An Analysis of the Film Limitless as a Portrayal of “Optimal Mental Performance” – Can You Become Like Eddie? And Should You Want To?

By on January 24, 2021

Although the book, The Dark Fields, is the superior story; it’s undoubtedly the film Limitless that had the biggest impact. For those unfamiliar, this is the story of down-on-his-luck writer Eddie Mora (Spinola in the book), who takes a smart drug called NZT and turns his life around. And then some: Eddie goes on to make huge amounts of cash on the stock market, land a massive salary in a megacorporation, and then succeed in politics.

The film’s said “impact” is, unfortunately, mostly seen in the supplements industry. Here, countless products have sprung up that make spurious claims about being the “real Limitless pill.” The film triggered a huge amount of new interest in the subject of “nootropics.”

Real Limitless Pill

The implication is that if you take these products, you’ll gain superhuman focus, motivation, charm, and insight. A lot of people are lured in by the idea of being able to become instantly successful via a single tablet. It’s essentially a tablet that gives a person the specific skills they need to succeed in the 21st Century and there’s a hedonistic, even self-destructive quality to the way this is shown in the book.

The pill makes him into the “perfect version” of himself. But there are inherent assumptions here.

What is “Optimal?”

Eddie says that the pill makes him into the perfect version of himself. But there are inherent assumptions here. Does wearing a suit and making money represent the “optimal” you? It’s the kind of thing people like to fantasize about, but that is perhaps not the path to real happiness, or making a positive impact.

But yeah, it’s interesting.

What helped the book and film to resonate so much, is that the effects are portrayed in a way that feels grounded. The first thing Eddie does is to tidy his entire flat. He gets in shape, he gets some new threads. And while he is depicted as having amazing recall and focus, what’s also notable is his affect on other people. People are drawn to him, he is effortlessly charismatic – and it is that which makes him extremely successful.

That’s what many imagine it would be like to be the “successful” version of ourselves.

But success is in the eye of the beholder.

Success at Any Cost

And again: at what cost?

This is where the book is a little more interesting; the whole thing is framed more as a Faustian bargain. The drug has lethal side effects, acting as a metaphor for the way the trade-offs we need to make to succeed.

See also: Cool examples of Transhumanism, Notoropics, and AI in Books, Games, Comics, and Films

The purpose of this post is to explore the skills that Eddie Mora exhibits and how you could go about embodying them. The purpose of this post is not to suggest that these are necessarily optimal or even desirable. That’s why this is a “thought experiment.” I want to deconstruct precisely what it is about this depiction of cognitive enhancement that is so appealing, and how it would work out in the real world. Can you think like Eddie Mora?

The mind-body connection

Can we formulate a real-life nootropic stack that would act like NZT? What lifestyle changes could we instead use?

And why do we find this concept simultaneously thrilling and disconcerting?

Note: Not to beat a dead horse but I want to emphasize once more that this is a thought experiment and I don’t recommend a lot of what I’m going to explore here. The Dark Fields is a cautionary tale that explores our infatuation with “success.” Read until the end before you draw conclusions!

Note 2: Also: this post is MASSIVE. I almost thought of turning it into an eBook by the end! If you make it through the whole thing, I’d love to hear from you in the comments down below! If not, don’t worry: I promise I’ll be more restrained next time!

Social Skills

As I have already mentioned, what’s really interesting about Eddie, is his effect on other people. Several times throughout the book (even more in the sequel), it is remarked upon that people seem to want to impress Eddie. Many times they offer him opportunities as soon as they meet him. He seems to exude success and power and other people gravitate toward that.

Limitless social skills

I’ve remarked in the past, that this kind of social power would be more helpful in making someone successful than would any amount of knowledge or fluid intelligence. We are social creatures, and it’s not about what you know, OR who you know… but rather: who you can impress.

This is also a big part of the power trip that Limitless offers: one of the things that makes it so appealing but also cautionary.

See also: A Complete Guide to Social Nootropics: Pills for Charisma and Charm?

So, could a person learn this kind of ability?

My interpretation is that NZT-Eddie has the keen ability to read people, and a high level of charisma. He is so focussed on his goals and so clearly intelligent that people want to line up behind him. But he may also be a little sociopathic.  These things can all be learned (or induced) to differing degrees.

