By James Baines


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 around 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 medical 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.


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 recognized 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 pinup-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, going out, getting married, and all of those 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 preoperatively 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 center, 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 center. 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.



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