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Screw Learning, I Have Phlebotinum!

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Congratulations, Charly! You have just been zapped by the Upgrade Artifact that increases intelligence to TV Genius levels, and suddenly, everyone is coming to you for Schizo Tech and Hollywood Hacking. Only problem is, you never learned these things.

In Hollywood, this is not a problem. If a character is zapped with an Intelligence Ray, they will suddenly know everything, despite the fact that they never learned it. This could be Justified by saying they uploaded someone else's brainwave pattern, etc. into their brains, and therefore know everything that person knows, or that they evolved into a telepath and just sucked up some other people's book learnin', but often it's not. Often, they just give the person the Applied Phlebotinum, and that person knows everything. Period. No explanation. Not even a Hand Wave. No depictions of them actually learning the information. A Wizard Did It. Usually, this trope goes hand in hand with TV Genius.

Despite what the name might suggest, this is not "a machine uploaded X knowledge into character Y's brain" (or "taught Y character X knowledge unreasonably quickly", or any other variants); that's Neural Implanting. This trope is specifically about the distinction between intelligence (the capacity for learning and understanding) and knowledge (the possession of facts and figures), and how in fiction, the mere act of "making a character smarter" often results in them having knowledge they haven't actually learned.

Compare Instant Expert and Hard Work Hardly Works. May be justified by Awesomeness by Analysis - in this case, their brains are sufficiently boosted to figure out all these things very, very quickly.


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    Audio Plays 
  • Subverted in Le Donjon de Naheulbeuk season 1: When the Ranger passes the intelligence ring, the Elf and Dwarf assume it works that way; but he predictably fails to answer their questions.

    Comic Books 
  • Spirou and Fantasio: The Comte de Champignac discovered a mushroom that can be used to make an intelligence-boosting injection, which he demonstrates by reading and memorising a book in five seconds. In a later story, it's played for laughs when he goes through the feverish invention process only to discover he's accidentally redesigned another scientist's invention (he'd injected himself with a formula that makes one immune to cold).
  • Inverted in a Silver Age story where a Devolution Device devolves Superman into a superpowered caveman while evolving Batman into a huge-brained genius. Batman soon starts creating all sorts of Applied Phlebotinum, which may be considered a case of "screw learning" but is actually not too hard to justify.note  On the other hand, Superman isn't just dumber — he has actually forgotten what machines are, and for instance believes a train to be an animal.

    Comic Strips 
  • Calvin and Hobbes:
    • In a strip, Calvin once dreams about getting a "knowledge implant" (in the form of extra brain matter) from a pair of robot surgeons. The point of the fantasy is so that he doesn't need to go to school anymore, which to him would be the ultimate of joys.
    • In one story arc, he enlarges his brain to make his homework easier and becomes so intelligent that, within moments, he mentally calculates the purpose of the cosmos and all reality into a single, simple answer. However, he is unable to figure out why girls are so weird.
  • Parodied in Dilbert. Wally dreams of approaching the Pointy-Haired Boss and mocking his "Work smarter, not harder" advice ("I didn't realize I could become smarter just by wanting to!"). He then increases his brain size by straining his muscles and says, "Wow! Suddenly I can speak Latin!"

    Films — Animation 
  • Possibly the case with the uplifted rats in The Secret of NIMH. Seemingly the experiments would have just given them the biological capacity for human-like intelligence, but that doesn't explain how they learned to read or build machinery more complicated than the average person could. Explained better in the book; the rats are taught to read (granted, with experimental drugs injected for added flavor), and are tested for some time before they finally escape.
  • Help! I'm a Fish: Any fish exposed to the Fish Antidote become smarter, and more human-like. Fly exploits this in the end to defeat Joe via Batman Gambit, by posing increasingly difficult questions to him and getting him to sip more and more antidote to solve them. By the end of Fly's questioning, Joe is a horribly mutated man who has just enough time before he gasps his last to realize that humans cannot breathe underwater.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Wizard of Oz manages this with the Magic Feather the Wizard gives the Scarecrow! Dodged in the book; after the wizard fills the scarecrow's head with bran and needles, the scarecrow says,
    "I feel wise indeed, when I get used to my brains I shall know everything."
  • In Deep Blue Sea, apparently when you increase the intelligence of sharks, they suddenly gain knowledge on how humans must breathe air to survive, using the laws of fluid dynamics to their advantage, amongst other things. Hell, they even "learn" how to swim backwards, something that, for sharks at least, is physically impossible.
  • In Species - The Awakening, Miranda can absorb the contents of a closed book by holding it for a few seconds.
  • Averted in Phenomenon: George Malley has increased learning & memorization capacity, but cannot answer questions about things he hasn't read about.
  • Averted in Limitless, in which Eddie Morra takes a superpill that grants him hyper-intelligence. However, the pill didn't give him straight knowledge; the added brain-power just allowed him to remember everything he ever learned, and also to figure out patterns in the world around him extremely quickly.