Again, whether they should be is another matter!

Testosterone and The Winner Effect

I wrote an article called The Testosterone Advantage a while back. There, I discussed the effects that testosterone has on the brain: making us more assertive, dominant, and risk-taking. And of course, testosterone also makes us exhibit more masculine and alpha traits: traits that others are drawn to.

Limitless in real life

You don’t need to be high in testosterone to be charismatic – but it helps! But for this to work, you also need the right amount of androgen receptors in the brain (these respond to various other factors). Intermittent fasting has been shown to boost androgen receptors in the brain, and there are those that believe “no-fap” will have a similar effect. You can also try weight training, which appears to have a positive effect on androgen receptor expression throughout the body.

You can actually raise this kind of “social testosterone” through the “winner effect.” This effect shows that animals that continuously “win” in contests with others will go on to win more in future (studystudy).

Animals that continuously “win” in contests with others will go on to win more in future (studystudy).

Compounding Victory

These same animals also demonstrated greater activation of specific brain networks and regions, such as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. This brain region is linked to “inferring mental states” and working with high level, social thinking (study).

In other words, if you are experiencing a winning streak (doing well in your career, earning lots of money, gaining respect from subordinates) then your brain will change in such a way as to make you more likely to continue to do well. The same also works in reverse, however, which is why another person might become increasingly more withdrawn.

Do more of what you’re good at.

How can you emulate this “winner effect” in your own life? One possible answer is to do more of what you’re good at and to simply engage in more competition such as sport. Fighting experience, in particular, appears to boost androgen receptors in the brain (study), so perhaps MMA would be the optimal option?

Could a VR game like Thrill of the Fight have a similar effect?

The “Jock”

This also goes some way to describing the classic characters in any good high school drama. You have your nerds who are quiet and withdrawn, and your jocks who are confident and outgoing. It follows that these jocks are the way they are, because they have a history of impressing the other kids and winning at sports.

But sports might play another role here too: they may equip the athlete with an improved attention, awareness, and social skill.

Athlete

Recently, I wrote about the importance of viewing cognitive training in a multisensory manner. Working memory, in particular, is most effective when used in a 3D space this way (report).

This is precisely the way that working memory is tested and trained during sports. Here, you are required to track the position of the ball, teammates, and opposition – all while coordinating and planning your own movements in the context of the rules. This appears to effectively train the ability to quickly process a dynamic visual scene, which includes the use of working memory (study).

See also: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Performance, Productivity, and Accessing Flow States

At the same time, athletes appear to show enhanced biological motion perception thanks to increased cortical thickness of the STS – a brain region linked with socially relevant cues and motion perception.

Someone who plays a lot of sports may, therefore, not only be more confident and assertive in a social setting, but also more alert, switched on, and tuned in. This same person will seem witty and confident in a social setting, whereas their nerdy friend will struggle to think of what to say next.

Warrior Hawks

Real life NZT

I argue that NZT-Eddie has sociopathic tendencies. He demonstrates high-risk taking, and has no qualms about stepping on others to get where he wants to go. Nor does he seem particularly remorseful about his wanton lying.

NZT-Eddie has sociopathic tendencies.

Sociopathy is distinct from psychopathy in that the individual has not carried out any violent actions. Psychopaths are actively destructive and vindictive, whereas a sociopath will simply demonstrate an unusual level of indifference for the opinions and wellbeing of others.

Are Sociopaths More Successful?

It has often been remarked that a lot of highly successful people are likely sociopaths – especially business men and women, traders, politicians, and celebrities. Success in these areas practically demands a high level of narcissism and detachment.

While many of us might dream of being celebrities, we often fail to recognize the reality of such a position. Celebrities are almost always required to spend large amounts of time away from family and friends, they are under constant scrutiny, and they are placed in extremely high pressured situations often. Have you ever had an entire film crew waiting on you to deliver your lines perfectly before they can go home? I have, as it happens, and it’s intense!

See also: A Huge, Detailed Guide to Nootropics (Smart Drugs): How They Work and How to Use Them

I’m not saying all celebrities are bad people! Simply that in order to thrive in these kinds of environments, you can’t be highly conflict avoidant, shy, or introverted.

