Imagine you could take a pill that allowed you to go from using 10% of your brain to 100%.
How much smarter would you be? If you were using more of your brainpower, maybe you could even develop new abilities like telepathy.
This is the storyline for the movie Lucy, whereby a drug called CPH4 leaks into the stomach of a drug mule (Scarlett Johansson), giving her profound intelligence and special abilities.
This is similar to the storyline of another movie, Limitless, in which a drug called NZT-48 (thallanylzirconio-methyl-tetrahydro-triazatriphenylene) makes the protagonist (Bradley Cooper) excel at everything he does.
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Do these incredible performance-enhancing drugs exist? Is modafinil the closest real-world substitute?
What is NZT-48?
NZT is a fictional medication from the movie Limitless.
The main character, played by Bradley Cooper, is a struggling writer who discovers a new designer drug called NZT-48 through a friend.
After trying the drug, he maximizes his brain’s potential— He becomes more observant, is able to recall experiences in great depth, and learns complex ideas in a short amount of time. His first milestone was publishing a novel — the best writing he’s ever produced — in a single night.
His brain goes into overdrive. He doesn’t feel tired, he’s extremely productive, his attention to detail is out of this world, and he becomes suave and charismatic.
When he gets more of the drug, his potential seems, well, Limitless.
With his new abilities, his success and wealth skyrocket. Cooper’s character goes on to makes millions of dollars on the stock market, and then essentially bluffs his way to the top of a large corporation.
Unfortunately, the drug comes with some adverse side effects, and as he finds out, several other people who tried the drug before him have since passed away after suffering a series of terrible headaches.
What is CPH4?
Like NZT-48 from Limitless, CPH4 is a designer drug from a fictional movie called Lucy. The drug allows the brain to access 100% of its total capacity, producing significant improvements in all forms of intelligence (emotional, logical, and kinesthetic intelligence).
This relies on the belief that the brain only uses 10% of its capacity to begin with, however, as we’ll discuss in detail later on, this is actually a myth. The human brain is very efficient and doesn’t waste any space or energy.
We use all of our brain.
In Lucy, the main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a drug mule transporting a new experimental medication in her stomach. After being beaten and kicked by some thugs, the package in her stomach tears, releasing the drug in high doses into her bloodstream.
Johansson’s character gradually gains access to other areas of her brain and virtually transcends human existence. She becomes able to communicate through the internet and can even control things with her mind.
Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?
Are the Effects of These Drugs Possible?
The idea that a pill that can be used to make us more intelligent, better at communicating with people, and even telekinetic is alluring, — to say the least, but is it possible?
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as NZT-48 or CPH4, despite the fact that you can find scam products by this name online. There’s an alternative, but there are of course some key differences in how it works.
Debunking NZT-48 & CPH4
In the Movie Lucy, CPH4 is explained to work by increasing the brain’s capacity from 10% to 100%.
This makes sense on paper but requires you to believe that the brain isn’t using 90% of its hardware — which simply isn’t the case.
The 10% myth is one of those common myths that’s been passed around so much over the years that it’s become “common knowledge,” despite being fundamentally incorrect.
Our brains are extremely efficient, and we do in fact use 100% of the brain. Nothing is wasted.
This myth is most likely to have come from the work of neurologist, William James.
He stated that we use 10% of our brain’s latent mental energy. This doesn’t suggest that 90% of our brains isn’t doing anything, it means that we mostly run on “idle” and rev up the engine as we need.
This was misquoted in a popular book by Lowell Thomas called, How To Win Friends and Influence People.
Lowell stated that the average person “develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability” — A simple misquote, but a fundamental difference in meaning.
NZT-48 is similar, though the mechanism in which the drug exerted its effects was not disclosed in the movie. Nevertheless, there doesn’t exist a drug that can raise IQ levels to four-digit numbers like it did in the movie.
The Reality of What Nootropics Can Do
Nootropics can do a lot for us. They can improve the rate at which our neurons send signals, improve the brain’s ability to resist and recover from overexertion, and even improve neurotransmitter function.
Most nootropics will give us a cognitive boost in some form or another, however, there are no medications or supplements available at this time that can actually increase our IQ — and there certainly isn’t anything that can give us telekinetic powers.
Nootropics are useful for people looking to boost their cognitive performance during work or study, or simply support healthy brain function on a daily basis.
Modafinil: The Best Real World Alternative to These Fictional Smart Drugs
Out of all the nootropics on the market today, modafinil is the closest real-world NZT-48 or CPH4. In fact, NZT-48 has reportedly based off modafinil itself, just with a few exaggerations.
Most nootropics have subtle effects on cognitive performance, and may even take several days of repeated use before any real effects are noticed. Modafinil, on the other hand, offers profound benefits after a single dose.
The drug is technically used to make us feel alert and awake but has the secondary benefit of increasing dopamine levels in the brain. This effect causes direct improvements in learning, memory, and concentration.
Modafinil can turn us into “machines” at work or school.
People often spend upwards of 10 or 15 hours working non-stop on a project after taking modafinil.
Although modafinil isn’t going to give you superintelligence, it can make you a lot more efficient at work— even extending the available working hours by as many as 20 hours!
This can be seen to some extent in Limitless when Bradley Cooper takes NZT-48 and spends many hours writing or playing the stock market without fatigue.
Just like modafinil, it isn’t until the drug wears off that the fatigue starts to set in.
