Tuesday, December 09, 2008

HM the Amnesiac

Henry Gustav Molaison, a man suffering from post operative amnesia died a week ago at the age of 82. Until his death, Molaison was known to the world as HM, the amnesiac who helped neuroscientists understand the processes involved in short and long term memory. For the first 27 years of his life, Molaison suffered from intractable seizures. In 1953, in a drastic attempt to treat his seizures, his doctors resected his brain's temporal lobes. His seizures improved tremendously but he lost his ability to acquire new memories.

Imagine this, for 55 years until his recent demise, this man lived with memories he acquired in the first 27 years of his life. None of the life experiences of the last five decades have lasted more than thirty seconds, the average duration of short term memory. He was unable to remember anything new he saw, read. smelled, tasted or heard. One can also imagine that any emotion aroused by these new sensory experiences would be equally lost. Nothing stuck; not the sight of a beautiful woman, nor a gorgeous scenery, nor a sublime painting, nor a catchy melody, nor an enchanting scent. The taste of a delicious new dish would dissipate into the ether as soon as the meal was over and the name and appearance of a new friend would elude him as soon as he turned his back. It is hard to overestimate the importance of memory to our existence, to our humanity and to our life's experience.

tragic life fascinates me. For as much as he has helped neuroscientists understand the brain's memory processes, I am intrigued by Molaison, the human being and how his memory deficit affected his personality and his outlook on life. Since we are the sum total of our life experiences, was Molaison then the same man at 82 that he was at 27? And if so were his established memories more vivid because there were so few memories for a man of his age or had his memories faded with the passage of half a century? And how does a man like him face life every morning?
I can imagine him waking up every morning full of optimism and wonder at all of his new experiences, his mind, a nearly blank slate, unencumbered by the unpleasantness of the recent past. The quarrel with a friend or the illness of a loved one would be forgotten as would be all the trickle of grim news about war, pestilence and hunger from around the world. On the other hand, I can imagine him waking up flat-affected, somewhat confused by his inability to interpret his new experiences without the context of any similar recent experiences. That last description of him, I believe, is the most likely to be accurate. We learn from experiences carefully laid down in our memory. We are conditioned by these experiences. Without the context of these experiences, it is difficult for us to interpret new ones or even assign values to them. Molaison's amnesia left him unable to build on the ebb and flow of good an bad life experiences and instead committed him to live a diminished life, lived in increments of thirty second slices each completely disconnected from the next.


abufares said...

This is a fascinating story. I wonder if you have more information about this case. For instance, did he spend a considerable part of his time reminiscing over his old memories? That is he ever talk or write about it. Was he aware of his predicament or did he also forget about it?
I find it interesting that as we grow older we dig deeper into our past in search of the good-old-times. I'm also intrigued by the first few days of arrival of an expat after a long absence from his home. He will incessantly talk about the distant past, about old TV shows, long gone town's idiot(s) and ancient bits and pieces of nostalgia. In a way, it's as if time had stood still for him the moment he left his homeland.
How it'll be, as far as you're concerned, when you return after such a long absence? Can you contemplate how much has changed? You won't be disappointed even though, in my opinion, things were much better. But the arrival and the ensuing week or two are mind boggling.

Maysaloon said...

Can we do that selectively? I'd like it so I am unable to remember anything from Monday to Friday please.

qunfuz said...

Yes, absolutely fascinating. It reminds me of those amazing books by Oliver Sacks.

Abu Kareem said...

Abu Fares,
In fact HM has been the subject of many scientific papers regarding his memory. I have to try to dig them up and read them. It is funny that as I was reading his story I also thought of how my recollection of Syria will feel after this long an absence. I'll let you know very soon.

What happened? are your philosophical studies getting the better of you?

If you haven't yet, you ought to read Sack's latest, Musicophilia.

saint said...

Abu Kareem, you ’r right, being far that long is like the man in your story; Ps. Waiting for your impression from the land across the ocean!, however I kind-of wonder which is worse that man who lived that long with old memory or the woman ( or people who been operated on) who lived with split brain.