Digging Up David Haller's Memories in 'Legion' Is Bad Science


In the new FX show Legion, the origin of the voices David Haller hears and the visions he sees is a mystery: Audience members unacquainted with the comic books still aren’t sure whether Haller’s schizophrenia symptoms are actually a side effect of his mutant powers or if the mental illness exists side by side with his abilities. But the plot developments of episode two, combined with real research on schizophrenia could reveal the truth — or expose a major inaccuracy in the storyline.

Haller has made it to Summerland in “Chapter 2,” a sort-of mutant retreat center where Dr. Melanie Bird tells him that she thinks his schizophrenia is purely a manifestation of his powers and that it’s time to begin a new type of therapy focused on recalling and reclaiming his memories. He’s pulled into visions and then forced to talk about the intimate memories he saw. These memories have glitches — which may be hiding some disturbing aspects of his past.

But these memories come with a real-world catch: One debilitating symptom of schizophrenia IRL is short and long-term memory impairment. Often, people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia — which includes other symptoms like hallucinations and delusions — have trouble remembering the “where, when, or how” of their past.

Dan Stevens plays David Haller in "Legion."


In 2005, researchers found that alleles of certain genes contributed to the genetic risk of developing schizophrenia. These genes, a team of Finnish scientists argued in JAMA, cause “disruptive effects on the structure and function” of the brain’s prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe, which in turn reduces the brain’s gray matter density and causes impairments in the development of short- and long-term memories.

Researchers took this subject a step further in a 2013 paper published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Their research found that a specific protein, named Rap1, was missing in the brains of people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In healthy brains, Rap1 stimulates cells, allowing the flow of ions through cell channels. When these ions don’t get in, complete memories can’t be formed.

If Haller really does have schizophrenia, then he shouldn’t be able to go back and look at his memories — his illness makes it so that these memories aren’t fully formed in the first place. That should be a big hint to the audience that he isn’t ill at all and that his visions are purely an effect of being a mutant. But — and this is a big but — a huge part of Haller’s identity in the comic books is his schizophrenia. Either that’s being cut out of the series or, more likely, the show goofed on its science.

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