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

It was out of these things, on a daily basis, that Henry seemed to work out who he was. The metaphor of well-trodden neural pathways and formative experiences which have been laid down seems particularly physically expressive here.

Henry was not capable of learning new information, though his knowledge of past events, the Wall Street crash, Pearl Harbor and so on, was clear. Only a very few tiny details of television programs he watched repetitively ever stuck. However, he could learn and retain new motor skills, which led to important understanding of the difference between conscious memory and unconscious. The latter category would include learning how to play tennis or ride a bicycle or even play the piano — things that the brain encodes and transmits to the muscles through conditioning, memories which we come to think of as intuitive.

In all of this revelation, Henry opened up as many questions of the mystery of memory as he answered. MRI scans have helped unpick some of this, but should not be relied on too heavily, Corkin said. She places more faith in the new science of optogenetics, which has begun to understand memory processes at the level of “a specific circuit and the neurotransmitters and brain chemicals that modulate long-term memory.

“The future of memory research will focus on being able to activate or deactivate these circuits in the hippocampus and see how they promote or impair memory function,” Corkin said.

Partly through the physical example of Henry, she has no truck with any more esoteric ideas of mind.

“The mind is the brain in my view. Your mind is not in your big toe. The brain is a very physical structure, it is like your arm, but it has grey matter and white matter and a huge number of cells we are just beginning to understand called glia. All your mind is contained in there,” she said.

As we talk, I wonder if Henry was able to feel things like guilt or regret, emotions with a temporal component.

She suggests not, though “he knew that he’d had a brain operation. He knew not many people had had the operation before him. He never used the word ‘experiment,’ but I think he had the sense of himself as that word. Of the original operation, he once said: ‘I think they possibly did not make the right movement at the right time.’”

However, she did not remind Henry of this too often in the same way that it was too painful, after his parents passed away, to have to let him know, as if for the first time, that they were dead. The amnesia was both a prison and a liberation in this sense. His operation had given Henry by default the kind of concentration on the present to which Buddhist meditation might aspire.

“He was never sad or depressed,” Corkin said. “Though I don’t think any of us would want to change places with Henry. He had a tragic life and he made the best of it. He showed the world you could be saddled with a tremendous handicap and still make an enormous contribution to life. I found his resilience inspirational.”

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