The 2011 film Limitless starring Bradley Cooper was a box office success, bringing in about $79 million in the United States and $157 million worldwide. The film was popular enough to warrant a TV series on CBS of the same name.
Limitless has been foundational in launching nootropics and cognitive enhancers from an obscure subculture into a more public spotlight. The film’s premise revolves around struggling author Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) taking an experimental drug known as NZT-48 with hopes of it giving him an edge in his writing.
The film’s depiction of cognition-enhancing drugs even led to some in the media touting modafinil as the “real life Limitless drug.” While there are no current nootropic drugs that will give one an edge even close to that of NZT-48, the film nonetheless sparked an interest in nootropics and biohacking among many viewers.
The film Limitless was based on the 2001 novel The Dark Fields by author Alan Glynn. While the film diverges from the book in a few areas of character and plot, the premises are much the same. We had the privilege of interviewing Alan on how the fame of Limitless has impacted his life, as well as his own personal opinions on nootropics, biohacking, and transhumanism – and where he sees these industries going as they rise in popularity.
Q: When you wrote The Dark Fields, did the thought of it being adapted into a Hollywood film and TV series ever cross your mind? How has life changed for you as a result of this exposure?
A: When I was writing The Dark Fields in 1999/2000 I already had two unpublished novels in a drawer, so actually getting published was my main focus. The thought of three unpublished novels was pretty scary, so any notion of a film adaptation would have been strictly in the realm of fantasy. Getting accepted by a publisher that first time was a unique and unforgettable thrill because I wasn’t young anymore and there was never any guarantee that it was going to happen. Then, before the book even came out, it was optioned by Miramax, which was very exciting, too. But I’d been warned that it can be a slow process, and again with no guarantee that a movie would ever actually get made. One did, but it took almost ten years. The exposure since the movie happened has been great in terms of keeping my profile up with publishers and producers.
Q: What was the inspiration behind the book? Did you have any personal experience with cognitive enhancers / nootropics prior to writing the book?
A: The world of cognitive enhancers and nootropics has come a very long way indeed since 1999 and I certainly had no personal experience with them back then and was only vaguely aware of their existence. The terms “designer drug” and “smart drug” appealed to me for some reason and they fused in my mind with the idea of “performance enhancing drugs” in sport – which led to the question: what if there were performance enhancing drugs available for more cerebral or intellectual activities? This then linked in with big themes I’d always been interested in – the perfectibility of man and the Gatsby-like notion of the transformation or reinvention of the self, and how by the end of the twentieth century this human impulse had been reduced to a simple commodity, a pill. However, in writing the book, I also drew on experiences I’d had with psychedelics years earlier and this introduced a certain complexity or sense of mysteriousness to the proceedings. MDT-48 had the potential to be exploited and reduced to a commodity, but it also had an unknown, quasi-spiritual and possibly liberating aspect to it.
Q: Did you have any say in what direction the film Limitless took? Are you pleased with how it turned out in the end?
A: I had no real say in the direction Limitless took. However, all through the process, I was in touch with the screenwriter and co-producer of the movie, Leslie Dixon. She was a big fan of the book and she wanted me to be happy with how it turned out – which is extremely unusual in Hollywood. But with the kind of budget involved, not even Leslie had anything like full control, so it was inevitable that changes would be made that I might not be happy with. Ultimately, though, I was happy with the movie. For about forty minutes, it is very close to the book, which is thrilling to watch – shit you’ve made up in your head being reproduced meticulously on screen. But then the movie pretty much goes its own way, which is fine – and it couldn’t have ended the way the book ends, that was never going to happen in a studio movie. I like the movie’s ending, though. It’s ballsy and funny and true to a certain spirit of the book. I haven’t seen the TV series yet.
Q: Limitless has significantly contributed to the rise of nootropics and biohacking. What are your opinions on these trends? Do you believe that they will continue to grow in popularity?
