Permanent Present Tense

The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M.

 

 

Suzanne Corkin

 

Basic Books, first edition, 2013

 

ISBN: 978-0-465-03159-7

Any student of the brain will have come across the patient H.M. in one of his/her textbooks. From this case study students to this day continue to learn how we discovered the role of the hippocampus in cementing long term declarative memory. For all those students: read this book! In fact, if you have never heard of H.M., but are curious as to how memory works, read this book! It will give you an excellent historical overview of how Henry Molaison was studied to reveal much of what we know about memory. It also puts a human face to the often sterile description of H.M. in our textbooks, which I personally appreciated. Having learned about H.M. myself 20 years ago, I only felt like I truly know who he was as a person, patient and test subject after I read this account.

The author is exquisitely qualified to recount this story, as she studied Henry personally for almost 50 years. She was also a graduate student of Brenda Milner, the neuropsychologist that published (together with William Scoville) the seminar paper “Loss of Recent Memory after Bilateral Hippocampal Lesions” which first demonstrated the role of the hippocampus in memory. You will therefore get a trustworthy, first-hand account of how Henry was studied.

For the uninitiated in memory research, I would caution you to be patient, and slow down during chapters 8 and 9 as there are somewhat detailed explanations of various experiments performed on Henry. You don’t need an extensive background in psychology or neurobiology to understand the logic of the tests, but if you are distracted, you might get lost. Fortunately, there is a very handy summary of what was learned from Henry in the epilogue (pages 313-14) in case you find yourself losing track of the overall significance of the experiments.