Our world had spun around the sun more than 30 times since, though Henry’s world had stayed still, frozen in orbit. This is because 1953 was the year he received an experimental operation, one that destroyed most of several deep-seated structures in his brain, including his hippocampus, his amygdala and his entorhinal cortex. The operation, performed on both sides of his brain and intended to treat Henry’s epilepsy, rendered him profoundly amnesiac, unable to hold on to the present moment for more than 30 seconds or so. That outcome, devastating to Henry, was a boon to science: By 1986, Patient H.M. — as he was called in countless journal articles and textbooks — had become arguably the most important human research subject of all time, revolutionizing our understanding of how memory works. ... Of course, Henry didn’t know that. No matter how many times the scientists told him he was famous, he’d always forget. ... one of the things about Henry that fascinated scientists: His amnesia often appeared, as they termed it, pure. There was an abyss in his brain that all the passing events of his life tumbled into, but on the surface he could seem almost normal. ... Even as a nonscientist, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the unpublished data I came across while reporting my book went against the grain of the established narrative of Patient H.M. For example, unpublished parts of a three-page psychological assessment of Henry provided evidence that even before the operation that transformed Henry Molaison into the amnesiac Patient H.M., his memory was already severely impaired. The causes and significance of Henry’s preoperative memory deficits can be debated, but their existence only underscores the importance of preserving the complete record of the most important research subject in the history of memory science.
- Also: Aeon - My spotless mind 5-15min