Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Story of H.M.: The Amnesiac Who Profoundly Changed the Way We Think About Memory

Kean_TheTaleOfTheDuelingNeurosurgeons 

In our minds, we more or less equate our identities with our memories; our very selves seem the sum total of all we’ve done and felt and seen. That’s why we cling to our memories so hard, even to our detriment sometimes—they seem the only bulwark we have against the erosion of the self. That’s also why disorders that rob us of our memories seem so cruel.

In the excerpt below, I explore one of the most profound cases of amnesia in medical history, H.M., who taught us several important things about how memory works. Perhaps most important, he taught us that different types of memories exist in the brain, and that each type is controlled by different structures. In fact, H.M. so profoundly changed our ideas about memory that it’s hard to remember what things were like before him.

In the early 1930s a bicyclist in Connecticut struck a small boy, who tumbled and cracked his skull. No one knows whether the accident alone caused his epilepsy—three cousins had it, so he might have been predisposed—but the blow probably precipitated it, and at age ten he started having seizures. Each lasted around forty seconds, during which time his mouth flopped open, his eyes slipped shut, and his arms and legs crossed and uncrossed as if curled by an invisible puppeteer. He suffered his first grand mal on, of all days, his fifteenth birthday, while riding in the car with his parents. More followed, in class and at home and while shopping—up to ten seizures a day, with at least one major episode per week. So at an age when most people are struggling to find an identity, he was saddled with one he didn’t want: the kid who shook, who bit his tongue, who slumped over and blacked out and pissed himself. The mockery got so bad he dropped out of high school, and he earned his diploma only at twenty-one, from a different school. He ended up living at home and working in a motor shop.

For the rest of the story: http://blog.longreads.com/post/the-story-of-h-m-the-amnesiac-who-profoundly-changed-the-way-we-think-about-memory/

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