Wed, May 08, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The man without memories

When an operation left Henry Molaison unable to form new memories, he became the most important patient in the history of brain science. Neurologist Suzanne Corkin worked with ‘HM’ for 46 years and her new book is both a case study and a fond memoir

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer

She laughs a little.

“I feel that in a way he is not gone,” she said. “Partly because I have been writing this book, but also because when he died he donated his brain to MIT. So we continue to study him. He has gone, but is still very present for us every day.”

There is an estranging moment at the end of Corkin’s book, where in the hours after his death Henry’s brain is removed from his skull and Corkin gets to look at the physical object she has been probing with her questions for most of her adult life. She describes that moment with a mixture of high scientific excitement and human loss. When she looked at the “tofu-like” mass of that organ, did the neuroscientist have a sense of it being the man she had known?

“Well,” she says, “he will always be a real person for me. I tried to understand his brain when he was alive and now he is dead it is just another way of getting to know him better.”

After being preserved in formaldehyde, Henry’s brain was sent to a lab in San Diego, California, where it has been sliced into 4,201 fine sections, on slides, as a permanent neurological research resource, soon to be available online.

“Some people say Henry has been translated into 4,201 objects,” Corkin said, “but I don’t see him like that.”

One of the fascinating, unsettling impulses in reading Henry’s life is that sense of identity being a bundle of all of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Henry loved to relate the few clear memories of his childhood, over and over, though he lacked a context for them and the face he surprised himself with in the mirror each morning did not quite connect with them.

Corkin heard those stories many times over the years; every time she left the room for a minute and returned to Henry he introduced himself as if they had never met before, and told the stories again. Some were the family lore of how his father had moved north from Louisiana; others involved going roller skating as a child in the park, taking banjo lessons, driving with his parents along the Mohawk Trail.

“The interesting and important thing scientifically about these stories was that he would give you the gist of them, but they were never linked to a specific time and place,” Corkin said. “You and I can say what we did on our last birthday, but Henry could never remember what else happened. There were no connections, no associations for him in that way.”

In talking to Henry and testing his recall over all those years, Corkin discovered only two exceptions to that rule. One was a plane ride that Henry took as a teenager, as a present for graduation from junior high school. The other was an occasion he stole a cigarette from his father and smoking it made him sick, and he got into trouble with his parents. Both of these stories Henry could describe in quite obsessive emotional detail distinct from anything else he talked about. Again, this offered insights into the way memory functioned. In the case of the plane ride there was the anticipation of it, the buying of the tickets, all of the detail of the flight itself, sights and sounds, and then the telling of it to others once it was over.

“It was clear that he had encoded all that information and stored it across many parts of his brain,” Corkin said. “All memories are not stored in one specific spot. Strong memory is a creative process that takes in sights and sounds and textures and emotions, so a really important memory will link with all of these areas of the brain. And when we recall it there is a creative process of putting it all together. Similarly with the smoking incident, that appears to have been very emotional also. So, a very negative experience and a very positive one.”

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