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The Man with the 30-Second Memory

An interview with the brain doctor who worked with Henry Molaison for 46 years.

Henry Molaison after his high-school graduation.

In 1953 Henry Molaison, a sufferer of severe epilepsy, underwent experimental brain surgery that saved his life and robbed him of it at the same time. While the removal of bits of Henry’s brain (the hippocampi and parts of both amygdala) cured his condition, it also left him with a sort of amnesia, the likes of which neuroscience had never seen: every 30 seconds his memory was completely erased. Molaison became the first sacrificial martyr in the study of human memory; although as a subject he was responsible for 60 years of breakthroughs in neuroscience, as a person he was reduced to clawing at facts that swirled round his conscious. After his father passed away, he carried a note in his pocket that read "Dad’s dead". Dr Suzanne Corkin met Henry in 1962 when she was only a med school graduate. Having become his lead investigator in 1982, she spent the next 46 years of her life working with him. I gave Dr Corkin a call to try to understand what not being able to remember a parent's death must feel like.


An undated photo of Henry Molaison.   VICE: Hi Dr Corkin. In your book, Permanent Present Tense, you make a beautiful analogy which to me sums up Henry’s condition sublimely. You write that "information collects in the hotel lobby of Henry’s brain but can’t check into any of the rooms". Could you expand on this for me?
Dr Suzanne Corkin: This is what inspired the title of my book, and that means basically that he was always living in the moment. He couldn’t tell you what he had done earlier that day, or the day before, or the month before. Once you distracted him, he couldn’t remember what he’d just been talking to you about.

I'm gonna try an analogy myself: It sounds like the closest experience we would have to Henry’s condition would be walking into a room and immediately forgetting our reason for doing so. Was this a constant frustration for Henry?
Well, he got used to that. He lived in very familiar surroundings after his operation. He lived with his parents and spent a lot of time in that house. So he got used to walking from one room to another without really knowing why. Presumably if he had to go to the bathroom he knew why he walked to the bathroom. He didn’t know where things were kept. He helped with yard work and he didn’t know where the tools were commonly kept.

Did he often watch the same films over and over?
Oh sure, he could read the same magazines over and over too.


What about music, were there any particular melodies that got stuck in his mind?
There was – I actually tested this formally. I made up a test where I went to the library and found the top ten tunes on the Hit Parade every year from 1926 (that's when he was born) and recorded them. When I played them to him, and he recognised some of them – it wasn’t a complete failure. The controls did more but you’ve got to remember that he didn’t have much of a social life as a teenager because of his epilepsy.

Did he ever guess?
He wasn’t a confabulator but on occasion he did guess. When I asked him whom we had fought in the Gulf War, for example, he said, Mexico and Cuba. Obviously he had the wrong Gulf but he was able to fall back on his intellect. He made intelligent guesses, he didn’t make things up.

Did he ever lie?
Not that I know of. He had cataract surgery though, and after that he didn’t wear glasses any more. One time we asked him where his glasses were and he said, "Oh, somebody must have stole them." It wasn’t a lie, because he didn’t know. All he knew was he wore glasses, so if his glasses weren’t there, he had to give an explanation for that.

How did he remain aware that his parents had passed away?
He didn’t. I think it just took him a long time of not seeing them to understand that they were gone.

The hippocampus – the part of Henry's brain that was excised in surgery, and ultimately caused his amnesia.


What was Henry’s relationship like with the other sex?
Well, he was certainly always very polite, to the point of being chivalrous. I have several pictures of him with a woman named Maude, from I think it’s 1946. One is of the two of them standing together on the beach and they have their arms around each other. The other picture was of Maude in a pin-up like pose and on the back it reads, "To Henry, Love Maude."

I also have letters from two friends of his who were in the service during WWII. They talked a lot about dames, babes and going out and getting married and all these kinds of things. So it was part of his conversation, but I don’t honestly know the extent to which these are true.

Did he ever mention girls after the operation?
No. We asked him about girlfriends, and he never mentioned Maude, which is very interesting.

