The River Lethe

Any one who has paid any attention to neuroscience in the past few decades knew of the sad, strange case of “H.M.”, who, as a young man in 1953, underwent brain surgery to control persistent seizures. The operation did indeed quiet the storm inside his skull, but a terrible cost: the surgeon had removed part of his hippocampus, and so the patient lost the ability to form new memories.

From that day forward, H.M. lived a life almost unimaginably strange. Gone was the subjective continuity that binds our present moments into a lengthening personal narrative. Researchers visited him with quotidian regularity for decades, but H.M. made their acquaintance anew every day. The story of his life consisted of the memories of his youth, and an evanescent bubble of present time — continuously made anew, and leaving no recoverable trace.

To the researchers, H.M. was the Rosetta Stone. By studying what he had lost, and what remained intact, neuroscientists gained vital and unprecedented insights into the enigmatic machinery of memory. And through it all, H.M. was, by all accounts, friendly, patient, gracious, and accommodating. Despite being robbed of the very keel of his personhood — the temporal continuity of self — he seems to have maintained his dignity, and his essential humanity.

I don’t think he suffered (although I find myself suffering at the thought of his predicament). Even if he realized, perhaps, at some anxious moment every day that something was horribly, horribly wrong, in the next instant the very affliction that seems to us so hauntingly, ineffably tragic passed the merciful sponge of oblivion across his wondering mind.

Again, as with so many examples of our deepening understanding of how the human brain produces and maintains the human mind, I must ask: how would a mind-body dualist account for this? Slice out a bit of hippocampus, and the mind, although functioning perfectly at any given moment, loses the ability to to learn, to remember anybody or anything, to carry its experiences forward. We have much still to learn, but surely it is becoming clear that our minds are no more — and no less — than the dance of matter and energy taking place in our skulls.

We now know that H.M.’s real name was Henry Gustav Molaison (and that he was born on the very same day as my father: February 26th, 1926). You can learn more about his fascinating and inexpressibly poignant case here, and read his obituary, from today’s Times , here.

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9 Comments

  1. JK says

    Lost the ability to form new opinions?

    Oh my.

    On this particular day?

    Seventy five years ago, coincidentally, 1933 – once again it became legal to begin afresh the sale of beer.

    I’m about to go to your frequent blogger friend’s site Gypsy Scholar to check whether he too mentions any opinion as to whether he celebrated the anniversary of forming no opinion on this: a significant tradition of forming no opinion as to whether she (or for Addofio – he: heck I don’t have an opinion) had any sort of opinion concerning who might’ve been in the individual’s range of vision on this particularly significant American (well except for Canada and Mexico…

    Hold on, there was Tierra del Fuego too.

    Anyway, it was seventy five years ago today. I’m just glad whoever it was changed their mind. Otherwise, I don’t have any opinion about the decision.

    Then again…

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 12:43 am | Permalink
  2. Court says

    Thanks for this link, Malcolm. Be going up on my blog tomorrow.

    I had no idea it was a person and not just a plot device.

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 3:01 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm, possibly an even sadder story is that of Howard Dully, in My Lobotomy.

    I just cannot fathom a mother and father who countenance and approve of a lobotomy for their normal 12-year-old son. What a tragedy for that boy.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 4:31 am | Permalink
  4. Charles says

    JK: I think H.M. lost the ability to form new *memories*, not opinions.

    Losing the ability to form new opinions is known as “watching Fox News regularly.”

    (I keed, I keed! The same thing happens on both sides of the aisle, unfortunately.)

    At any rate, the idea of not being able to form new memories strikes me as one of the most horrible fates I could ever contemplate, but one (as you pointed out) that would probably not bother me as much if it actually happened. Gah. I don’t even want to think about this anymore.

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 5:16 am | Permalink
  5. Addofio says

    I thought of his case, though I couldn’t call the name to mind, upon reading your post yesterday. Perhaps “living in the present” or “the moment” isn’t the ultimate wisdom after all.

    JK: I have lots and lots of opinions. Like most Americans, I even have opinions about things of which I know nothing. And I hold forth upon them at the drop of a hat, as my long-suffering friends and colleagues can attest. But I do find that I learn more from listening to (or reading) others’ opinions than from holding forth on my own. And I try not to confuse my opinions with “truth”.

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Yes, to find H.M.’s obituary on the morning after posting those remarks by Pascal was a provocative surprise, and I thought the two stories made an interesting juxtaposition. (Only if you can remember today what you read yesterday, of course.)

    In my own experience and efforts at guided inner work, I have found that it is precisely an awareness of the self in the present moment (a.k.a. “mindfulness” or “self-remembering”) that is essential for forming the clearest and most permanent long-term memories.

    Mightn’t some of your opinions actually happen to be true?

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  7. Addofio says

    Of course, I think so. Otherwise I’d change the opinions :-)

    But the trick would be to know which, and how could one know? For sure?

    And of course, it all depends on what one means by ‘true”.

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  8. I remember a movie starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler – I didn’t realize it can actually happen until I read about HM brain condition. Anyways, that must have been very hard for HM – to lose his long term memory. I hope he was well taken cared of, and happy.

    Posted December 5, 2009 at 1:45 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Hard only if you remember that you’ve lost your memory.

    Posted December 5, 2009 at 3:01 am | Permalink