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Dec 6, 2008


As posted by The Scrivener, Patient H.M. (Wiki link) died on Tuesday. For those in the medical world, or for anyone who has taken a neuroscience class in the last 50 years, this man is legendary; the professors talk about him with as much awe and fascination as the students. Today, upon reading his obituary in the New York Times, I felt the same overwhelming feeling of WOW-there's-so-much-we-don't-know as I did three years ago when I read his case for the first time.

As scientists, we have to be grateful for and excited by cases like this. It's not as if someone would do this to themselves on purpose, so when it happens accidentally, it is a unique opportunity for study. In H.M.'s case, we study the murky subjects of learning, memory, and experience. As the article says, after the procedure which ended his seizures but took away his past memories and his ability to form new ones, "each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it was as if for the first time." Again, as scientists, this is astonishing. But as a fellow human being, I am staggered by the implications.

Imagine feeling the desire to learn to, say, make chocolate chip muffins. H.M.'s specific procedure and its resulting memory loss would cause you to learn to make the muffins, then find later that you know how to make muffins, but do not remember learning to do so. In addition, you can draw an exact and correct diagram of your kitchen and kitchen tools, but have no memory of purchasing or putting away your home or tools. Also, you do not remember that you have had a life chaning procedure that ruined your ability to make memories, so you have no understanding of your situation, however your intellect is not diminished in the slightest. Can you imagine what life would be life? I can't.

And what of H.M.'s relationships? Popular culture has evoked this sentiment in films (to use the term loosely) such as 50 First Dates and Memento, where the protagonists have poor short-term memory which wreaks havoc on their lives. But those films and their short-sighted plotlines are poor comparisons to the 55 years H.M. lived with his condition.

I, like so many others, have learned and benefited from H.M.'s life and struggles. While I am grateful to him for his willingness to share his body and brain with science, I am happy for him that he has moved on. I hope that wherever he is now, he is making many happy memories.

1 Readers rock!:

barrie said...

Hmm, there was an article somewhere this week about a woman who has a perfect memory. Literally she remembers every single thing she sees or hears and she says it is absolutely awful. The bad never fades at all. So, given that, would you wish for H.M. that he is now somewhere with his recovered memories?