There’s a spiritual aphorism that many religions aspire to, and it’s about forgetting the past and not worrying about the future. They preach that living in the present can bring an enlightened sense of peace. Do you think Henry unwittingly achieved this?
I don’t know that I can go out on a limb far enough to say he was having "Zen" moments. A lot of people describe him as a very gentle person. I think he was that way pre-operatively, too. His father was also the "spoke-when-spoken-to" kind of person, so it's hard to figure out how much of it is just genetic personality and how much was caused by him having his amygdalas removed – which used to be done to prisoners to tame them.


When he came to the clinical research centre, he would have meals and we would test him, but sometimes he would have downtime when there was nothing special for him to do. The nurses put his chair out in the hall and he would sit there so that the people going by could say, "Hi, Henry." He enjoyed this little extra stimulation. He was perfectly happy to sit there in the now, not asking, “What am I going to do next?”; “When is dinner?”; “May I have a glass of water?” He just sat there and enjoyed the scenery; the traffic of people walking by him in this little research centre. It’s hard to determine whether that was to do with the memory, it was multifactorial. He was a happy person, he was not depressed.

How did Henry perceive you?
About 20 years after the first day we met, he started saying that he recognised me.

Henry at his nursing home. What did Henry provide to the field of study in human memory?
His dedication to research brought about an epiphany in the science of memory. First of all, he was living proof that you could be an intelligent person and still have a horrible memory. His IQ was consistently above average. This tells us that memory is processed by specialised brain circuits – that memory is compartmentalised.

The second thing Henry showed, was the ability to store new memories is localised to a specific part of the brain and this is the inner part of the temporal lobes. Before Henry, we didn’t understand that the hippocampus and the surrounding cortex are essential for the establishment of long-term memory. His third contribution was the discovery that there are different kinds of memory with different addresses in the brain. We know now that there are several different kinds of memory that are preserved in amnesia.


Didn't they leave a small part of the hippocampi, where the flickers of memory function as a ghost of his memory?
No, the telephone lines going in were cut. The area of the brain that supplies information to the hippocampus was virtually all removed, there was only tiny little scraps left behind. For all practical purposes, on a day-to-day basis, he remembered nothing. Every now and then, there’d be these little scraps that came out and we’d fall off our chairs in surprise and excitement, but day after day this guy didn’t remember anything.

Memory forms a narrative of a person’s past, an identity. Did Henry lose that after the surgery?
That’s a complicated question. As you know, scholars ranging from philosophers to neuroscientists have argued that an individual who lacks the capacity to remember also lacks an identity.

So did Henry Molaison have a sense of self? The answer is yes, he did. It was just less complete than yours or mine. Our notion of self is that it’s a composite of memories from the past and the present, and our plans for the future. And when we look at Henry’s access to these time periods, we find it was patchy. So, he has rich representation covering the period of his birth, which was from 1926 right up to when he had his operation in 1953, he could tell us what he did for fun; like roller-skating, banjo-playing and target practice.

However the qualities of these pre-operative memories were severely compromised in that he didn’t have any episodic autobiographical memories; he couldn’t remember anything that happened at a specific time or place as a unique episode.


Years after his operation he had selective insights and fragments of information, so he did have a sense of his identity. He knew that he had an operation and he also had the feeling that the procedure had only been tried on a few people before him, and that during the operation something went wrong. He knew this and was able to articulate it, but above all else he knew that he had a terrible memory. An interesting corollary of this was that he couldn’t record any new information, so his body image was outdated. He described himself as thin but heavy, and he was unaware he had grey hair.

Could he configure an image of the future?
No, he couldn’t construct an agenda. One of his constant little things were these little monologues. One of them was about how he wanted to be a brain surgeon.

But he believed he couldn’t, because he wore glasses. He thought they’d be dirty so he couldn’t see properly, or the nurse would wipe his brow and dislodge his glasses, or blood would spurt up in his glasses. If this happened, and his vision was impaired, he might make a mistake and harm someone. He would talk about the kind of things he might do to them, he had a real conscience and he didn’t want to do anything like that to someone else. The interesting thing was that he didn’t have a plan B. He actually had no plans. When I asked him what he’d do tomorrow, he said whatever’s beneficial, full stop. He couldn’t create a future and he was never able to chase his dreams because he didn’t have any.


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