Have you ever wished that science could create a Ryan Reynolds just for you? That's very loosely the plot of the actor's upcoming thriller Criminal, which hits theaters on Apr. 15. It's not a spoiler to tell you that Reynolds' character CIA Agent Bill Pope dies in the film. The premise is that Pope's memories are implanted into the brain of a dangerous convict (Kevin Costner) so his colleagues can extract the location of an informant. But as an intellectually resurrected Agent Pope, Jericho Stewart's duties expand and he endeavors to carry out the operative's last mission and reconnect with his family. Unless the federal government is keeping some huge brain science breakthrough from its citizens, Criminal is not based on a true story. But memory implantation is a field of study, and this procedure may be closer to reality than you might think.
Deadline reported in 2013 that Criminal was picked up for development. The script comes from screenwriters Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who are also responsible for Double Jeopardy and The Rock. Those other films show the writers' expertise in dreaming up twisty plots and explosive stunt sequences that are escapist Hollywood fun. The mad scientist set-up of Criminal may seem to put that movie in the same category of action-fantasy, but there are some successful real-world experiments that actually back up some of the theory that narrative is built on.
In 2012, MIT scientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu observed the results of a successful implantation of a false memory into the brain of a mouse. The Smithsonian published a 2014 article on the study, proclaiming Ramirez and Liu's proven thesis: "Not only was it possible to identify brain cells involved in the encoding of a single memory, but those specific cells could be manipulated to create a whole new 'memory' of an event that never happened." The article goes on to consider the implications of such a procedure in humans. Memories make you who you are, though they are tricky and emotional things. Self-preservation tendencies can dull the bad ones, and the subjective nature of memory means that you can experience the same event as someone standing next to you but remember it in a completely different way.
It's an interesting premise for a film; the trailer describes Stewart as remorseless and violent. He receives the memories of a husband and father who lost his life in service of his country. Will those change him?
Other implantation experiments like the famous "Lost In The Mall" study relied on the power of suggestion to rewrite participants' memory of an event. But The Smithsonian reports that Ramirez and Liu manipulated their squeaky subjects by activating small clusters of neuron cells where individual memories live. They're known as "engrams." It's not exactly replaces one full set of memories with someone else's, but it's a start.
The possibilities of this research are great in regard to treating neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease. So though the C.I.A. might get some ideas from Criminal, it's far more likely that the world will see the results of this work in the medical community before the espionage one.
Images: Summit Entertainment; Giphy (2)