Neuroscience and Success The Sory of Henry Molaison
Neuroscience and Success
The night Henry Molaison died there was
no time for mourning
The Story of Henry Molaison, the man
All she thought about was his brain
When after nearly 40 years of studying H.M.
Ph.D. Suzanne Corkin (Prof. of Behavioral
Neuroscience, Head of Corkin Lab) learned that
H.M. died all she cared about was his brain.
It was time to take action
Over centuries, Suzanne Corkin has talked to him and followed his fate - or doom.
A considerable part of her success as a scientist results from this case study. Her
tests and examinations made Henry the best-studied neurology patient.
Therefore, when Suzanne Corkin heard the news she knew that it was time to take
action. She called Henry´s legal guardian and asked for the permission to remove
She directed the hearse onto the ramp
in front of the building.
For nine hours, the scientists scanned Henry´s brain in the MRI scanner.
Corkin was aware of the importance of this historical moment. During the
autopsy, she made sure not to miss a moment. Then finally 2 pounds of nerve
tissue were lying in front of her in a metallic shell.
"It was the most satisfying moment of my life", Suzanne Corkin explained in a
recently published report. (Source: "Permanent Present Tense - The
Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.")
The first lesson learned from H.M.
In 1953 at the age of 27 a doctor, William Beecher Scoville, removed both of Henry´s
hippocampus. Henry Molaison was suffering from severe epileptic seizures.
Since then Henry Molaison rarely suffered from epileptic seizures. But something
went terribly wrong.
The patient had lost his sense of direction. He could not remember the faces of the
nurses and could not memorize medical instructions. He could not even remember
why he was in that hospital.
Doomed to live in “constant present tense”
The surgery has robbed him of an elemental ability: His memory. Or should I
say: One of his forms of memory? From then on Henry Molaison was doomed to
live in the presence. Cut off from future and past. An island of constant present
Scoville admitted that the surgery was a tragic mistake and the amputation of
both hippocampus since then is a taboo.
The Beginnings of Neuroscience
Back then neuroscience did not yet exist. Scientists only had a vague knowledge of the
functions of the brain centers and how the memory works.
Over the centuries, Henry Molaison visited the MIT laboratory 55 times. 122 scientists
researched what he was able to do - and what not.
They made him smell, feel, draw and count. He had to memorize numbers, play
computer games and discover mazes.
He was eager and patient. He could not remember that he failed the task hundreds
More Tests for Henry M.
The tragic fate of the man without memory first drawed the attention of
scientists to the hippocampus. It was proven that only when sensory
impressions get routed through them they can be memorized.
Scientists discovered that without the hippocampus a sensory impression
fades and vanishes after 30 seconds.
Sometimes H. M. was able to trick the scientists by being able to recite
number sequences. But only because he had continuously repeated them in
his brain. A few moments of distraction and they were lost forever and H. M.
could not even remember that he wanted to memorize a number sequence.
Different Types of Memory
Not only the clear distinction we make today between short-term and long-
term memory is owed to H.M. The central observation was: There is more than
one type of memory.
Scientists were aware that they had a long road to go ahead of them.
H.M. failed all memory tests and always greeted the scientists as strangers. But
every time he seemed to understand faster what the scientists asked from him.
It was as if he became used to the test procedures.
Isn´t that a hidden form of memory?
Hundreds of tests and experiments helped Corkin and her colleagues to
understand what H.M. could memorize.
Power of the Subconscious
Obviously, what H.M. learned unconsciously helped him to handle the presence. H.M.´s world was
scary. Every morning he woke up in a room he did not know that was equipped with items he did
not know. Surrounded by strangers.
After all, his last memory was from the fifties. From before the surgery.
But Henry was not scared. He reacted with a friendly patience to the strange world around him. His
subconscious was familiar with it.
Not even the reflection of his face in the mirror scared him. Even though, when asked for his age his
answer was decades off. Even though when asked he said his hair color is brown. But his reflection
in the mirror was that of an old, grey-haired man.
After all he knew the person well ...
… just his conscious mind was not aware of it.
Henry was fully aware of the time before the surgery. He enjoyed talking about his childhood. He knew
every politician of the 50ties. When scientists continued to ask him question they made another
discovery: This part of his memory was damaged too.
Even though he could still recite the facts after the surgery all life has vanished from the memories.
Henry could recall where he went to vacation with his family. What they did. But not the emotions he
Henry was missing what today is known as "episodic memory". He was left with the semantic memory.
The distinction between episodic and semantic memory is also owed to H.M.
Deleted from the Index
Scientists were of the opinion that the surgery did not delete Henry´s memory. Their conclusion was
that the memories just were not available to his conscious mind.
Just like data that is stored on a disk but cannot be searched for as it vanished from the index.
Somewhere in Henry´s brain the romance with this first love or his bike accident have left traces.
Scientists hoped to find answers to this and other questions by reconstructing Henry´s brain on the
Why was Henry´s sense of smelling damaged after the surgery? How could he realize when a strong
scent hit his nose without being able to tell if it came from rotten fish or roses?
How we can benefit from H.M.´s Fate
Our subconscious has a major impact on us, our behavior, and finally our
Memories we cannot consciously recall impact us in a big way.
The brain can be trained and retrained.
Success blockers are hidden in our subconscious.
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