  • Poul Anderson's Brainwave has interstellar phlebotinum stop affecting the entire Earth, raising the intelligence of everything with a brain.
  • The mechanical educator plays a large role in the classic Skylark Series, where it is used to teach the space travellers various languages and cultures. One character gets imprinted with the knowledge of the galaxy's greatest physicist and its greatest psychologist, and as a result masters telepathy.
  • In Men at Arms, Detritus is trapped in a freezer, and since trolls' silicon brains work better in the cold, he starts to become disturbingly intelligent. On the Discworld, this is perfectly plausible. But then he exhibits an expanded vocabulary (e.g. using words like 'cogitate') with no evidence that he'd actually had the opportunity to learn them. This could possibly be justified (like in the example below) by his finally having the intelligence to figure out what those fancy-sounding words meant.
    • It is mentioned in one earlier book that trolls are not unintelligent by nature. When they move to the lowlands, which are much warmer than the mountains they normally live in, their brains don't work as well. It's perfectly possible that Detritus already knew the expanded vocabulary, but was unable to recall it until the magical freezer cooled his brain, then overclocked it by cooling it far past the point it would normally have been. Later in the book, he receives a clockwork cooling helmet with fans in it that lets him function at more or less the same level as everyone else.
      • Do note, however, that the extreme cold of the Pork Futures warehouse was able to increase Detritus' intelligence to the point where he almost worked out what was implied to be a Theory of Everything (he was rescued before he could write anything past the final "="), and it's rather implausible that he would have the information to write it in his head. Again, it's Discworld.
  • Justified in My Teacher Fried My Brains. The narration explains that the intelligence-boosted protagonist can use words like "anthropologist" because he's heard them before, and now has the brainpower to remember what they mean. The first sign in the book that the intelligence boost worked was when he was sitting in math class and suddenly realized he understood what the teacher was saying.
  • While Ron and Harry at the least are not looking for something which will enter new information into their heads on its own in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix there are a number of scammers going around the school selling things which supposedly do to panicked students as O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. testing approaches for the fifth and seventh years respectively. Ron and Harry desperately try to buy something from a Ravenclaw sixth year which he swears was solely responsible for his nine 'Outstanding' OWLs before Hermione confiscates it and dumps it out snarling:
    Hermione: Don't be stupid, you might as well take Harold Dingle's powdered dragon claw and have done with it.
    Ron: (eagerly) Dingle's got powdered dragon claw?
    Hermione: Not anymore, I confiscated that, too. None of these things actually work, you know.
    Ron: Dragon claw does work! It's supposed to be incredible, really gives your brain a boost, you come over all cunning for a few hours - Hermione, let me have a pinch, go on, it can't hurt -
    Hermione: (grimly) This stuff can, I've had a look at it, and it's actually dried Doxy droppings.
  • Not uncommon at all in the Land of Oz books. The Patchwork Girl of Oz has brains consisting of a cocktail of powdered essence of personality traits, Bungle the Glass Cat has brains made of pink beads (she's very proud of them; every time she brings them up, she insists that they're the best brains around because you can actually see them work), and the Highly Magnified Wogglebug takes it to the logical extreme; the students at his college spend most of their time focused on sports, because all learning occurs through a rigorously scheduled pill regimen. On top of that, anything with a mouth or analogue thereof exposed to Dr. Pipt's Powder of Life can speak, and quite eloquently at times, regardless of the fact that it was (for example) a log with a vaguely face-shaped arrangement of knots a minute ago.
  • Played for Laughs in Life, the Universe and Everything, in which a character is made omniscient by an overdose of truth serum. How would too much truth serum give someone more knowledge? Rule of Funny, that's how.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Angel: Gunn is instantly upgraded to über-lawyer thanks to Wolfram & Hart's surgeon. The procedure makes him an expert on human and demonic law within a few hours.