Likewise, you can’t be a manager in a huge company and lose sleep over upsetting someone you had to shout at down the phone (this is why I will never be a high flyer!).

Some psychologists go further: by saying that we actually need these types of people in society. That these are the “warrior hawks” necessary for any society to handle the kinds of jobs that no one else wants to (reference). Historically, we needed a few “violent competitors” who would be willing to fend off rival groups.

Can You Become a Sociopath?

This, of course, is why politicians are famously unpopular. To be a successful politician, a certain level of sociopathy is probably required. Sadly, sociopaths lack empathy – potentially ensuring that the people who most deserve leadership, likely won’t succeed.

Sociopathy is linked with higher levels of testosterone, so increasing that will naturally make you a more ruthless business-person. Testosterone is also negatively correlated with oxytocin. In other words: increasing testosterone will reduce oxytocin, and vice versa.

The “Cure” for Empathy

Social nootropic

Oxytocin is perhaps best known as the “love” hormone and is produced in vast quantities when you, for example, look at your new-born baby or spouse. But oxytocin also has a darker side and is associated with the pain of heartbreak. Oxytocin is also linked to trust and empathy, which run counter to with the heartbreak following a break-up, or the feelings of anxiety you get when you feel a social interaction went poorly. Oxytocin may play a role in making us feel bad when we’ve upset someone, or losing sleep worrying about the plight of the hungry. We need oxytocin to perceive negative emotions (study). Increasing testosterone will meanwhile lower oxytocin as the chemicals are inversely related. In one study, a single dose of testosterone completely impaired a woman’s ability to read emotions (study).

In one study, a single dose of testosterone completely impaired a woman’s ability to read emotions.

But this is a highly complex and nuanced interplay. It’s not as simple as higher testosterone = more assertiveness and lower empathy. In fact, one study concluded that testosterone was only associated with antisocial personality disorder only when cortisol levels were also high (study). The hormone system is extremely complex.

Still though, on the whole, if you wanted to become that kind of ruthless business man or woman who does whatever is necessary to get to the top, you can’t have too much oxytocin! Research shows that injecting an oxytocin blocker directly into the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) could help to reduce social anxiety in mice and the reverse also appears to be true (source).

Oxytocin Blockers

There are a number of oxytocin antagonists (blockers) that can be taken by humans. One is Atosiban, which is sold as Tractocile as a labor inhibitor. This also inhibits vasopressin, which is likewise associated with social bonding. However, vasopressin is also a powerful memory hormone – so this could have a negative impact on recall (one of Mora’s most impressive skills). This is interesting, as it demonstrates an in-built mechanism that makes us more likely to remember socially-relevant information (it’s hypothesized that this was one of the reasons we developed such large brains to begin with!).

Also it causes nausea – but that’s pretty true to the film! So, if we were going to design a real NZT drug, it might just contain an oxytocin antagonist.

Again: we’re going down a dark road here. This is a thought experiment. The very fact that Limitless depicts the “perfect version” of a person as being extremely “financially capable” is a stance. Not necessarily one I agree with. But it’s intriguing nonetheless.

Charisma

Finally, to be more like Eddie, a person should work on their charisma and charm. This will come partly as a result of the increased testosterone and confidence but it’s also something that can be learned with practice and training.

Dwayne Johnson Body Language

One charismatic individual I knew explained how they learned their powers through open-mic comedy nights. This is a situation that leaves you extremely vulnerable and forces you to care less about what others think. Overtime, this helps you feel more relaxed when talking, and to put on more of a show.

Acting Classes and Vocal Coaching

Acting classes and voice coaching can also help. Many of us fail to make the optimal use of our natural voice, never exploring its full range or speaking properly through our “mask.” These changes can give us more gravitas and more

Embodying what you are saying is crucial for charisma. Audiences rate people as more charismatic who use more gestures and move about more as they speak.

