I dunno if anyone’s done this before but whatever. Specifically, I want to talk about Bucky’s brain in relation to the cannibalized MRI thing they strapped on his noggin in CA:TWS. Like what the hell is that thing, how old is it, what are you trying to do HYDRA, is this one of those weird dryer things you stick your whole head in at the hairdresser’s? They have had 70 years to perfect this technology and it looks like a high schooler’s science fair project. There aren’t even any electrodes. Seriously there should be electrodes not only because they’re kind of necessary for this sort of thing but also because who would object to Bucky Barnes looking totally punk rock with a partially-shaved head? No one, that’s who.
But I guess let’s just assume the plate things themselves are in contact with his head and transmitting the charge themselves. Okay. That’s a big area they cover and approximately zero opportunity for finesse, so they can’t localize the damage at all. And there’s still all that hair in the way. But whatever, I’ll shut up about the hair.
So the plate things are basically concentrated on the prefrontal cortex, which is at the very front of the brain, behind the forehead where the plates are located. I mean there looks like there are plates going around around the back of the head but if it only goes as deep as the cerebrum they don’t want to damage anything back there because it’s all motor skills and balance and sensory perception and language centers, all of which were vital in the Winter Soldier’s functioning.
So yeah, the prefrontal cortex seems to be what they’re targeting, and the prefrontal cortex is for short term memory and decision making. However, it would be indescribably stupid to damage short term memory retention, so I don’t think they’d just fry the entire prefrontal cortex. Especially if it could compromise his ability to make quick, logical decisions in the field because the prefrontal cortex is important for logic and impulse control. So I would assume that they’re targeting the connections between the short term and long term memory storage systems rather than taking away his short term memory altogether.
Basically, recalling a memory that’s stored in long-term is just the brain returning it to the short-term memory center, or the working memory, concentrated in the prefrontal cortex. From there your brain literally refires all the neurons that fired during that experience, without compromising awareness of current circumstances. So severing those connections between long and short term memory would not only stop him retaining new memories, it would stop him recalling old ones.
They could be messing with his long term memory, except there are no intracranial bits and bobs that could actually penetrate deeper than the cerebrum without frying everything in between, and the hippocampus and amygdala where long term memory is stored are in there deep.
This picture doesn’t do justice to how deep in the brain the hippocampus and amygdala are, but it works well enough as a visual aid. You don’t want to damage the amygdala in a super soldier at any rate because that’s where the survival instincts are kicking around. Also, damaging the hippocampus on both sides of the brain would turn him into a potato, unable to retain any information at all, not even how to discharge his weapon, so you’d basically have to retrain him anew for every mission. And this contraption has clearly no finesse at all, as stated above, so I really don’t think they’d be able to destroy anything only partially or make any localized alterations.
And sure, maybe they actually opened up his head at some point in the past to get at long term memory storage, and the cryofreeze might stop that from healing, but I think the understanding of the brain was so ridiculously limited at that time that they didn’t really even know how to avoid excessive damage, and I don’t think they would have risked rendering one of their best assets brain dead. Honestly, I think the most likely thing they did was supplement the physical stuff with more traditional brainwashing and conditioning techniques.
So really, all Bucky needs to do is repair the connections between his long term and short term memory. Even with all this damage, the brain is adaptable even in normal humans. When certain parts are damaged, other parts can take over functioning in their stead. Although in this case, if the connections between long and short term memory were cut every time he went into the cryogenic chamber, he never would have stored any of the information gleaned as the Winter Soldier past the short term unless he managed to catch enough sleep to transfer those memories into long term storage before he got zapped or frozen again. So he would potentially remember everything about being Bucky Barnes fairly quickly, assuming his super soldier healing could repair those pathways or create new ones to compensate, and he would never remember most of his time as the Winter Soldier except what they wanted him to remember and let him encode before they took out those connections again. So basically, his combat training, his obedience training, and all that hydra indoctrination crap.
His old memories as Bucky would remain relatively pristine, because the more we view a memory the more current circumstances during the recollection alter it, and what you remember becomes less and less similar to what you actually experienced at the time. So instead of memories slowly changing and evolving as the person themself changes, which is what normally happens as we revisit memories and subtly alter them over time through new perception, Bucky would have this huge, disorienting, sickening divide between the well-preserved, untouched old memories of how he used to be and any new ones he managed to create as the Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier memories will be less fleshed out, have more holes, be generally more ghost-like because of how they fucked with his brain and memories, so it would be easy for him to dissociate with them and to ignore them, but in order to ignore them Bucky would also have to ignore their consequences. He would be denying a part of himself. And he wouldn’t be able to deal well with their fallout, with the ways those experiences changed him, because he wouldn’t let himself examine them.
Honestly this is horrifying in its own way. All the fic I’ve read talks about how horrible it must be for the Winter Soldier to forget Bucky Barnes, but very little touches on how horrible it would be for Bucky to be all there and have a stranger in his head that he has few, dissociated memories of, but still retains a lot of that conditioning and finds himself acting like someone he doesn’t even remember being. He would feel betrayed by his own body and his own mind, doing things without knowing why he was doing them. I feel like not being the same Bucky as the one who went off to war would be so frustrating to him. Fics paint it as Steve being frustrated by the fact that Bucky’s no longer the same person, but I think Bucky himself would be far more frustrated by that fact than Steve. I think the fact that he’s not the same would bother him more than Steve’s longing for him to be the same, because he would understand that longing, share it even. I think he would dissociate from the foreign Winter Soldier part of himself, would try to bury it or force it out instead of facing it, would hate whatever memories he did retain from that time, because the Winter Soldier terrifies everyone but I think he would terrify Bucky most of all. And it would make sense, too. After all, the winter soldier was always supposed to be a ghost, the unseen threat, the silent killer, and I think, rather than inhabiting Bucky, the Soldier would haunt him, something he can’t prepare for or fight unless he’s willing to look through the dark to find it and confront it.
“come now,” i might say then. “is there really no secret face that you keep turned from the world? are there no truths you would keep hidden, like a moth fluttering in the dark? no fears—especially with mage and templar at each other’s throats—of what tomorrow might bring?” – from the riddle of truth by joanna berry, a short story about grand duchess florianne de chalons