The Many Lives of Memory
THE SOURCE: “Remembering H.M.” in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 2012.
For most of his life, 27-year-old Henry Molaison had suffered from severe epilepsy. In 1953, in a bid to ease his condition, doctors performed experimental brain surgery, removing his hippocampus. Molaison’s epilepsy vanished, but so did his ability to form short- and long-term memories. He could still walk, talk, read, and dress himself, and recalled concepts, events, and people from before the operation. Yet “he remembered no events and very few facts” from after it, according to John D. E. Gabrieli, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, where Molaison participated in years of studies until his death in 2008.
Molaison contributed “more to our understanding of the brain than had been learned in the previous 100 years,” said Robert Desimone, a cognitive scientist at MIT. That contribution prompted Desimone, Gabrieli, and other leading neuroscientists to participate in a panel discussion honoring Molaison, with excerpts published in the Bulletin. By studying what he could and could not remember, scientists determined that H.M., as he is called in the scientific literature, was able to form new memories in unexpected ways. This finding ushered in a more complex understanding of memory and cognition.
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