  • It seems to happen with Slayers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as all kinds of moves used by Slayers should take years of training.
    • Not to forget Xander's sudden military expertise and knowledge, including military passcodes, when he got turned into a soldier for a night in the Season 2 episode 'Halloween'.
      • That one makes a bit of sense since he's dressed up as someone who probably knew those things, so the knowledge was part of the costume.
    • The vampires too seem to suddenly have super fighting skills once they get sired. Lampshaded in Season seven's 'Lessons' by Dawn:
      "But he's new. He doesn't know his strength. H-he might not know all those fancy martial arts skills they inevitably seem to pick up."
  • On Charmed, Phoebe casts a spell to absorb knowledge through her hands by waving them over a book. Strangely, averts being a Chekhov's Gun, as it wore off before she had to save the day.
  • Doctor Who:
    • Averted in "Planet of the Spiders". When a mentally challenged character received an upgrade in intelligence (to average, not to becoming a genius), he found himself able to read better. However, he realised he still didn't know a lot of the words (like quotient) and actually got a dictionary out to look them up.
    • "School Reunion": The Krillitane oil a group of alien Evil Teachers are feeding their students doesn't just make them cleverer, it also seems to give them knowledge of things like how to travel faster than light. It's also possible that the computers the students are mesmerized by are giving them the information.
    • "Journey's End" justifies it with Donna, as she had a "metacrisis" with the Doctor, who is that smart, and got a large amount of his knowledge downloaded into her head in the process.
  • In the Eureka episode "Smarter Carter", Kevin gives Jack a substance that turns him into a genius, so that Jack can impress Kevin's visiting (genius) uncle.
  • In the TV show of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, one of Wayne's inventions renders Diane capable of absorbing other people's intelligence, promptly making her an Evil Genius. When Diane discovers this, she also notices that she can now talk about scientific topics with ease. Could be justified if she had absorbed at least a scientist's mind... But so far she had only met two lawyers. Seemingly, if you're smart enough, scientific knowledge generates spontaneously inside your brain.
  • In The Journey of Allen Strange, Allen can know everything in a book just by touching it with his Energy Being powers.
  • Completely averted in Kyle XY. Despite being incredibly intelligent, Kyle knows absolutely nothing to begin with. Pretty soon, though, he remedies this by reading an entire encyclopedia.
  • Averted in an episode of Stargate Atlantis, wherein Dr. McKay got a shot of a machine designed to make him Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence. As a side effect, this made him smarter. However, McKay showed no sign of obtaining new knowledge merely because of the enhanced intelligence, and spent much of his time using his intelligence to actually do research.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Nth Degree", Lt. Barclay is zapped with hyper-intelligence, allowing him to build, from memory, a device the ship's computer has never even heard of. Later, when his brainpower is back to normal, he can still make a move in three-dimensional chess and predict checkmate in so-many moves, never having learned the game.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • Boosts to intelligence and knowledge skills in allow you to retry knowledge checks and "know" something you didn't before. Explained as both A Wizard Did It and that you are actually realizing something is relevant or that you are recalling information that you could normally not bring to mind, rather than knowing something new. If these increases are temporary, however, you don't actually get any new skills (except for in Pathfinder, a Spiritual Successor to 3.5). If you've taken another rank in Knowledge, though, then you actually have learned more than you knew before. Which makes sense if the character gains a level at the end of an adventure, and presumably has some downtime to learn something new. When it happens in the middle of Dungeon Crawling, then it's this trope played straight.
    • In Edition 3.5, there is a feat called "Open Minded" who grants 5 additional skill points. Feats are normally gained upon leveling, so this can be just considered part of learning new things. However, the Chameleon Prestige Class has the ability to pick up one feat that can be changed every day. By picking Open Minded, Chameleons can temporarily increase their knowledge in any skill of their choice — including learning whole new languages on the spot.

