Amnesia

As you can probably tell from the photos in these last two posts, I’ve got Captain America on the brain. Yes, I’ve read some of the critical reviews, and I agree that it’s not as enjoyable as the first film. The first film had a well-rounded story. The second one can be seen more as a piece of the arc that started somewhere before the first Avengers film, runs through the Agents of SHIELD TV show, and is headed toward the second Avengers film. Not bad, just not as satisfying on its own. And yet I still have it stuck in my head. Partly, it’s because I’m fascinated by how all these pieces are being strung together, and my attention span isn’t quite so short that I’ve lost the sense of anticipation at seeing where they go. But partly it’s because of this guy.

Probably all that brain-wiping is why he only knows enough words for 4 lines of dialog. Photo from IMBD.

Probably all that brain-wiping is why he only knows enough words for 4 lines of dialogue. Photo from IMBD.

I’m not sure the Winter Soldier is all that interesting on his own, either. He gets into a few fights and says maybe three or four lines. But I’m still fascinated by him. Is it just me? Is it just because I like ’em dark and broody? (Well, that too.) I think what’s got this character lodged in my brain is the amnesia angle. We’re fascinated by amnesia – it’s what keeps publishers giving us books like Before I Go To Sleep – and I think we’re especially fascinated by what amnesia says about identity. If we don’t remember who we are, than who are we?

Medically speaking, amnesia doesn’t work the way it does in the movies and books. People don’t get conked on the head and totally forget who they are. As the folks at Mayo Clinic say, “Though having no sense of who you are is a common plot device in movies and television, real-life amnesia generally doesn’t cause a loss of self-identity.” Short-term amnesia is more common than long-term; even dementia patients who can’t remember someone they just met may have vivid memories of their childhood. One of the more interesting types of amnesia is anterograde amnesia: the inability to learn new information going forward from the onset. Transient global amnesia is the closest thing to movie amnesia we’ve got: a complete loss of recent events that leaves you unable to remember where you are or why you got there. Bad news for writers, though – it doesn’t take away your older memories or your sense of identity, either, and it’s almost always a short-term effect.

Let me go at this a little more from the writing standpoint. Just because people don’t get knocked on the head and wake up as a blank slate, doesn’t mean you can’t use amnesia in a story. There are many things that can interfere with memory, including various substances. One of the more fascinating articles I came across is about a proposed new treatment for traumatic memories:

He taught several dozen rats to associate a loud noise with a mild but painful electric shock. It terrified them—whenever the sound played, the rats froze in fear, anticipating the shock. After reinforcing this memory for several weeks, Nader hit the rats with the noise once again, but this time he then injected their brains with a chemical that inhibited protein synthesis. Then he played the sound again. “I couldn’t believe what happened,” Nader says. “The fear memory was gone. The rats had forgotten everything.” The absence of fear persisted even after the injection wore off.

The crucial thing here is the mechanism of recall: if you interfere with it, you impair the ability to retrieve a memory. (So guys, do your research. Figure out how this stuff works.) As far as I can tell, this drug hasn’t progressed beyond rat studies, but I’m writing science fiction, so I can project into the future. Which brings us to all kinds of other things. What are the ethical implications to using this kind of drug? How could it be misused? Would a person have regrets after taking the drug? How would he know? Great stuff there, as a story seed.

Which brings us back to dark-and-broody guy. The Winter Soldier’s amnesia is courtesy of the ever-popular scary chair with the electrified helmet thing (a sci-fi trope as deeply embedded as faster-than-light travel, so just go with it and don’t ask too many questions about how it works, okay?) but it still brings up fascinating questions. Can such an amnesia be permanent? The suggestion is, it’s not. Would someone miss memories they don’t know they have? Apparently. Is it a bad idea to treat a human brain like a machine? We’re given a hint that the bad guys might be sorry they did.

Oops, I’m drifting into fan fiction territory again. I do have a habit of launching stories out of fan fiction, though, after heavy modifications. And the amnesia theme isn’t going away – there’s just too much to do with it. It says an awful lot about how our memories form our identity and how significant that is to us.

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