Lessons from the Film Limitless

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Although film critics have given Limitless tepid praise, I found this movie to be deeply meaningful as a therapist. Understand Limitless and you understand many of the dreams and nightmares that haunt modern life.

Fears and Desires

We meet Eddie Morra as a modern-day everyman. An unsuccessful writer, Eddie is unable to move past the first word of his book. His girlfriend has left him, and his disgust for himself runs close to the surface. “What kind of guy without a drug or alcohol problem looks this way?” he reflects.

When Eddie chances upon the experimental drug NZT, it seems like the answer to all his problems. Seconds after downing the first pill, his entire perspective turns inside out. The cold, dark colors of his world suddenly become warm, bright and sharp in a way that only cinema can convey. Where in the past he couldn’t complete a sentence of his novel, his mind is on fire with useful ideas and his memory effortlessly serves up just the right details to achieve whatever Eddie needs in the moment. Suddenly Eddie is no longer a hopeless, helpless schlub, but a mental superman. And there’s nothing he can’t do.

When I’m in therapy with someone who uses drugs, whether prescription or illicit, I often find my client chasing Eddie’s fictional experience with NZT. These clients are looking to become something they are not, and see medication as the instant fix to get them there. As a therapist who believes in the power of the mind to heal and develop itself, given the right conditions and encouragement, I wonder if I’m not swimming against a cultural tide that says the solution to life’s problems are found in chemical form.

Adverse Effects

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But Limitless is a thriller, so who would be surprised that Eddie’s first-act breakthrough comes with some serious complications? His clarity only lasts as long as he’s taking his NZT. Sleep off the effects and he’s dropped immediately back into his old dark-gray world. Documents that were perfectly transparent the night before are now hieroglyphics to him. In a nod to real drug interactions, NZT mixes badly with alcohol, causing blackouts and disorientation. As ‘smart’ as Eddie has become, he misses out on some basic self-care skills — such as eating — which only intensifies the side effects. Worse, he begins to learn the fates of other former NZT users. Some are sick, others dead. Deprived of the magic pills over time, even the survivors sink into a hyper-ADHD-like state where they’re even less capable of functioning than before NZT.

People take drugs of all kinds seeking an easy fix, but many find the price far greater than they ever could have imagined: side-effects, withdrawal, dependence, then addiction. Like Eddie’s fallen peers, some end up far worse off than when they began.

External forces also conspire to undo what Eddie has become. Everyone from Wall Street moguls to petty gangsters want in on the NZT miracle. Ultimately, the film becomes Eddie’s struggle to overcome the limitations of the drug itself and at the same time a dog-eat-dog world that wants to bring him down. The goal becomes finding a way to keep the high going without limit.

Some people use medicines not so much to be better as to be better than the competition. A large percentage of all children are on medication for ADHD. Students learn that these drugs boost concentration and extend the ability to study even for those without an ADHD diagnosis. There is a pharmaceutical arms race under way in classrooms and cubicles world-wide. The unmedicated have reason to fear being outdone by their chemically-enhanced peers.

A Dose Less Taken

My intention is not to tell anyone they should use therapy instead of medication. Certainly therapy can’t do everything that medication does. There are many who use medication over the long haul to control their symptoms and live better lives. Therapy has its drawbacks. Clients pay long before they see results. They pay in money for sessions, as well as time and energy when they do their homework. Results come slowly, haltingly, with plateaus and setbacks.

In my view, therapy is about building insights, skills, and habits of living that lead (in the long run) to greater capability and greater acceptance of and engagement with life. Even better, these gains are enduring and without side-effects or dependence on external supports. The ‘high’ of a life skillfully lived need not fade like the dosage of a drug. Like Eddie, we often disbelieve in our own innate capacity to heal and grow without giving these abilities a decent chance to work before looking for a solution in the form of a pill.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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