    Video Games 
  • In Emerald City Confidential, the knowledge pills at the university allow students to acquire knowledge on virtually any topic automatically, from elocution lessons to public records.
  • Genshin Impact: Deconstructed. The nation of Sumeru prides itself with knowledge and research as a valuable resource per the values of their Archon; the God of Wisdom. Nearly every citizen is required by the Akademiya to wear Akasha Terminals which are Magitek devices that allow people to access info on the fly anytime they need it, essentially being a magic equivalent to the internet, but it comes with the tradeoff of adults being unable to dream in order to rationalize their thoughts. People have become so dependent on the Akasha to have all the answers that they stopped think critically about the information they're receiving. Our heroes take advantage of this by planting false orders in the Akasha to trick the guards into abandoning their posts, allowing them to rescue the Archon from the Akademiya.
  • Mega Man Star Force: Dragon, Pegasus and Leo: The Study Wave is an EM Wave invention that stimulates brain activity and forces knowledge into the minds of the students. Mr. Shepar is opposed to this because students should be allowed to learn from other people rather than machines, and also because it has detrimental effects on the human body. Blair Loude threatens to fire him if he doesn't use it in his class, and with some goading from Libra, Mr. Shepar activates it and puts it on overdrive, endangering the entire school. Once Mega Man puts a stop to it and Mr. Shepar realizes the error of his ways, the school staff begin to consider the ethics of using the Study Wave after coming to the conclusion that it messed with Mr. Shepar's head.
  • Played for laughs in Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc, in which Globox becomes a genius as the result of being dangled upside down for so long that all the blood rushes to his head. He also gains an inexplicable upper-class English accent and an awareness of the Fourth Wall.
  • In Space Colony, a staff member can be placed in a training pod to level up their skills. It costs credits but is faster than having them study in the library, especially if they have a low intelligence stat.
  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, this is the essence of the gameplay mechanic for how the Last Dragonborn learns how to use the Thu'um. For normal mortals, it takes years of learning, meditation, and introspection to learn the essence of a Shout's Words of Power, but Dragons know the Dovahzuul words intrinsically. The Dragonborn, a middle point between Dragon and Mortal, doesn't know it inherently, but can absorb Dragon souls after vanquishing enemy Dragonsnote  and use them to unlock the power behind the Words instead. The Graybeards, the mortal masters of the Thu'um, state this more or less during the in-game tutorial on using the Thu'um after the Last Dragonborn meets them.

