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The Unforgettable Amnesiac 120

Posted by kdawson
from the every-20-seconds-a-new-day dept.
jamie found an account in the NYTimes of the life and death of one of the most important figures in modern neuroscience, Henry Gustav Molaison — a man who could not form memories. Molaison became an amnesiac after a brain operation in 1953. Known worldwide as H.M., Molaison was studied intensively for 55 years. Dr. Brenda Milner, a psychologist from Montreal, was the first researcher to visit Molaison. In 1962 she authored a landmark study demonstrating that a part of Molaison's memory was fully intact. "The implications were enormous. Scientists saw that there were at least two systems in the brain for creating new memories. One, known as declarative memory, records names, faces and new experiences and stores them until they are consciously retrieved. ... Another system, commonly known as motor learning, is subconscious and depends on other brain systems. This explains why people can jump on a bike after years away from one and take the thing for a ride, or why they can pick up a guitar that they have not played in years and still remember how to strum it. Soon 'everyone wanted an amnesic to study,' Dr. Milner said..."
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The Unforgettable Amnesiac

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  • Interesting case (Score:4, Interesting)

    by NinthAgendaDotCom (1401899) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:24AM (#26017551) Homepage
    I can't remember if it was this case or another, but in a cognitive psych class I had, we watched a video about a man who couldn't form new long-term memories. His own wife would walk into a room once, then a second time a few minutes later, and he'd greet her as if he hadn't seen her in years. The most disturbing part was the notebooks he kept. He would write, "Now I'm awake!" And "Now I'm *really* awake." He kept being on the verge of being able to remember his situation, but then losing it.
  • by haus (129916) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:28AM (#26017575) Homepage Journal

    I am sure that this man's misfortune has provided the rest of us a great opportunity to benefit form the research that has been performed on him to date, and possible further gains with his brian now (or soon to be) directly accessible to scientific research.

    But I do wonder how a man who was unable to create new memories (or at least had great difficulty in this area) would be able to take in what is going on around him and give informed consent to offer his brain for further study after his passing.

  • Re:Interesting case (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TACD (514008) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:36AM (#26017629) Homepage
    You're thinking of Clive Wearing [wikipedia.org] - pretty much the most severe case of amnesia ever recorded. His wife has written a book [amazon.com] about her experiences in dealing with it. It's really quite an interesting insight into the way memory functions; for example, he will still hoot with glee whenever his wife enters the room, believing he has not seen her in years. However, even though his illness happened over 30 years ago and his wife has of course visibly aged, he's not surprised by her current appearance.
  • by haus (129916) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:46AM (#26017673) Homepage Journal

    This may well be, but the NPR piece on this seem to make a big point about HM himself wanting his brain to be available for further research.

    In my mind this would seem to imply that he had an understanding that he was an unusual case. The story seemed to imply that with great effort he was able to remember items beyond the 30 seconds of short term memory, but given the complexities of this case I wonder how much he himself understood of it as his life drew to a close.

  • by Clanked (1156473) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:50AM (#26017697)
    In the article it stated that all the while he had a sense that he was helping something important. His sub conscious was still in tact, and was probably what made him so interesting. He could be taught to do things, without knowing it.
    So sub consciously he knew he was helping. So when asked to consent to giving his brain up, it was probably that sub conscious that gave him the feeling to say "Yes, I'll do that."
  • Re:Interesting case (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tomhudson (43916) <barbara DOT huds ... a-hudson DOT com> on Sunday December 07, 2008 @01:26AM (#26017871) Journal

    There was this one guy a few years ago who, whenever he bumped his head (not a big bump, either), he'd forget what he was doing.

    He sat in a van for 2 days in the middle of winter, engine idling, trying to figure out what to do next. The Montreal police finally found him and called his wife.

    Memory is a strange beast at times.

  • by buswolley (591500) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @01:35AM (#26017905) Journal
    Here is another:

    A scientist would tape a tack onto his palm. Then he would walk into the room with H.M. He would first ask him, "Have you ever seen me before?" H.M. would deny ever seeing the scientist before. Then they would shake hands. OUCH!! The scientist leaves the room, and comes back in two minutes. Rinse. Repeat. H.M. over and over would get poked by the tack.

    Then one day: Scientist asks, "Have you ever seen me before?" H.M. denies seeing the scientist before. The scientist offers a hand to shake. H.M. refuses to shake hands. When asked why, H.M. responds,

    "Sometimes scientists tape tacks on their palms."

  • by zappepcs (820751) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @02:16AM (#26018045) Journal

    When I see slashdot stories like this, I'm always hopeful that someone will post links to relevant and insightful research information that I might use to glean more insight into how intelligence works. I do realize that this last sentence might not have been overly intelligent, but I do have a notion that the human brain (in fact all mammalian brains) function as several highly integrated processors might. I've tried finding discussions and research along these lines, but it would seem non-existent or not accessible to me.

    When we think of the memory functions learned through H.M. and others, it seems like we are seeing the function of wetware applications and how they interact as well as what part of the brain provides processing for them... if you can think of the brain that way.

    If anyone is interested, I also have a notion that much of the interlinking of processes can be represented as a large (read complex) cascade of FSM whose states are processed out of band of actual data. That is to say that the complex state of external processes drives or guides data processing in any given process inside the brain.

    I probably sound like I'm talking out of an orifice, but thanks for the look up reference.

    For others: Here is a search at UCDavis for Yonelinas [ucdavis.edu]

  • Re:Authored???? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bmo (77928) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @02:37AM (#26018129)

    It's been a valid use of the word for 400 years.

    "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow
    words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
    --James D. Nicoll

  • by TheLink (130905) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @04:56AM (#26018589) Journal
    From that account, she (an amnesiac) didn't want to shake Dr. C's hand but didn't know the reason why.

    Does make me wonder about our "gut feel" stuff and how accurate it is, and how it might be subverted. A lot of our decisions are not based on the "declarative" stuff.

    Whether you choose chocolate or vanilla, fried chicken or something else. You might make up the reasons later (justify your decisions), but maybe your gut has already chosen. Of course if you see something gross, your gut gets informed about it and then you don't feel like eating anymore.
  • by sleeponthemic (1253494) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @04:59AM (#26018601) Homepage
    One of the best ways to explore motor control retention is to practice drumming. It is uncanny (and fascinating) how you can conquer a pattern requiring new and unfamiliar coordination with some proficiency, sleep, and the next day be much more capable (to the point of it often being trivial) of reproducing it. I think if more people understood just how easily the mind can be developed, we'd have a whole lot more proactive people in society. Stuff like this would be great for teaching kids confidence in their own abilities.
  • by ile.vm (1424509) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @10:20AM (#26019961)
    A very good friend of mine hit her head, and had amnesia for about 5 days. She didn't know anyone's name, for example, including her own. Her parents and boyfriend were strangers. We took her to the pool for morning workout (we were both on the swim team). She says that she swam to the opposite wall, and remembers thinking "I don't know what I'm supposed to do when I get to the wall. How do I turn around?" Her body promptly went through a typical perfectly executed flip turn, and as she pulled away, she thought to herself "Oh, I guess that must be what you do."

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