Flowers for Algernon Syndrome
Well, that didn't last very long.
Characters are known by their personalities. They are who they are.
In a Flowers for Algernon story a character either:
- gains something that is perceived in general as good (intelligence, for example), or
- loses something that is perceived in general as bad (stupidity or bossy behavior, as examples).
However, by the end of the episode, the character is back to normal
. Sometimes, it's because the character's "normality" is required to solve a problem. Sometimes, it's because the method used to acquire the new ability (or perhaps even the new ability itself) presents an actual danger to the character who has it
(and possibly even others
). At other times, it's a bow to Status Quo Is God
In the Trope Namer
short story Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes (later expanded into a novel), it was a side effect of the imperfect procedure that granted the intelligence in the first place. In the story, the main character, cognitively disabled Charlie, undergoes a surgery that boosts his intelligence. To an astounding degree, as it turns out; his intellectual breadth and knowledge allow him to learn languages of all kinds, science of all branches, surpassing even those that performed the operation. Charlie, though, finds that his intelligence isolates him just as much as his dimness did before it.
Done poorly, this is a warped or family-unfriendly
message that being smart or even above average will make you unhappy
, and the only way to have friends and be acceptable is to be at (or below) their own level. Ignorance is bliss, knowledge is misery.
Sadly, this is sometimes a Truth in Television
, as many geniuses do experience feelings of isolation. Note that how bad the Aesop is depends on how willing the characters are to go back to their former selves and how much the return was based on their own actions.
Done well, this is about accepting who you are
and making the most of what you have instead of relying on artificial enhancements.
The polar opposite of Brought Down to Normal
and Can't Stay Normal
. If the character elects not to accept themselves and overuse the Applied Phlebotinum
, you may have a Fantastic Drug
situation on your hands.
See also We Want Our Jerk Back
, Compressed Abstinence
, Tall Poppy Syndrome
, Loss of Identity
. Compare Pygmalion Snap Back
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- The Spider-Man storyline "Flowers For Rhino" (guess what it was named after): dimwitted Spidey villain Rhino goes through a brain procedure to make him super-intelligent so he isn't treated like shit. The procedure works, but he finds that his intelligence just keeps growing (at one point he rewrites Hamlet due to finding the writing style "sloppy", and later manages to discover Spidey's secret identity through a mathematical equation), until he grows too smart to properly form relationships with people, loses interest due to Measuring the Marigolds (at one point, his love interest calls him a monster, and to his horror, all he can think of is the definition and etymology of the word), and growing boredom and nihilism, as there's no longer anything he can't figure out. The "Algernon" of the story, an ape that went through the same procedure, eventually commits suicide out of boredom. Before he meets the same fate, Rhino orders the surgeons to not only reverse the procedure but make him stupider than he was before "just to be on the safe side". The doctors comply, he goes back to his old life, and he couldn't be happier.
- Bonus: Because of his invulnerability, they have to perform the surgery with an industrial-strength oil drill.
- Double Bonus: He refuses anesthesia for the operation.
- The newspaper comic Tank McNamara did a riff on this trope. Tank gets zapped by one of Dr. Tzapp's experimental machines, and it cures his fumblemouth. Before long, Tank starts fancying himself an incisive critic, and the show's ratings plummet because nobody wants to listen to that. Eventually one of the other characters re-zaps him and he turns into his lovable, fumblemouthed self again.
- Another newspaper comic, Heart of the City, has done this a couple of times, usually with Dean. One arc had him becoming a popular jerk, and a more recent one has him becoming "mature." In most cases, Heart tries to snap him out of it.
- A storyline in The Muppet Show Comic Book featured Animal taking pills to become calmer. Unfortunately, his drumming ability suffered (because All Drummers Are Animals), and the Electric Mayhem had to replace him until he stopped taking the tablets. This may be based on the Real Life story of jazz drummer "Witty Ticcy Ray" (see below).
- Very common story concept in The Beano, especially in the strip The Bash St. Kids. The anniversary comic for that strip basically had this trope happen to the entire class.
- An early storyline in Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog featured Tails eating a fruit that made him into a supergenius. It also made him a stuck up jerk, and he tried to take on Robotnik by himself with his super intelligence. Unfortunately, by the time he reached Robotnik, the fruit's effects wore off and Tails was back to his normal intelligence...meaning the others had to come save him.
