Stories where someone learns something ridiculously fast
October 2, 2012 5:32 AM   Subscribe

Can you recall stories where a character learns an enormous amount of information in a short amount of time and performs an amazing feat? (The Matrix: Neo learns kung fu, Superman: Superman reads a library of medical texts and performs a life-saving surgery, etc.)

I get the impression that I've seen this frequently, but nothing outside of The Matrix and Superman comes to mind. Is this a new theme or a very old one?
posted by sdis to Society & Culture (45 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Data does this often in Star Trek: TNG.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 5:34 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Meteor Man, you touch a book and you absorb it's knowledge so a fight scene ensues where both characters touch a kung fu book, and then later they both touch a how to runway walk book and it's hilarious.

Good movie.
posted by one4themoment at 5:38 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

The John Travolta vehicle "Phenomenon" has his character learning most of the Portuguese language from a book during a short car ride.
posted by DWRoelands at 5:40 AM on October 2, 2012

Stargate SG1
Jack O'Neill receives the entire 'ancient' database via some sort of terminal, and uses that knowledge to do some pretty fantastic stuff
posted by one4themoment at 5:40 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

The television show Chuck is based on this idea.
posted by Grither at 5:42 AM on October 2, 2012

Jean Gray of the XMen absorbs the knowledge of how to fly a space shuttle then proceeds to land it in the ocean, beginning the Phoenix Saga.
posted by skittlekicks at 5:45 AM on October 2, 2012

Battlefield Earth: The aliens decide they should put the guy in a machine that teaches him how to fly a fighter jet and defeat the aliens. You'll never guess what happens next.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 5:47 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Short Circuit! Need input!
posted by jozxyqk at 5:50 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is what the TV show Dollhouse was about.
posted by escabeche at 5:51 AM on October 2, 2012

This is the Instant Expert Trope. The list provided includes highlights like Leela from the 5th element learning English in a day, and the We Need a Montage song from Team America: World Police.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:54 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

"When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?"

"Last night."

Maria Hill and Tony Stark, "The Avengers"
posted by inturnaround at 5:59 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the infamous TOS episode Spock's Brain, McCoy mostly learns how to convert Spock back from brain-in-jar status.
posted by radwolf76 at 6:00 AM on October 2, 2012

Limitless is a flawed film about a guy who takes pills that make him able to learn prodigious amounts of information.
Flowers for Algernon, a short story, made into a novel, made into a film called Charly, is about a developmentally-challenged man who is medically transformed into a genius.

posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:01 AM on October 2, 2012

Fred Hoyle's 1957 book The Black Cloud had something kind of like this, except that (spoiler!) all the new information makes the recipients' brains swell up, and they die.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:10 AM on October 2, 2012

Kung Fu Panda - where it is proven in a way that is not at all propagandistic that all an out of shape American panda needs is courage, innovation and a day or so to become more effective at something complex, technical, disciplined and challenging kung fu than a group of Chinese other creatures, who have studied it devotedly for years.

Also, The Bourne Identity. Bourne studies the Paris road map for a jiffy and then zips about with the sense of location, pace and care for other people's vehicles of .. pretty much any Parisian cab driver.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:13 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the film Phenomenon, John Travolta's character pages through a Portugese-English dictionary and twenty minutes later, is speaking fluently.
posted by allseeingabstract at 6:15 AM on October 2, 2012

Ted Chiang's Understand is amazing
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 6:22 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't remember the movie, but it was probably late 80s/early 90s. The premise was something like these highschoolers figured out a way to speed learn, and the guy could literally flip the book pages in front of his face and know everything the book had in it. It had something to do with a team trivia challenge with a rival high school.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:29 AM on October 2, 2012

Larry Niven's short story "The Fourth Profession" involves an alien race trading in knowledge in pill form.
posted by neilbert at 6:32 AM on October 2, 2012

The first Geoff Johns teen titans story has impulse/kid flash break his leg and spend the time it takes to recover in a library learning pretty much everything at super speed.
posted by purplemonkeydishwasher at 6:37 AM on October 2, 2012

Doesn't Arnold Schwarzenegger learn to drive a car by reading the manual in the (terrible, terrible) movie Twins?
posted by mskyle at 6:41 AM on October 2, 2012

Leeloo learns all about human culture from some sort of electronic encyclopedia in the Fifth Element. In alphabetical order.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:45 AM on October 2, 2012

In Dr. Who, Donna 'becomes' part Time Lord and uses the knowledge that comes with it to defeat the Daleks.
posted by youngergirl44 at 6:53 AM on October 2, 2012

At the end of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, the protagonists use their time machine to go elsewhere and learn to play guitar (and become fathers). They're gone for just a moment in the present, but it's 16 months on their timeline (according to Wikipedia).
posted by Sock Ray Blue at 6:54 AM on October 2, 2012

Kaos from Gunnm/Battle Angel Alita learned sword skills by reading the memories of the sword itself.
posted by mkb at 6:58 AM on October 2, 2012

Marvel Comics: Taskmaster is a mutant villain who can learn the physical talents of others through observation. They call it "photographic reflexes." Typically, rather than jumping into the front lines himself, he makes his living by training mooks for other villains & bad guy organizations.

