: “[Mit seinem eigenen Leben] experimentieren, das ist die Art und Weise, wie Individuen von heute ihre Modernität ausreagieren … Die Welt ist alles, womit wir experimentieren” (p. 14).

  6. Notably his understanding of life as an intellectual experiment: “Jener Gedanke, daß das Leben ein Experiment des Erkennenden sein dürfe” (Nietzsche 1882/1954, II 324, pp. 187–188).

  7. “Series of trials had been done on an anti-depressant drug in the early Seventies, similar to LSD—trials that had gone disastrously wrong. There were rumours floating around in the mid-Eighties that research had been taken up again. These trials were unofficial” (p. 310).

  8. “We’ve taken the stuff back. So, as of now, you can consider the experiment terminated. We’ve been monitoring you. We decided to see what would happen next, to conduct a little clinical trial as it were. We haven’t had that many human subject you know. No one has ever done as much MDT as you have, no one has ever taken it as far as you have. You’ve been … a very useful subject” (p. 318).

  9. Therefore, from a phenomenological perspective, an experimental rapport (between researcher and research subject) is basically a power relationship. Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre: when all of a sudden I realise that I am being watched by someone else, my world becomes empty, more or less, because it floats into the world of the other (“Car le regard d’autrui embrasse mon être [et toutes les choses] au milieu desquelles je suis … au milieu d’une monde qui s’écoule vers l’autre … nous avions pu appeler hémorragie interne l’écoulement de mon monde vers autrui-objet” (1943, p. 307). Thus, the research subject’s world is emptied out by the monitoring gaze of science.

  10. It is an organ, moreover, that can only be exposed if the individual in question—the convicted criminal—is no longer a subject of a life, a subject of a world. In other words, to the extent that the brain is made visible, the subject no longer inhabits it.

  11. “Die eigentliche Kategorie der Selbstrealisierung Ibsens [kann] nicht die der Entfernung in die Weite sein, sondern nur die des Steigens in die Höhe. Nur im Aufwärtssteigen vermag der Mensch, das Höchste zu erreichen, wie er nur im Herabfallen, im Sturz, es verfehlt” (10).

  12. In fact, in the phenomenology-based psychiatric and psychological literature, the type of self-experimentation Eddie indulges in is not uncommon. The self-report published by the Swiss psychiatrist Kurt Behringer on a self-induced mescaline trip, for instance, may stand as an example here (Behringer 1927). A literary classic in this genre (a self-report on the effects of prolonged opium use) is of course De Quincey (1822/1960).

  13. Limitless offers various opportunities for a psychoanalytical depth analysis. Ambivalence is everywhere. Carl van Loon is the typical (archetypal) father figure with whom Eddie develops an oedipal relationship, astonishing him, challenging him, annoying him, disappointing him, etc. Chemicorp is the archetypal powerful mother, feeding her subjects, but also making them dependent, even poisoning them as they start to become too dependent. We may also link neuro-enhancement with Freud’s neurological research (before 1900) and his famous cocaine episode on the one hand, and the subsequent shift of attention towards more interactive phenomena such as transference later on. Also from a Lacanian perspective, Van Loon emerges as the powerful father-figure, the Big Other (Φ). Eddie’s own life, however,—before his MDT episode, that is -, is dominated by a sense of impotence, a fiasco, due to a basic deficit—in Lacanian notation: (− φ). The missing link (− φ) between desire (the desire to write, to produce) on the one hand and joy or bliss on the other (prolific authorship, but also erotic pleasure and upward mobility) is blocked or absent (Lacan 2004). Therefore, Eddie seeks solace in MDT (‘Viagra for the brain’ as it is called), a small, milky-white object (a), a kind of oral nurture that in the end proves to be a poison,—a ‘pharmacon’ (φ) in short, that functions as a chemical link or transmitter, opening up the passage from desire to bliss, but at a cost: anxiety, vertigo, Angst, and, eventually, collapse, downfall, paralysis and impotence again.


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Zwart, H. Limitless as a neuro-pharmaceutical experiment and as a Daseinsanalyse: on the use of fiction in preparatory debates on cognitive enhancement. Med Health Care and Philos 17, 29–38 (2014).

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  • Cognitive enhancement
  • Neuro-enhancement
  • Limitless
  • The experimental novel
  • Daseinsanalysis
  • Neuro-ethics
  • Philosophy of Technology
  • Philosophical anthropology