    Web Comics 
  • Kevin & Kell had a storyline involving an Intelligence Ray, which was also used to give sentience to a tree.
  • PvP has both played this trope straight and somewhat subverted it: an arc had Skull gain super intelligence after a freak electrical accident which apparently also caused him to gain great knowledge of science, medicine, and engineering (to the extent that literally seconds after the accident, he started listing the physical reasons for his survival). He later decides to go back to what he was before but builds a machine should the need to become intelligent again arise. When later his cat Scratch gains superintelligence, it is handled a smidgen more realistically: yes, he can suddenly talk, but he's shown several times to be actually studying scientific textbooks and he still has a lot to learn about humans, which has caused trouble for him (notably the time he turned the Ottobot into a human-looking robot suit, then tried to take over the Mayor's office...and got unceremoniously thrown in jail).
  • Girl Genius subverts this. Sparks who erupt into their potential but were never given formal education tend to be rather pathetic and do things like baking pies that calm someone when thrown in their face, or training wasps to attack (not effectively).

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation: SCP-028 is a small area within an abandoned storage yard that causes anyone who enters it to instantly gain complete, perfect knowledge about a single random subject. Subjects range from cold fusion to the location of one specific set of car keys (they belong to a Buick LeSabre if you're wondering), to things that will make you Go Mad from the Revelation.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, this happens to Sheen when Jimmy increases the size of his brain so he can pass a test. This ends with Sheen becoming an Evil Overlord with Psychic Powers, of course.
  • Subverted/inverted in one episode of ReBoot: whippersnapper Enzo wants to be smarter so he can help pull his weight, but learning takes too long. So he asks the CPU to just make him the smartest bit in Mainframe, to which it accords by making everyone else dumb as a box of nulls.
  • Avoided in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. While "Phoenix" (the Pilot Episode) claimed the Series 5 implant makes Dr. Hartford a computer wizard, there's plenty of evidence in the series to support that he was already a Genius Bruiser and the implant is merely a way to access some incredibly sophisticated tools he otherwise can't.
    • It's also shown in several instances ("The Power Within," "Ariel," "Supertroopers") that the S5 implants only crank the Rangers' existing abilities up.
  • Similarly avoided in Static Shock. When Richie gains Super-Intelligence, he doesn't really gain any knowledge that he didn't already have; his Gadgeteer Genius tendencies had been present since the beginning of the series, so they just get taken exaggerated, suggesting that the powers really just drastically improved and sped up his problem-solving abilities.
  • A variant in Darkwing Duck: "Disguise the Limit" had him transforming into other characters when he'd see them, and thus inheriting their skills: mad science (Mad Scientist Dr. Bellum), classical music (a random musician in the park), piloting (Launchpad), and hockey (Gosalyn). He also tended to acquire the equipment of said people, too.
  • An episode of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog centres around a "Genius Chip" that does this, and a Sonic Sez about how this doesn't work in real life, and you're going to have to study.
  • The normally-idiotic Grimlock does this to himself by accident in The Transformers, becoming immensely intelligent but finding it hard to fit in with the other Dinobots. He eventually transfers his intelligence to the Technobots (after building them in about five minutes) and returns to his normal idiot self. Strangely, this is probably the all-round smartest action on this page as a result of this trope.
  • Notably averted in Mighty Max. Dr. Zygote, after inventing a machine that manipulates evolution, uses it on himself to become a huge-brained "man of tomorrow". Once he's done this... he's harmless: he has acquired new powers, but he doesn't know how to use them. Sure enough, a dozen episodes later, Zygote is back and has made some practice with his powers. And he's defeated exactly the same way, only this time the machine causes him to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence and not bother anyone again.
  • In the first Ben 10 series, when Ben transforms into Greymatter, he gains intelligence and the ability to construct machines out of spare parts. In Ben 10: Alien Force, his Brainstorm form doesn't appear to gain any building knowledge but does gain an extremely large vocabulary and the desire to show off all of it.
  • An episode of Galaxy High had Doyle use "Brain Blasters" to make himself excel at any subject in school. It was their Drugs Are Bad episode, so...
  • In the Jimmy Two-Shoes episode "Beezy J. Genius", Beezy gets affected by Heloise's Braniac Booster, making him even smarter than Heloise to the point of Insufferable Genius, thus annoying Heloise, being a Jerkass to Jimmy, and even overthrowing Lucius as ruler of Miseryville.
  • Get Ed had an episode where Loogie was zapped by a machine designed to enhance organic computers. This resulted in super-intelligence to the point of creating Bigger on the Inside vacuum cleaners. Unfortunately, if he didn't reverse the process, his brain would grow too big, with messy results.
  • In the Regular Show episode "More Smarter", Rigby is teased because he didn't graduate from high school. He ends up ordering a drink that makes him smarter. It says to take a dose every week; however, he takes a whole bottle. He shows off his knowledge to Mordecai, who then takes some of the drink, and pretty soon they've covered the entire house in algebra equations and started talking to each other in Latin.
  • The Futurama episode "Overclockwise" had Cubert upgrade Bender's intelligence, but it results in Bender's intellect exponentially increasing as time goes on. By the final act of the episode, Bender has become a god and merged with the universe, now more interested in managing the cosmos than engaging in his usual immoral shenanigans.
  • In the pilot of Rick and Morty, seeds Morty has absorbed anally give him temporary intelligence and allows him to recite the square root of pi to several decimal places, despite the fact that he would need to have known pi to several places beforehand to be able to calculate this.
  • Averted in C.O.P.S. (1988), of all places. In "The Case of the Brilliant Berserko", Applied Phlebotinum makes Berserko a genius. This does not automatically make him a knowledgeable; at first, he uses his newfound intelligence to think on his feet and devise clever plans. Only after stealing and reading a load of scientific books he develops Gadgeteer Genius tendencies. There is, however, an example of unexplained knowledge: Brilliant Berserko starts talking in a posh accent the moment he wears the Applied Phlebotinum.