See also: What is Emotional Intelligence? And How to Develop it

In my recent post on social intelligence, I explored the importance of oscillators and spindle cells in creating a sense of “resonance.” These cells are particularly fast at sending signals throughout the brain and provide a social guidance system. They appear to play a role, alongside mirror neurons, in helping us pick up on subtle body language cues in order to form an opinion of someone. Those people who seem effortlessly magnetic are likely sending lots of little signals that elicit this response: eye contact, smiling, standing with confidence, and more.

Sharpening Cognitive Skills

At this point, the “Eddie Mora program” involves no-fap, regular sport and working out, stand-up comedy/vocal coaching/acting, and atosiban. Plus making efforts to raise testosterone.

Optimizing brain function

This will make a person magnetic in their charm, effortlessly cool, and capable of rising to the top. They will take more risks, persuade others with ease, and attract opportunities. Theoretically…

But this is not all it takes to be Limitless. What we also see from Eddie Mora is his incredible recall, focus, drive, and determination. This is the other piece of the puzzle, so how do we get there?

Focus

Meditation is one of the most powerful tools for transforming your brain. I’ve seen it work on friends: helping them become less anxious and prone to procrastination, and more level-headed and cool. Meditation is effective because it teaches us to focus and to take control of our attention. That’s massive, not only because it helps us to focus on the task we should be focused on, but also because it helps us to ignore negative emotions and even pain.

Healthy Lifestyle Meditation

Make no mistake: it is the focus specifically here that plays the key role. Demonstrating this, is the fact that even practicing mental arithmetic can have a similar effect and has been shown to directly benefit emotional control and to combat symptoms of depression (reference).

We see Eddie Mora exhibit laser-like focus when it comes to clearing his flat, trading, and writing. This can be learned, to an extent, with meditation. Focus is also linked to working memory and information processing: two topics that have come up throughout this article.

(Note that the act of clearing his flat may itself help to enhance clarity of thought and focus. Our environment has a HUGE impact on our mental state.)

Modafinil

Of course, another way to encourage more focus is with nootropics (AKA smart drugs). Modafinil is a prescription-only medication used to treat narcolepsy, but is also used by biohackers to increase their mental focus, memory, reaction times, and motivation. It has repeatedly been described as the “real Limitless pill” and is also used by the military and, reportedly, many Silicon Valley high-flyers. It is also said to have no side effects.

Limitless typing

Does it work? I wrote a series of articles on the topic a while back and tested it myself during that time. Just to be absolutely clear: I do NOT recommend the use of Modafinil. The drug appears to work by acting on dopamine and orexin pathways, altering the sleep/wake cycle but also many other bodily functions. Far from being without side-effects, I found it caused anxiety, lip-biting, tooth grinding, poor sleep, suppressed appetite, and excessive use of the bathroom.

Others have said it makes them impatient with others and prone to barking at people.

If this is what it takes to achieve your goals, perhaps you should rethink your priorities. Again, that’s the interesting subtext of all of this.

Modafinil may also reduce creativity by increasing dopamine and putting us in a more alert and focussed state. I actually found the opposite was true, in a sense, as I was able to focus more intently on a single idea and thus come up with some interesting solutions.

See also: Can Nootropics Make You Permanently more Productive?

Pros and Cons

I would be lying, then, if I said that Modafinil had no benefit for me. It helped me to significantly increase my work output, at a time when my business was struggling. Modafinil allows you to concentrate on the things you need to do to be successful and if you can use this as a tool to form good habits, you can potentially see lasting changes thanks to brain plasticity. It was after that experiment that I learned to consistently write well-over

10,000 words a day without fault.

Remember: none of this is advisory. It is a thought experiment. NZT has severe side effects, so if we’re sticking to the plot, then Modafinil goes in there, too. But perhaps in a small dose to minimize negative effects on creative problem solving.

Wide-Angle Vision

Another interesting nuance of the depiction of NZT in Limitless, is the wide-angle vision that Eddie appears to demonstrate. As he walks down the street the director chooses to show his POV using a fish-eye lens, suggesting that he is taking in more data.

This does have some real-world precedent and regular readers will already know what I’m about to say. Hakalau Meditation. This is a form of meditation that involves relaxing the eyes and engaging peripheral vision. This in turn increases calm (the brain associates highly-focussed vision with stress) while also allowing us to take in more information. In fact, a similar technique is used by the FBI to scan crowds for potential targets (they refer to this as splatter vision). Martial artists find it can improve reaction times and encourage a flow-state. And survivalists use it to spot potential resources when trekking through the wilderness.

