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kottke.org posts about Henry Molaison

The world’s most famous brain

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2010

Lovely long piece in the November issue of Esquire about the brain of Henry Molaison, who you may have previously heard of as Patient H.M., aka the man who lacked the ability to remember anything for more than a couple of minutes. His brain has now been sliced into thin slices in an effort to construct a map of the human brain accurate to neuron-level.

Corkin first met Henry at Brenda Milner’s lab in Montreal in 1962, and over the years, as the mining of his mind has continued, she’s witnessed firsthand how Henry continues to give up riches, broadening our understanding of how memory works. But she’s also keenly aware of Henry’s enduring mysteries, has documented things about him that nobody can quite explain, not yet.

For example, Henry’s inability to recall postoperative episodes, an amnesia that was once thought to be complete, has revealed itself over the years to have some puzzling exceptions. Certain things have managed, somehow, to make their way through, to stick and become memories. Henry knows a president was assassinated in Dallas, though Kennedy’s motorcade didn’t leave Love Field until more than a decade after Henry left my grandfather’s operating room. Henry can hear the incomplete name of an icon — “Bob Dy …” — and complete it, even though in 1953 Robert Zimmerman was just a twelve-year-old chafing against the dead-end monotony of small-town Minnesota. Henry can tell you that Archie Bunker’s son-in-law is named Meathead.

How is this possible?

The piece is written by the grandson of the doctor who removed a portion of Molaison’s brain in an effort to cure his epilepsy.

Lost and found

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2008

Henry Molaison — more widely known as H.M. — died last week at 82. Molaison was an amnesiac and the study of his condition revealed much about the workings of the human brain. He lost his long-term memory after a surgery in 1953 and couldn’t remember anything after that for more than 20 seconds or so.

Living at his parents’ house, and later with a relative through the 1970s, Mr. Molaison helped with the shopping, mowed the lawn, raked leaves and relaxed in front of the television. He could navigate through a day attending to mundane details — fixing a lunch, making his bed — by drawing on what he could remember from his first 27 years.

Molly Birnbaum was training to be a chef in Boston when she got hit by a car and lost her sense of smell. Soon after, she moved to New York.

Without the aroma of car exhaust, hot dogs or coffee, the city was a blank slate. Nothing was unbearable and nothing was especially beguiling. Penn Station’s public restroom smelled the same as Jacques Torres’s chocolate shop on Hudson Street. I knew that New York possessed a further level of meaning, but I had no access to it, and I worked hard to ignore what I could not detect.

Update: Here’s another take on anosmia and Birnbaum’s article.

In the first year of my recovery, I regularly visited both a neurologist and neuropsychologist who both disputed this claim. They told me that smell and taste, although related, are essentially exclusive. If anything, my neuropsychologist told me, smell is more integrated with memory.

In my experience, I’ve found this to be true: I have not lost my love of food; in fact, I feel like my appreciation for flavor combinations have been heightened. Milk does not taste like a “viscous liquid” to me and ice cream is certainly more than just “freezing.” Similarly, a good wine is more than tasting the acids, a memorable dessert is more than simply sweet, and french fries do not taste like salty nothing-sticks.