December 5, 2008

"For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it was as if for the first time."

Henry Gustav Molaison -- victim of an experimental brain operation -- dead at 82.
His amnesia did not damage his intellect or radically change his personality. But he could not hold a job and lived, more so than any mystic, in the moment....
He became an extremely useful subject for experiments relating to memory. Through him, scientists discovered the difference between "declarative memory" and "motor learning."
[Molaison] sensed from all the scientists, students and researchers parading through his life that he was contributing to a larger endeavor, though he was uncertain about the details...

He was ... a self-conscious presence, as open to a good joke and as sensitive as anyone in the room. Once, a researcher visiting with Dr. Milner and H. M. turned to her and remarked how interesting a case this patient was.

“H. M. was standing right there,” Dr. Milner said, “and he kind of colored — blushed, you know — and mumbled how he didn’t think he was that interesting, and moved away.”

19 comments:

William said...

He never held a grudge against the doctor who botched the operation.

Maguro said...

Note to self: Don't volunteer for any experimental brain operations.

rhhardin said...

Falling in love must be fun.

Rich Beckman said...

Very similar to the main character in Memento, a great movie.

Henry said...

Too bad H.M. is dead or he could be in a Burger King commercial.

Except perhaps he couldn't, if motor memory applies to taste.

A fascinating article. In defense of the surgeon who performed the operation, H.M. was pretty debilitated by seizures when it was done.

He seems to have been an innately decent person. I liked this quote:

“He was a very gracious man, very patient, always willing to try these tasks I would give him,” Dr. Milner, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University, said in a recent interview. “And yet every time I walked in the room, it was like we’d never met.”

Dr. Milner also has this terrifically funny aside:

Soon “everyone wanted an amnesic to study”

Yachira said...

Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for blogging on this.

former law student said...

It would be nice to be married to someone who didn't remember all of your transgressions.

Roger J. said...

Second Yachira's comment.

MadisonMan said...

He never held a grudge against the doctor who botched the operation.

No, but how could he if he didn't remember it?

Thanks for blogging about this fascinating man. The human brain is just the most interesting organ ever.

Tibore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MrBuddwing said...

I remember (!) reading about "H.M." online some years ago; the article made the point that a few things did stick to his long-term memory over the years. He knew what an astronaut was; he was aware that an important person named "Kennedy" had been assassinated; he had an inkling of what rock-and-roll music was. And that, according to the article, was all that he had "learned" since his operation.

Which is worse, I wonder: To experience retrograde amnesia, in which you lose a big chunk of your memories but can build new ones, or anterograde amnesia, in which you are unable to store new memories, leaving you forever stuck in a past that no longer exists?

I pray I never find out first-hand.

Tibore said...

(Argh... typos. Take 2:...)

Huh. Funny... I was just reading that NYTimes piece after seeing this story on Pure Pendantry, then I come here and see it.

Anyway, this is an utterly fascinating case. It also shows just how much neuroscience is still in it's infancy, even today. Right now, such science is still in the state that general biology was in when taxonomy was the central driving force: Identify phenomena and individual repeatable events, study details to death. It's not quite to the level of basic causes and principles that older disciplines like chemistry and classic physics is at.

Don't take that to mean that neuroscience isn't a science; I'm not saying that at all. I'm merely saying that there's still so much left to discover, and that it's such an incredibly young field that cases like HM end up being paradigm setting.

Now, to HM: I actually thought of Drew Barrymore's character in "50 First Dates" before I thought of "Memento". That fellow must have been a fascinating study. It's wonderful that he (and presumably, his family) were patient with the researchers continual study of him. I can picture many families turning negative and wallowing in self-pity over such a condition, and I must admit, I can't say whether I would've been as accomodating if I were either in his family's position, or HM's. I fear I'd be rather bitter, either if I had to care for such an afflicted individual, or if I was that person myself. That HM wasn't speaks well to his character.

"William said...
He never held a grudge against the doctor who botched the operation."

Well, was it really "botched"? Or was cutting into the hippocampus necessary to access the slivers that the neurosurgeon was targeting? I couldn't tell from the article. Obviously nowadays surgeons know to take care around that area. But back then, that might not have been the case. At risk of being overly pendantic, the fact that the operation had a profoundly negative effect doesn't necessarily mean it was "botched". It might only mean that the best knowledge behind the standards and procedures was insufficient. That's not good, but it's not a mistake either.

Palladian said...

Brain Salad Surgery!

"The human brain is just the most interesting organ ever."

Eh, it's very interesting, but I'd have to place it at the second most interesting organ ever.

veni vidi vici said...

Adds a new twist to the old joke about "together again for the first time"...

When I was still in high school and had thoughts of someday being a brain surgeon, I recall reading about cases where the corpus callosum (that "C" shaped beam that bridges the hemispheres) was severed and patients would develop an ability to truly multiprocess information and tasks; almost literally "having two brains".

As the fellow above said, this field of science is such a wide-open frontier with so much yet unlearned, and it promises to provide profound and likely unsettling insight into what exactly constitutes "the human condition" as it develops.

Great blog topic!

ricpic said...

I think for many artists, the ones who haven't settled for a formula, the ones who are trying for something they can't really "get" till they've groped their way to it, it's very much as it is for this man: every day is the first day of school.

Smilin' Jack said...

Oliver Sacks has written several fascinating essays on cases like this. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat the chapter "The Lost Mariner" describes a man whose memory span has been reduced to a few minutes by alcoholism. And in his latest book Musicophilia he describes a man whose memory span has been reduced to a few seconds by a stroke.

MadisonMan said...

Eh, it's very interesting, but I'd have to place it at the second most interesting organ ever.

Either way, it's the organ that does the most thinking.

LordSomber said...

"Oliver Sacks has written several fascinating essays on cases like this."

Check out his story called "The Last Hippie." It is very much like this case.

Suchita S said...

What struck me the most is that we now know HM's name. This man (and Dr. Milner) provided the foundation upon which practically every significant achievement in the field of memory has built. And, for so many years, his contribution to neuroscience had been anonymous. Reading Milner's articles, you come to care about HM in some way. To finally know his identity is bittersweet.

Thanks for this post.

- Suchita S