- The mutant Prodigy can copy the knowledge or skills of anyone nearby but a mental block keeps him from remembering any of the knowledge after they leave. When he asks Emma Frost to remove the mental block, his exponential intellect makes him an uber-successful world leader who solves a lot of the world's problems through immoral means like carving up his best friend to cure major diseases. He believes himself a benevolent dictator and decides to nuke any country that doesn't go along with him, and his former comrades have to engage in a suicide strike on the White House to stop him. David then wakes up from Emma's telepathic hallucination and realizes he needs to keep a lid until he can handle the knowledge on his own.
- Sabertooth once takes one of Wolverine's claws to the brain, which results in him becoming peaceful and relaxed. It takes a while, but eventually his Healing Factor repairs the damage, and he becomes an even worse psychopath with an increased psychic resistance: Prior to said claw-to-the-temple, Sabertooth could be (at least temporarily) pacified with certain psychic abilities, especially those of Psylocke, which put him in a state he called "the glow". Very Zen Buddhist. Shortly after he heals from Wolverine's attack, he is playing merry hell with the insides of the X-Mansion (having been a prisoner at the time) and Psylocke uses her attack as a last resort... to no effect. Sabertooth explains how that psychic trick doesn't work anymore with a Slasher Smile that is spine-chilling even for HIM.
- Hank McCoy, a.k.a. the Beast, has suffered from this syndrome at least twice in various continuities. His original mutant power was superhuman strength and dexterity and unusually large hands and feet, and it was established early on that he also happened to have genius-level intellect, leading to a career in biochemistry - a Genius Bruiser. He has occasionally suffered from traumas, or performed medical experiments on himself, that made him lose intelligence, turning him into Dumb Muscle. He often has time to see this coming and regret the loss (until something comes along and makes him better). In one continuity, being Dumb Muscle was the status quo for him and he was temporarily enhanced, playing this trope completely straight.
- One issue of a Polish comic book series "Tytus, Romek i A'Tomek" dealt with the misguided education of Tytus (who happens to be a talking, civilized chimp). In order to make him less Book Dumb and more adjusted, professor T. Alent first mindwipes him back to kindergarten, then proceeds to educate Tytus using his crazy inventions, to the point of force-feeding the ape's brain with information. Over the next weeks Tytus gains professor-grade education, receives several academic awards and finally starts burning out. In the end, he breaks into T. Alent's lab, resets his brain again, this time to college level (in his own words, "just a bit above Romek") and resumes his former life.
- One Justice League of America arc has a hyper-dimensional force separate the league and their secret identities into different beings, allowing the heroes to be full-time heroes and the civilian-modes to have normal lives. Two of them were not happy about this. Plastic Man's normal self Eel O'Brian, who doesn't like the idea that he can't be Plastic Man again. When talking about this to Martian Manhunter's civilian identity John Jones, he even mentions Flowers for Algernon. Bruce Wayne and Batman didn't fare too well either. The anger that made Bruce into Batman stayed with Bruce. Batman lost all motivation to be a crime fighter and Bruce lost control because he no longer had an outlet for his anger.
- Charly, the below mentioned film of the book, is almost as famous as the book it's based on.
- This trope is the major plot point of a 1990 movie starring Robin Williams, Awakenings, which has some basis on real life and describes the treatment of catatonic patients with a then-new drug called L-Dopa.
- Disney's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969). A computer student has the knowledge and abilities of a computer downloaded into his brain, leading to multiple problems and opportunities. By the end of the movie he's lost everything he gained and is normal again.
- Rookie of the Year. A kid gains a Major League caliber pitching arm from an accident. Another accident sees him lose that ability in his last game and have to bluff his way through the final inning.
- The Lawnmower Man. A modern adaptation of the Flowers for Algernon story: a mentally-challenged gardener, Jobe Smith, is raised to super-human intelligence with the use of medication and virtual reality with unintended consequences. Incidentally, it has nothing to do with the Stephen King story of the same title. It's hinted that Jobe would have inevitably gone crazy from the medication he was given initially, as it was a milder version of the one that Dr. Angelo had made for the government. When they switched the drugs, it simply sped up the process.
