Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M.

By Suzanne Corkin

(Basic Books, $28.99, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Suzanne Corkin, who was born in Hartford, is Professor of Neuroscience, Emerita, in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is head of the Corkin Lab at MIT. She has devoted her lifetime of  scientific study to working with patients who have neurological impairments, to learn which brain structures and circuits control certain thought processes, particularly memory. She is the co-editor of nine books and author of numerous scientific publications and lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

What is this book about?

Corkin first met Henry Molaison, known to scientists as H.M., in 1962, and she studied him till he died in 2008. H.M. voluntarily underwent a type of lobotomy in 1953, when he was 27, to relieve debilitating epilepsy. His neurosurgeon was William Beecher Scoville  of Hartford Hospital. The operation “worked” – his seizures stopped – but at great cost. He was no longer able to form new long-term memories and essentially lived in the present moment until he died at age 82. H.M. lived in a care facility in Windsor Locks and was the subject of innumerable studies and some 12,000 medical journal articles during his lifetime, making him unique in medical or psychological history. Once the effects on memory of this particular operation were understood, it was widely publicized so that it would not be performed again. H.M.’s brain was preserved for further study at UC San Diego, dissected into 2,000 slices and digitized as a three-dimensional brain map that could be searched from individual neurons to the whole brain. No one can say if H.M. understood what had happened to him or that he had provided an invaluable window into the workings of memory. He may have been told this, but of course, he could not remember.

Why you’ll like it:

If we cannot remember for more than moments who we are, who others are, why we are in a certain place, what has just happened to us and many other functions of memory, do we really exist? The extraordinary case of H.M. raises all these questions and more. But Corkin is not simply writing a scientific treatise here. She knew H.M. as a person, a patient and a friend. This fascinating story explores both the scientific and the human aspects of H.M.’s post-operative existence and shows that H.M.’s personal loss was profound, but so was the knowledge that his situation revealed.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says:  “Henry G. Molaison, age 27, woke up one August day in 1953 without a memory. A well-meaning Hartford surgeon had attempted to treat his intractable epilepsy by removing structures in his frontal lobes thought to cause seizures. Tragically, it soon became apparent that although Henry could remember much of his early life, he could not form new memories or recognize caregivers he encountered every day. As Corkin (behavioral neuroscience, MIT) puts it, Henry lived in a “permanent present tense.” Corkin worked with Henry, known as H.M. to protect his privacy, from 1962 until his death in 2008. The scientific articles by Corkin and her colleagues significantly advanced knowledge of how the brain consolidates, encodes, stores, and retrieves the perceptions of everyday life. In the years before PET scans and MRIs, their comparisons of H.M.’s mental functions with those of healthy individuals provided invaluable insights into the brain’s mysterious interior. VERDICT This book updates New York Times journalist Philip J. Hilts’s Memory’s Ghost, a highly regarded 1995 account of H.M.’s life. Corkin’s supportive and sympathetic relationship with Molaison humanizes her clearly expressed but rather dry accounts of research on brain functions and anatomy.”

Says Newsweek:  “A surprisingly emotional read. From its historical survey of the 20th-century psychosurgery movement—the most grisly episodes of which involved the now-infamous prefrontal lobotomy—to its somewhat procedural recounting of Molaison’s final days, the book repeatedly challenges the reader to decide how one should judge the checkered history of brain research and, in particular, the unique case of Molaison.”

“A scientific and human monument, touching in its regard for the man (he had a sense of humor, as does she) and breathtaking in its detailed account of the discoveries about the localization and coordination of different aspects of memory made possible by refinements in brain-scanning technology and by Molaison’s untiring cooperation,”  says The Scientist.

Says Science: “A touching yet unsentimental glimpse of [Corkin's] 46-year connection to this ‘pleasant, engaging, docile man’ and his tragedy, interests, and experience of everyday life. At the same time, Corkin skillfully uses stories about his experiences and capabilities to illustrate some of the scientific principles underlying memory. She also offers a comprehensible historical sketch of the study of memory and the burgeoning field of neuroscience—from the dubious and gruesome practice of prefrontal lobotomy to the development of powerful brainimaging techniques…Sadly, Molaison’s condition prevented him from ever fully grasping the importance of his contributions to science and humanity. Corkin’s compelling account in Permanent Present Tense should help ensure that he will remain an unforgettable figure in the continuing saga of our quest to understand the workings of the mind.

Kirkus Reviews says: “Neuroscientist Corkin writes of her unique relationship with amnesiac Henry Gustav Molaison, or H.M., as he was referred to in a mountain of scientific papers, and of his invaluable contribution to the scientific understanding of memory. For nearly five decades, Corkin  . . . talked with and tested Molaison, who, at age 27 in 1953, had undergone experimental surgery to cure his epilepsy and as a result of removal of parts of his brain had lost the ability to store long-term memories. For the rest of his life, Molaison lived in the present tense. His severe impairment brought him to the attention of the scientific community, eager to understand how memory works. Corkin shows Molaison, whose identity was kept secret during his lifetime, to have been an amiable, intelligent man who cooperated willingly with the neuroscientists, performing countless tests for them and undergoing numerous CT and MRI scans of his brain. For him, every experience was a first-time one; he could not remember an event or person for more than a few seconds. Though he could never recall who she or her co-workers were, the author came to know him well and admire him. Corkin gives the specifics of the many behavioral tasks she asked him to perform, and she relates in clear language the significance of what they revealed about the mechanisms of memory. Molaison’s story does not end with his death in 2008, for his brain has been preserved and will continue to be analyzed. Both a compassionate biography and a lucid account of the advances in neuroscience made possible through one man’s personal tragedy.”

When is it available?

This engrossing book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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