At the age of 27, Henry Gustave Molaison underwent a life-saving round of brain surgery for his severe case of epilepsy, losing half of his hippocampus and most of his amygdala in the process. The procedure cured Henry of his epilepsy, but also destroyed his memory. Unfortunately, Henry’s surgery took place in 1953, and at the time doctors believed the hippocampus to be in charge of the sense of smell and nothing else – an inconvenience to lose, but certainly worth losing to cure epilepsy. Henry’s doctors were entirely incorrect. Losing this very important memory center wiped out much of Henry’s past memory and destroyed his ability to create new ones. Henry lived the rest of his life with half a minute of memory, a life permanently in the present. And while this destroyed Henry’s ability to care for himself, he spent the rest of his life in a specialized nursing home, his ordeal greatly advanced the science of memory and his actions show that even in terrible circumstances, people can still live happily.
This story starts with an action by a doctor who did not understand. The surgeon who operated on Henry, Dr. Scoville, knew he was performing a risky procedure. The technique had worked wonderfully for curing epilepsy in a number of patients, but two test subjects had also developed severe amnesia. Scoville ignored these warning signs and performed the surgery anyways. Even though he likely did save Henry’s life, Scoville later came to regret his decision, saying that he should have acknowledged these cases and researched alternative approaches.
Out of this failure to take in data, however, came a response by someone who did understand. The reaction of Henry to the procedure was so dominant that neuroscience instantly understood the hippocampus to have some role in memory. It had taken three trials and three errors, but the medical community finally grasped the significance of the brain region they were dealing with. Additionally, Henry agreed to take part in a wide range of experiments and trials throughout his life, providing the medical community with valuable new data on how the brain works. Henry’s sacrifice has led to increased knowledge and safety in neuroscience.
Even more than the medical community’s response, Henry’s actions truly represent an individual who understands the world around him. Even though he never formed new long-term memories and could only perceive the immediate past and present, Henry fully realized that his memory was artificially horrible and that he had probably had a medical procedure at some time. Furthermore, Henry often astonished researchers with his observational ability. At one point Henry deduced he was in MIT’s labs even though nobody had mentioned MIT for quite some time. Henry had seen a student wearing an MIT sweatshirt walk by the door, and instantly understood the situation from far less information than most people with an entire brain would need. The most important lesson that Henry demonstrates is that we have control over our lives. Even though he was robbed of his memory, Henry was usually very content. He accepted his situation and made the best of it, thrilling guests with his conversational skills and refusing to let the circumstances get him down. Henry provides an admirable example of taking control of our own lives.
Argument with Myself – Mike Jay – London Review of Books – Retrieved from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n10/mike-jay/argument-with-myself