See also: How to Achieve Flow States, Ultra Instinct and Heightened Awareness With Wide Angle Vision

Wit and Fluid Intelligence

Eddie is also extremely sharp and witty. He responds quickly with smart comments and insights and is never seen to stutter or fall over his words. He never appears out of his element.

I knew someone like this. Someone who was visibly smart, almost intimidatingly so. Not in a nerdy way – in a way that meant people hung off of what he was saying. He was this way since he was very young: he apparently asked his Mum to give him math problems while he ate breakfast.

Nootropics Success

But perhaps his lifestyle could have contributed to this as well? He was a huge fan of music and an extremely talented musician himself. He was a grade 8 flautist and had a 1st degree in music.

See also: How Coding, Music, and Writing Help You to Think Big

And as it would happen, studies suggest that playing music at a professional level may help to increase rapid decision making and efficient processing of information. This was demonstrated in a study published in Neuropsychologica, where musicians performed significantly better on the Stroop task and Simon task. And it follows that learning to sight-read music while keeping in time with the music around you would involve processing a lot of information quickly.

Racetams

Piracetam is another supplement that could be taken alongside modafinil. Piracetam is one of the most popular nootropics available and appears to work via the cholinergic pathways, specifically upregulating the acetylcholine receptors (acetylcholine being one of the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain). It is therefore recommended that you combine the piracetam and other racetams with a choline source to prevent headaches.

Flow state

Aniracetam is believed to help boost mood, aid creativity, boost memory recall, aid verbal fluency, and even improve appreciation for art and music. Some people say that colors take on a more vibrant hue, which again helps to emulate what we see in the film.

Aniracetam works like piracetam but has more immediate effects, making it more suited to an imaginary NZT supplement.

But, like other examples on this list, I don’t personally recommend using aniracetam. All these benefits can be obtained through other means (training) and some people find that aniracetam causes brain fog and headaches. This may be due to a decrease in acetylcholine receptor count/sensitivity.

Creativity, Learning, and Insight

When Eddie takes NZT, he says that he can see clearly for the first time and he knows “exactly what he needs to do.” The film talks about him having some kind of vision for mankind, while both the film and the book heavily imply he has somehow “cracked” the stock market. His secret is taking in huge amounts of information and effortlessly processing that into insight.

What is optimal brain function

Eddie also learns multiple languages and talks about all kinds of subjects.

The point is, being focused, driven, and sharp is useless if you don’t have a plan of action. Unfortunately, creativity is in many ways the enemy of focus and tunnel vision. To be creative, we must be relaxed and allow our mind to wander. That is why, on paper, Modafinil (and even caffeine) should blunt creativity.

Being focused, driven, and sharp is useless if you don’t have a plan of action

Adap 232

Other nootropics could reverse some of this potentially negative effect. For example, the Russian military and space program experimented with a nootropic stack called “Adapt 232.” This contained Siberian ginseng, rhodiola rosea, and Schisandra chinensis and was thought to help the brain combat the effects of stress while remaining in a highly aroused state. In other words: to be highly focussed and alert while maintaining creativity, memory recall, and more. It achieves this by raising DHEA and neuropeptide Y, both of which are observed in the brains of high-performing athletes and special forces personnel, and work to reduce the effects of cortisol on the medial prefrontal cortex.

This supplement could, theoretically, help a person to be more alert and focussed as needed, while also being able to get into a relaxed and creative state as required. Read more in my article on nootropics for flow states.

Inspiration Walks

For further-enhanced creativity, I recommend taking inspiration walks. These are long walks during which you let your mind wander and explore different ideas and possibilities. Doing this is fantastic for finding novel connections between ideas and thereby gaining new creative insights. This is a great counterbalance to all the time you spend focussed and sharp, and it is great for improving the organization of ideas and concepts in your brain. This can in turn aid with subsequence memory recall.