- Limitless features a drug that enhances your intelligence, but only temporarily. Long term usage causes addiction, and mixing with alcohol and/or taking too much makes you lose complete control of yourself. If you stop after becoming addicted, your body becames incredibly frail, most people die from it. The protagonist's ex ended up looking like a meth addict. At the end, the protagonist figures out a way to wean himself off the drug while keeping the effects. Or maybe he was lying about the weaning himself off it part, it's left ambiguous.
- In Ernest Goes to School, our hero's usual mutton-headedness was cured with the help of a Subatomic Brain-Accelerator invented by a couple of rather overqualified high school teachers. True to form, Smart Ernest was a complete jerk, and his friends were happy when the effect wore off just in time for him to take his exit exams the old-fashioned way.
- In The Bourne Legacy, "Outcome" operatives are given intelligence-boosting pillsnote . Aaron Cross reveals that he used to be 12 IQ points below the Army recruitment minimumnote , which made his fear of losing the boost very serious. You can see the Blue meds start to wear off before Marta starts viraling him off (IE: making the alterations permanent).
- Flowers for Algernon is the Trope Namer. The book, however, strongly avoids the "ignorance is bliss" aesop; Charlie is horrified when he finds out that he'll lose his high intelligence, and the depiction of his mental degeneration is absolutely heartbreaking. Also, both the film and the book imply that, as Algernon died after his intelligence degraded, Charlie doesn't have long to live either.
- One of the alternate trope names, "The Algernon Gordon Effect", is an in-universe thesis describing this trope. Charlie's own research while he's super intelligent predicts what is going to happen.
- Invoked and then defied in Understand by Ted Chiang: a man has been through an accident that destroyed a lot of his brain cells and gets an experimental treatment that works too well, giving him Super Intelligencenote . The trope comes into play when the protagonist — in case he meets another "enhanced" person that opposes him — devises a technique that reverts enhanced minds to normal. When he tries it, however, the adversary shrugs it off.
- In Animorphs, Tobias overstays his morph as a hawk and ends up stuck that way for a considerably long time. Later, a Sufficiently Advanced Alien known as the Ellimist restores his morphing power and allows him to morph into his own human form, with the same rules as earlier. Though he could return to human form permanently, he chooses not to, both because he wants to stay in the war and because he actually prefers his hawk form. This is actually an inversion of the trope, though, since Tobias wants to stay in his altered form and not his original one.
- In John DeChancie's Living With Aliens, the main character starts out as a below-average teenage boy who befriends a pair of eccentric, stoner, renegade aliens. They offer him "smart pills", which greatly boost his intelligence into high genius levels. Since the story is written in first person, the effects of the intelligence drugs change the prose as the story goes along. Eventually, the pills wear off slightly, but enough of the effect lasts that he's able to maintain membership in Mensa.
- In the My Teacher Is an Alien book series, unintelligent bully Duncan Dougal has his brain fried into a more intelligent state in the second book, and later becomes horrified when learning that he may lose this intelligence.
- Although Duncan was never actually stupid, he merely bullied because he grew up in an abusive household. Becoming a genius gave him some perspective, and even though he will return to normal intelligence, it's implied that Duncan will be much wiser as a result of seeing his potential.
- Detritus becomes temporarily hyper-intelligent after being locked in a meat locker, but it is explained that the optimum temperature for his silicon-based brain is also close to fatal for trolls. After he is rescued, his supercomputer-level intelligence largely goes away, but he receives a cooling helmet to make him smarter for the rest of the series.
- Subverted in the Xanth novel Ogre, Ogre. Smash Ogre is made intelligent by an Eye Queue vine, drastically complicating his life. He later learned that this shouldn't have worked, since Eye Queue vines only give their "victims" the illusion of boosted intelligence. He eventually learns that the Eye Queue vine just provided him with an excuse to demonstrate that he was smart all along.
- A different Xanth novel further reveals that ogres aren't particularly stupid at all-their Hulk Speak, low IQ, and lack of conventional manners are entirely based on the prejudices of others. If one lets go of the notion that ogres are stupid slobs who act like they were raised in someone else's stolen barn, one gains the capacity to see them behaving just like anyone else (which means that Xanthian prejudice is strong shit). One ogre gets the Flowers for Algernon treatment at least three times over the course of the book as the viewpoint character repeatedly forgets that ogres aren't as stupid as he's always been taught.