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How Modafinil Works
Modafinil works by stimulating areas of the brain associated with the sleep-wake cycle. More specifically, it stimulates all of the “waking” elements of the sleep-wake cycle, forcing us into a waking state for several hours.
It’s rare to find yourself feeling tired and sluggish after an 8-hour workday when taking modafinil. Most people can go more like 10 or 15 hours of working before they even start to feel tired.
Stimulating The Central Nervous System
Modafinil stimulates 3 main neurotransmitters in the brain:
1. Orexin: The Sleep-Wake Cycle
Orexin is a neuropeptide in the brain that carries out the functions of the waking portion of the sleep-wake cycle.
It travels from deep within the brain to other areas including the cerebral cortex.
Once there, it stimulates the area, making us feel alert.
People with dysfunctional orexin systems develop a condition called narcolepsy, which leaves suffers feeling excessive tiredness throughout the day, and may even doze off unexpectedly.
Modafinil is the primary drug used by doctors for treating this condition due to its ability to increase the activity of orexin.
In healthy people, it increases orexin even if the body is naturally limiting the release of the compound (causing sleepiness). We can effectively kickstart our brains to get into an awakened state even if we would normally feel very tired and ready to fall asleep.
2. Histamine: Stimulating The Brain
Histamine has many functions in the body. One of the most important, and certainly the most well-known, is during an allergic reaction. It causes local swelling, runny nose, and itchiness.
In the brain, histamine has an entirely different role, however.
Histamine has a stimulating effect on the brain.
Like orexin, histamine plays an important role in the sleep-wake cycle. When it’s released, it tells the brain to enter a state of arousal and stimulation.
3. Dopamine: The Reward Center
Modafinil also increases dopamine concentrations in the brain.
Dopamine is a versatile neurotransmitter with several vital jobs.
One of the most important is to regulate the reward center in the brain.
This special region is used to develop habits and routines in our daily life. If we do something the brain perceives to be beneficial, the reward center gives us a hit of oxytocin, which makes us feel good.
It programs deeper areas of our brain to want to do this activity again to get another dose of oxytocin.
This system is essential during the process of learning and concentrating on tasks.
People with low dopamine concentrations in the brain (such as people living with ADD or ADHD) often have difficulty concentrating because their brain needs to work extra hard to get the reward center to dose them with oxytocin.
This causes sufferers to become fidgety and easily distracted.
Modafinil is often used to improve concentration, especially in those with ADHD because it increases dopamine concentrations, allowing the reward center to activate more easily.
It allows us to concentrate on something for extended periods of time before seeking stimulation elsewhere.
What to Expect From Modafinil
Now that we know how modafinil works, and why it’s different from the fictional drugs NZT-48 and CPH4, let’s get into what you can expect when taking modafinil.
How Long It Takes To Set In
Modafinil takes about 1–2 hours to start to produce effects. This depends a lot on how much you’ve eaten beforehand and what you’ve eaten.
This is because when taking modafinil (or any drug for that matter) along with food, the food and modafinil compete with each other for absorption.
This means that it’s going to take a little longer before the effects of the drug start to show themselves.
This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s recommended that you take modafinil after a meal because of some of its negative side effects on suppressing appetite.
What Modafinil Feels Like
Modafinil won’t make you feel smarter like the drugs in the movies do, but it will make you feel more awake, and a LOT more focused on the task at hand.
It’s these effects that make modafinil so useful for students, creatives, and business professionals working on tough and mentally tasking activities.
People often report feeling like they can completely “tune in” to what they’re working on.
Many people also report feeling as though their memory retention is more efficient after taking modafinil. Instead of having to remind themselves of the answer on the back of a cue car, for example, they tend to remember it the first time they write it down.
The Timeline of Modafinil
The amount of time modafinil remains active for can vary a lot from person to person, but will generally last about 16–22 hours total. Most people find that the bulk of the effects stop around the 16-hour mark.
The drug starts to take effect between 1 and 2 hours after taking it and peaks around 2 hours after that (the 4-hour mark).
It usually remains at its highest point for another 2 hours before gradually dropping off over the next 12–14 hours.
Are There Any Side Effects?
In the movie Limitless, the drug started to cause shifts in reality, severe headaches and illness when not actively on the drug. Past users of the drug had been reported to have died once their supply of the drug ran out.
In Lucy, CHP4 caused the main character to eventually become omnipotent.
Johansson transcended time and space and was able to view the origins of life on earth, the formation of the earth and the cosmos, and witnessed the big bang.
At the end of the movie, she disappeared completely. When asked where she was, they answered ominously with “I’m everywhere.”
These are some pretty strange and serious side effects to expect from the medication.
Here in the real world, the side effects are much tamer.
Modafinil can produce some side effects. However, the vast majority of them aren’t severe.
The Most Common Side Effects of Modafinil Include:
- Appetite suppression
- Muscle tension
In some rare cases, a severe allergic skin reaction can occur called Steven Johnson Syndrome.
Although the drugs from the movies Limitless (NZT-48) and Lucy (CPH4) are intriguing and provide the substance for a good movie, they aren’t real.
The closest thing we have to these fictional drugs is modafinil.
Instead of giving us superintelligence, modafinil gives us a boost in productivity and concentration. It’s beneficial for people who need to get a lot of work done in a single session, such as students cramming for an exam, creatives trying to produce content, and business professionals working on a project or presentation.