A: Significantly? I wonder if that’s true. It’s certainly been amazing to watch this movement grow in the last few years. I do think that I just tapped into something that was already in the culture. A much bigger factor, I think, is the power of the internet to disseminate information and to bring people together who can talk about and share experiences – people who might otherwise never have connected. Podcasters like Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan and others have fearlessly pushed the boundaries of what is possible in a public conversation. I think the renewal of research into the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelics and of micro-dosing is very positive and exciting, as are all the amazing (and very recent) discoveries about how the brain works. But I also think there is a huge potential here for exploitation. The snake oil salesmen you will have with you always, and these days snake oil is BIG business. And that’s because people simply love the idea of a short cut to change. If you can promise personal transformation in a commodity or a therapy or a system, you will always find willing takers. This is why The Dark Fields/Limitless appeals to so many people, and that is more what the book is about, I think than any specific chemical product or development in neuroscience.
Q: NZT/MDT 48 had detrimental side effects on Eddie in both the book and the movie. Do you feel like real-world cognitive enhancers in the future will carry these same risks?
A: The book more than the movie, I feel, is a traditional cautionary tale, a Faustian-pact story. Here’s all the knowledge in the world, but it’ll cost ya. The detrimental side effects are an inevitable consequence of the hubris of thinking you can transcend your human limits. But this is a story trope. It’s not science, it’s not pharmacology. In real-world science and pharmacology… I don’t know. I have no expertise or special knowledge about how this stuff works. I do know that MDT-48, as it is in the book, does not exist – and neither does the NZT in the movie, or the drug in Lucy, or the formula in Flowers for Algernon, or the elixir of youth in the 1952 Howard Hawks comedy Monkey Business. Nothing we have today comes anywhere close to any of this stuff. As far as I understand it, nootropics are subtle and most likely won’t be detectable if your lifestyle is anything other than a super-healthy one. Modafinil will keep you awake, but it won’t make you smarter. Neither will Adderall. As for side effects, I can’t imagine any truly powerful substance not having them – but this is just an opinion, and not one based on any direct experience or technical knowledge.
Q: Where do you stand on the “ethics” of people using cognitive enhancers in school and in their career fields?
A: I have no problem with people using cognitive enhancers. If we’re not going to ban coffee, then all bets are off. But I think there is a grey area here between so-called nutraceuticals and actual pharmaceuticals, and a further necessary distinction between school and career. I can’t help feeling that kids taking unregulated pharmaceuticals just to get better grades is a seriously bad idea and one that also highlights how fucked-up the education system is. For adults, it’s down to informed choice. But I also think we’re in a sort of early, Wild West phase of cognitive enhancement and that mistakes and missteps are inevitable. My fear is that this whole area is ripe for full-spectrum corporatization and that the current exciting, new-frontier feel of experimentation and liberation – as with the early days of the internet – will be reined in and brought to heel.
Q: The biohacking and transhumanist movement has led people to carry out risky experiments like implanting homemade technology (like microchips) in their own bodies. What is your opinion in regards to the transhumanist movement? Do you see it becoming a major industry in the near future?
If money can be made out of it, transhumanism will certainly become a major industry. But implanting homemade technology into one’s own body just sounds insane to me – and premature, a bit like trying to run before you can walk. I think that transhumanism expresses an understandable desire, or aspiration, to overcome what feel like annoying and unnecessary limitations – often physical or medical ones, and I’m all for that. But more widely, we seem to feel that the technology to transform completely is either there or we can see it coming, so why not just meet it head on? But where I see a problem is with technology itself and with our fundamental relationship to it. Because so far in history when a new technology comes along, we adapt to it – the new technology inevitably drives our behaviour, and any element of choice or human agency in this change of behaviour is usually illusory. So the Singularity, I feel, rather than being our great liberation, when it comes, could end up being a moment of ultimate human surrender. But what do I know? What’s certain is that the next fifty years of human development will be truly extraordinary.
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