I first met Henry Molaison more than half a century ago, during the spring of my third year in graduate school. I have tried to resurrect the details of my interactions with him that week, but human memory does not allow such excursions.
The explicit minutiae of unique episodes fade as time passes, making it impossible for us to vividly re-experience the details of events in the distant past. What I do know is that I was very excited to have the opportunity to study such a rare case as Henry, and I had spent months preparing.
Looking back at the results of all the tests he did that week, it was clear even then that the consequences of the operation carried out on him in 1957 – an experimental procedure to cure his epilepsy – had been catastrophic. Henry was left in a permanent state of amnesia, unable to retain any new information.
At the time of Henry’s operation, little was known about how memory processes worked. The extensive damage to the inner part of the temporal lobes on both sides of Henry’s brain made him a vital case study for memory researchers then and now.
As the years passed, his fame grew and eventually spread to countries outside North America – and all that time Henry was stuck in the same moment. From time to time, I would tell him how important and well known he was, and he would smile sheepishly, as the praise was already slipping out of his consciousness.
In his lifetime he was known as HM; only after his death, in 2008, was his identity revealed to the world.
I moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964. There, we were fortunate to have a Clinical Research Center on campus where my colleagues and I could admit patients for days and weeks at a time to conduct research.
Henry visited us there on 50 occasions, and I got to know him better and better as the years went by. In addition to collecting groundbreaking data in our experiments, we also documented details of his medical condition and daily life.
His nursing home chart was replete with examples of persistently failed memory. Even after living there for years, he needed directions to his room, bathroom, and lounge areas.
Not only was he confused about finding his room but, once there, he was uncertain about which of the two beds was his and which side of the double closet housed his clothes. But occasionally, his memory was surprisingly intact.
In the Eighties, when he was still allowed to smoke, the staff noted, “Henry, at times, seems to exhibit a selective memory. He has absolutely no trouble remembering when and how many cigarettes he’s had and can at times recall staff names.”
During the same period, he was troubled by false memories. On several occasions during a period of three weeks, he insisted that another resident had a pillow that had been his father’s, stating, “It has great value to me.”
Then, one day, many years after his mother died, “Henry came out of the lounge and stated, ‘my mother is coming to visit me, and there are no chairs for her to sit in!’ When the nurse tried to convince Henry his mother wasn’t coming, he became very insistent, throwing himself backwards and almost falling.”
The note in his chart concluded, “It seems you have to agree with him, or he becomes quite upset.” For most of the day, Henry saved a chair “for mother”.
He never really knew who I was but, beginning in the Eighties, he would say that he knew me from high school. We had both grown up in the Hartford, Connecticut, area but he was 11 years older than I, and we attended high schools in different cities.
So, what gave him the idea that we were schoolmates? Over the years, he heard my name over and over, and saw my face on many occasions.
As a result of this constant exposure, he built up a sense of familiarity, a sense that he knew me, and this feeling likely became stronger over time.
Read More: Here