Science

H.M.

I’d never heard of him before — few had, he had only been identified by his initials to protect his privacy — but his obituary made the front page of Friday’s paper. It was compelling reading, and well worth your time.

He was a man who, 55 years ago, had brain surgery to try and treat his epilepsy. (Those of you who know me understand that this is a very interesting subject for me.) In the process, the surgeon removed part of his hippocampus. As in the movie “Memento,” for the rest of his life, H.M. was unable to form new memories.

For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it was as if for the first time.

Even his doctors, whom he saw daily for decades, seemed like vague memories from his youth — at best.

“He was a very gracious man, very patient, always willing to try these tasks I would give him. And yet every time I walked in the room, it was like we’d never met.”

But here’s the interesting part. Because of research and testing that H.M. underwent, neurologists made some remarkable discoveries. This one blew me away:

In a series of trials, she had Mr. Molaison try to trace a line between two outlines of a five-point star, one inside the other, while watching his hand and the star in a mirror. The task is difficult for anyone to master at first.

Every time H. M. performed the task, it struck him as an entirely new experience. He had no memory of doing it before. Yet with practice he became proficient. “At one point he said to me, after many of these trials, ‘Huh, this was easier than I thought it would be,’ ” Dr. Milner said.

Ponder the implications of that. We musicians sometimes talk about “muscle memory,” and I suppose this is part of it. But I wonder what it would be like to learn to play the piano, a little at a time, every day sitting down to it with no memory of ever having played before. And one day years down the road, sitting down at this unfamiliar piece of furniture and playing it fluently without knowing how you did it.

Which is a far-fetched and perhaps trivial example, but just one implication to ponder about what really goes on in these heads of ours.

Tom

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he’s also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

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