- Also subverted in the Isaac Asimov story "Lest We Remember". The protagonist, a middle-manager at a pharmaceutical company, receives an experimental treatment which gives him perfect memory; after it becomes inconvenient to his bosses, they try to administer an antidote. He resists and bangs his head in the scuffle, and then manages to convince them—falsely—that he's lost his perfect memory as a result of the head injury.
- In the second book of the Chronicles of Prydain, the main characters encounter The Wise Prince Adaon. Adaon has heightened senses, psychic dreams, is a Warrior Poet with keen insight into people, etc. When Adaon dies, he gives Taran (the teenage main character) a brooch of his, and Taran begins to experience some of the heightened senses and psychic dreams and visions, making him feel for the first time something like the hero he has always wanted to be. He does have to give it up though, and for a good reason: it's the only thing a trio of super powerful witches will trade for the Artifact of Doom that they are on a quest to destroy.
- In the Stephen King short story The End of the Whole Mess, a young genius discovers how to rid everyone in the world of their violent impulses. He and his brother complete the task in a few years, but they were unaware of a terrible side effect: early onset Alzheimer's. The story is narrated by the brother as the effects catch up to him.
- In Scott Aaronson's short story On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality, the protagonist Ilyssa does the second half to herself, even explicitly referencing Flowers for Algernon in case the audience didn't get it.
Live Action TV
- In Tom the Dancing Bug, "Flowers for Trinitron" uses Phlebotinum Induced Stupidity to create this trope. A television causes stupidity. A man is watching NYPD Blue when the cable goes out. The man, cut from TV, becomes gradually smarter over the next six days. He reads East of Eden, volunteers at a homeless shelter, and shifts his handwriting from print to cursive. He is about to destroy his TV, when the cable comes back and Wheel of Fortune comes on. The man soon reverts to stupidity.
- Drabble did this one week when Ralph was unable to figure out his new remote control and decided to read for entertainment. He found that doing so made him smarter. Also, because he couldn't hold a book and food at the same time, he started to lose weight. Just as his wife was telling her mother about the change, Ralph became smart enough to use the remote and returned to normal.
- Next To Normal subverts this twice, in that neither the medication nor the ECT worked, as they were supposed to, in the first place.
- In the Let's Play of Fallout 2 Trogg overdoses on Mentats, and becomes a near-genius from a barely sentient troglodyte. He realizes what he was doing and sets out to atone. When the effects wear off, though, he reverts to his old self, not understanding why he did things he did. In fact, he even becomes dumber than he originally was for a while (as a side effect of the Mentat withdrawal).
- Funnily enough, there is autistic weapons upgrader in New Reno Arms basement who is a reference to and named after Flowers for Algernon. Trogg accidentally kills him.
- In Kanon, Makoto suffers from this. It turns out that Makoto was actually a fox, and she picked up the name because when Yuichi was younger, he took care of the injured fox, and told it that Makoto Sawatari was the name of a girl he liked at the time, then had to abandon her when she got better and he had to leave the town he was visiting during summer vacation. When Yuichi comes back to live in the town 7 years later, he runs into her fox form again, and she makes a wish that allows her to turn into a human girl. Unfortunately, the wish has 2 catches to it. The first is that it'll cause her to lose her memory, and the second one is that it'll eventually take her life away. As Yuichi gradually opens up to her, she begins to forget ever being a human and gradually gets sicker. Her strong feelings for him allow her a small Hope Spot, but eventually she dies, or rather, fades away.
- Fighter of 8-Bit Theater becomes temporarily intelligent after Black Mage's millionth of so attempt to assassinate him. Black Mage, figuring out that Fighter's new intelligence won't last, decides to save some time and stab his brain back into stupidity. Which happens a second before Fighter can communicate the solution he devised to the team's current problem.
- Also happens twice (albeit very briefly) to Black Mage, in both the Marsh Cave and the Castle of Ordeals. On the first occasion, he was thinking about his polar opposite, White Mage, and realized that perhaps he should change his murderous, spiteful way of life and become a better person. This goes down the drain the second his thoughts are interrupted by anger at another of Fighter's stupid statements.
- In the Castle, each member of the team got faced with the manifestation of their worst sin. The whole Castle is a place for the chosen warriors to defeat their own bad side and become the pure and good heroes they are supposed to be. The problem is, Black Mage loves being evil. So much, in fact, that where all other sins look like monsters, his are represented by himself, because nothing else exists to adequately represent how evil he is. He kills the clone and achieves purity... but is revealed to have set up a magic spell beforehand that would channel all the residual evil energy back into himself, thus keeping him as he was.