Justice League of America: the villain Prometheus wears a helmet that can provide him with the fighting skills of others (including Batman) as programmed onto a disk.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 7:16 AM on October 2, 2012

Also, The Karate Kid (original): in what is clearly much less than a single school year, a teen learns enough karate to compete and win against multiple black-belt teens in a major tournament. Not exactly "super" fast, but certainly stretching the bounds of credibility just the same.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 7:20 AM on October 2, 2012

In Stargate Atlantis, Dr. McKay uses a machine meant to speed up ascension; it makes his brain work faster and due to that, he makes scientific breakthroughs. It's part learning from the Ancients, part teaching himself.

X-Men has the character Sage whose mutant ability is to process insane amounts of information at once. She is often shown playing chess, learning languages and solving advanced math problems at once. She's not always learning, but can use this ability to pick up skills in no time.
Professor Xavier occassionaly uses his telepathy in a similar way. I remember a story where he has to perform surgery and teaches himself everything he needs to know by mentally tapping into surgeons' minds. It isn't said if he keeps the knowledge after the surgery.

In The 4400, Isabelle Tyler catches up on her missed childhood/school by reading encyclopedias within days. She also grew up from a toddler to a young adult over night.

In Criminal Minds, Dr. Reid often reads through tons of books in short time. Might or might not qualify; he only gathers information, not skills.
posted by MinusCelsius at 7:40 AM on October 2, 2012

Ice Princess: She learns how to be an elite figure skater by studying the physics of fellow skaters in a few months.
posted by wingless_angel at 7:57 AM on October 2, 2012

"In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione Granger uses a time-turner in order to attend all of her classes. She opted to take every single elective offered at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry even though the classes often had simultaneous lessons, so it was necessary for her to apply for a time-turner. She would not have been able to take all of these class without manipulating time."

This more or less fits your definition, if you are experiencing "real time" as opposed to "time-turned time".
posted by guy72277 at 8:08 AM on October 2, 2012

In My Stepmother is an Alien, Kim Bassinger's character learns about human culture and history by touching books and absorbing all the containted information.
posted by jadepearl at 8:11 AM on October 2, 2012

This sort of fits. The Sixth Finger.
posted by timsteil at 8:12 AM on October 2, 2012

In Forbidden Planet both Morbius and the doctor of the Belarathon use a "teaching machine" that expands their minds and lets them learn the secrets of the Krell, the former in backstory, and the later on screen.
posted by radwolf76 at 8:25 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
posted by banshee at 8:50 AM on October 2, 2012

The Incredible Book Eating Boy.
posted by Dansaman at 8:57 AM on October 2, 2012

In Season 6 episode 20 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow absorbs the knowledge from all the dark magic books in the magic shop and goes on to do very bad things.
posted by platinum at 8:59 AM on October 2, 2012

In The Lawnmower Man, Job goes from idiot to genius by plugging in.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:10 AM on October 2, 2012

Flowers For Algernon. He learns what was wrong, falls in love, becomes arrogant, then forgets it all. The mouse died.
posted by mule98J at 9:14 AM on October 2, 2012

Star Trek, TNG, there's an episode where Picard lives somebody else's whole life in a day of real time (something about preserving the memory of a lost culture).
posted by acm at 9:30 AM on October 2, 2012

The film Dark City [SPOILER] features a substance that transfers/overwrites all the memories and experience of an entire life when injected into a human brain. The protagonist is injected with a blank syringe that doesn't overwrite his memories but augments them with a lifetime's worth of learning to finely control his latent psionic powers.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:46 AM on October 2, 2012

As I recall, that's one way that microsoft is used in Neuromancer.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:26 PM on October 2, 2012

The mermaid in Splash (Daryl Hannah) learns English in a day by watching TV.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:50 PM on October 2, 2012

This is a little off beat and a minor plot point, but it's still there.

In the movie Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo diCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, con-man. He's seeing a nice woman and claims to have a medical degree from Harvard (nope), a law degree from Berkeley (nopity nope), and to have practiced law for a couple of years (still nope). Her father is quite impressed and says that he'll give Abagnale a job in his firm. All he has to do is pass the bar in Louisiana.

He does.

When he's finally caught, the FBI agent asks how he passed. Did he pay someone to take the test for him? Did he steal copies of the test ahead of time? Was the proctor in on it? Did he fake the test after the fact or change the results once they had been recorded?

The answer was very simple. He studied, really hard, for two weeks, and passed it legitimately.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:09 PM on October 3, 2012

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