Learning

In order to enhance learning and start picking up new languages and skills like Eddie Mora, the best thing we can do is to keep learning. The more you learn new things, the better you become at learning new things and the more plastic your brain becomes. This can be enhanced with certain supplements too: such as Lion’s Mane, lutein, or CILTeP.

Learning skills online

As you learn more, you will increase production of BDNF, which will make you more inclined to learn even more. Learning new languages doesn’t only benefit you in that you now know more languages – it also helps you start picking up other things more easily. That might be chess, it might be maths, or it might be something else entirely.

Some Conclusions

What’s key to take away from this, is that the brain changes in response to the way you live your life. This is a theme that comes up time and again on this site, but it turns out that it also applies to the way we socialize and act in a group.

Play sports and engage in competition and you will become more aggressive, competitive, physical, and switched on.

The “real” NZT pill:

  • Modafinil (50mg)
  • Atosiban (0.6mg)
  • Adapt 232
    • Rhodiola Rosea
    • Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero)
    • Schisandra
  • Alpha GPC (300mg)
  • Aniracetam (200mg)
  • Lutein
  • Creatine
  • CILTeP

All these would be in small quantities in order to ha-+ve small but noticeable effects on brain function and performance. I don’t recommend any of these, except maybe the Adapt 232 which uses safe and natural ingredients (though I didn’t find it had a huge effect when I tried it), and lutein which enhances brain plasticity and energy.

The side effects of all this would be:

  • An increasing fatigue due to poor sleep/running at 200% constantly
  • Short patience
  • Risk-taking
  • Dependence – brain fog/headaches/fatigue during withdrawal
  • Dry mouth

So, really not ideal! But again: quite like the story.

As for lifestyle changes, we could:

  • Meditate
  • Take inspiration walks
  • Practice nofap
  • Exercise
  • Play sports regularly
  • Practice competition
  • Take elocution lessons/acting
  • Dress sharp

To truly see a Limitless-style transformation, we might even consider HRT. A small amount of exogenous testosterone could go a long way to making someone more alpha, ripped, energetic, driven, and prone to risk-taking. Again, there are significant, negative side effects to this. Suffice to say, HRT will impair your body’s natural ability to produce testosterone. So, if you don’t need it, you shouldn’t use it.

The Faustian Bargain

I’ve been very apologetic throughout this article: constantly saying that I don’t recommend this strategy (with a few exceptions).

Chronotype

I think an interesting point this discussion brings up, is that the best way to “optimize” your brain very much depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to be more aggressive, assertive, risk-taking, and sharp-witted, then the advice in this extensive post will get you there – at a cost.

But is that what leads to happiness and real success?

For me, happiness comes from spending time with friends and family – and building a business that I am passionate about. Lowering oxytocin would not help that. Taking financial risks is not a great idea for me either. And more ambition would only prevent me from being satisfied with my current lot.

Be Careful What You Wish For, Icarus

Why do we strive to get to the top of social hierarchies that ultimately don’t benefit us? Why is it appealing to become a successful banker, responsible for millions of dollars? To work all hours, burn the candle at both ends, and blow all that cash on cheap thrills?

Who wants to be the CEO of a multinational corporation? Isn’t that just a constant headache?

What is the allure of self-destructive hedonism? Why do we still crave social power and high-stakes risk-taking?

Icarus is not supposed to be an aspirational story! And yet many of us claim we would rather “burn brightly” and go out with a bang. Why?

Limitless Icarus

Perhaps it’s a hangover from our evolution. Perhaps we all have the tendency to be “warrior hawks” and to take risks that might ultimately benefit our tribe. Thus the thrill of being among a group of high flyers or investing thousands of dollars can trigger the same dopamine-pathways others get from surfing, base jumping, or a good game of Doom.

Maybe this is finely calibrated in all of us, with subtle variations that are the result of both genetics and environment. The more we understand this, the more we can craft ourselves into any kind of person we wish to be, in order to do achieve whatever we want.

Suffice to say that even our personality can be shaped by our environment and our goals.

So choose your goals wisely.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. If you’re not already aware of her, you should definitely check out the work of Rhonda Patrick. She’s very interested in the same brain-health stuff as you. Here’s a recent survey article of hers on BDNF:

    https://www.foundmyfitness.com/topics/bdnf

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