- Ctrl+Alt+Del: Ethan becomes normal after being electrocuted and falling out of a power-line trying to get the Internet back. His friend Lucas and wife Lilah are so used to his wacky antics that they start to compensate by acting crazy themselves (Zeke the robot is unaffected), which has the unusual consequence of actually having consequences — Ethan has Lilah cosplay as video game characters during sex and it's normal; Lucas asks his girlfriend to paint her boobs like Kirby and Jigglypuff and she dumps him (again); Ethan stays up for days playing video games and he's fine; Lilah stays up for days and she's a wreck who wants to cut off her eyelids. Ethan becomes so afraid for his loved ones that he electrocutes himself six times trying to get back to "normal" and when he remembers he also hit his head he... goes to a doctor, who tells him that he got a brain injury that will slowly go back to "normal"; as for his friends they don't remember anything from their seven weeks (real time) in crazy town.
- In The Order of the Stick, Belkar is normally a psychotic mass murderer, but in one strip, Varsuvius uses a spell to increase his Wisdom, at which point he realizes the error of his ways and vows nonviolence. This lasts for all of about 15 seconds before the spell is dismissed.
- After drinking an energy shot, Greg of Real Life Comics instantly become superintelligent. Thankfully, that was resolved by a whack in the head by a frying pan.
- In the latest story arc of Flaky Pastry, Nitrine gets a conscience. She got better, though.
- Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) has one chapter on "Witty Ticcy Ray", a man with severe Tourette's Syndrome who takes Haldol during the week to control his tics, but forgoes his medication on weekends where his condition actually enhances his wild jazz drumming.
- Also, his patients suffering from Sleeping Sickness for decades recovered after he gave them L-Dopa. He writes about them in his book Awakenings (later a movie starring Robin Williams). Unfortunately, as the patients developed resistance to the drug, its effects wore off and they all went back to sleep.
- Happened to yet another patient of his with a different disease: syphilis. Some forms of syphilis can cause mental problems, such as dementia and seizures. For this patient, though, she actually liked the effects so far - she was adapting to the disease fine, it was just making her slightly manic. The challenge for her and Dr. Sacks was to find a treatment that would prevent the disease from getting any worse, but not reverse the effects so far.
- The trick to it is that the neurological damage caused by syphilis is irreversible. The standard penicillin regiment used to treat the disease anyways, should have accomplished exactly what they wanted.
- Dr. Sacks did indeed give her penicillin when she requested treatment, and she stayed "frisky" (to use her words) without fear of getting worse.
- And then the story was reused for a clinic patient in House.
- People whose severe ADHD responds very well to medication can get something like this effect. While it doesn't change their personalities, it can make them so much less impulsive, and make it so much easier to concentrate, that they seem like completely different people while taking medication. But it's not all positive—ADHD on medication may let you concentrate when you like, but many say they lose some of their creativity, as well as losing the ability to "hyperfocus" (to concentrate exclusively on one thing, forgetting the rest of the world even exists) in exchange for a more typical type of concentration. Not to mention withdrawal symptoms which can range from fatigue to thoughts of suicide.
- Bipolar disorder, too. Nobody's disputing that going manic and hallucinating that you're the Virgin Mary is a bad thing, but there's also no denying that being manic feels good and makes you very creative, outgoing, and generally more fun to be around (at least before you get paranoid or get the delusion you're invulnerable and kill yourself by accident...) People with bipolar disorder often miss their manias while they're on medication, and stopping medication can get really tempting.
- A lot of people have discovered that, despite the lack of enhanced creativity, they are far more productive while stabilised by medication. Why? Turtle beats the hare; being able to steadily work on things all the time gets more done than occasional hyperactive spurts (which get gradually more incoherent) followed by long periods of depression. Which makes the disorder an example of the trope done well.
- People who suffer from depression often feel that the emotions they experience during a "down" period, while terrible, are at least authentic and so preferable to the artificial sense of complacency they get while on medication. Some refuse to take medication for this reason.
- Reports of this happening with Prozac are quite common; in fact one scientist wrote a book about the subject called Listening to Prozac.