Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?
Biotech Medicine Science

The Unforgettable Amnesiac 120

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..."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Unforgettable Amnesiac

Comments Filter:
  • by isBandGeek() ( 1369017 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:15AM (#26017511)
    I forgot.
    • Umm Frist post? is that what it was? Heck.. I know you got it and not me.. but who are you.
      • I am me, who are you?
        More importantly, what are we doing here?
        • by f1vlad ( 1253784 ) Works for Slashdot
          Bedtime for y'all!
          • by buswolley ( 591500 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @01:25AM (#26017859) Journal
            Let me fix this thread:

            New Topic:

            H.M. learned how to solve the Tower of Hanoi (documented by decreasing time to solve) but denied ever seeing the Tower of Hanoi before.

            This is an example of some evidence that distinguished between semantic(facts) and episodic(event) memory systems.

            • 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."

              • I was wondering if it was actually H.M. or another amnesic in the tack story. In so far as that fact, my memory was accurate. However, it appears I've embellished somewhat... here is the story in a google book [] of Psychological Trauma and the Developing Brain By Phyllis T. Stien, Joshua C. Kendall
                • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                  by TheLink ( 130905 )
                  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
                  • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                    by stephanruby ( 542433 )

                    From that account, she (an amnesiac) didn't want to shake Dr. C's hand but didn't know the reason why.

                    Without disputing the Doctor's main conclusion, which goes well with the current mainstream understanding in psychology, and without having read the primary source of his study (the google sholar link only showed a summarized secondary source), I'd like to dispute the Doctor's particular line of thinking in this example (at least, the reasoning that I could glean from the secondary source, perhaps his actua

                    • by TheLink ( 130905 )
                      A more scientific way of doing it would be to do a double blind test.

                      Of course the higher the number of samples, the larger the number of unpleasant incidents and the more potential for long term harm.

                      Perhaps you could try it for pleasant incidents to see if it works for that first.
                    • A double blind test would be difficult. I assume that patients like her (or this other guy) are rare. Perhaps, a machine should be used to administer the pain in some way. In this day and age, experiments such as this one are probably off limits anyway.
                  • It's funny, there was just a RadioLab show on NPR on this subject []. They talk about another guy who had a different type of brain damage (tumor removal) which seemed to leave him normal at first, but made him horribly indecisive. They figured out that his emotional response center was damaged. Without the emotional push to make a decision, he would never feel pressure or other emotional drive to make the decision, and couldn't do it. The emotional part is apparently just as important as the logical part i
                • by ardle ( 523599 )
                  There's a similar story about a guy called Sammy Jankis in Momento [].
                  • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

                    by Anonymous Coward

                    You forgot to mispell it in the link ;)

                    • by ardle ( 523599 )
                      M e mento - even though I pasted the link, I didn't spot that! And, yes, I have seen the movie, too!
            • Semantic and episodic memory are both subtypes of declarative memory. The ToH example showed that semantic memory (viz. declarative memory) is distinct from procedural memory (what Milner called motor memory).

            • by sv0f ( 197289 )

              Actually, it's the difference between long-term declarative memory (which is subserved by the hippocampus, which HM had surgically resected, and the medial temporal lobe) and procedural memory (which includes cognitive skills, such as solving the TOH problem, and motor skills, and is subserved by a different network of brain structures that includes the basal ganglia).

      • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
        I'm Teddy. Look at your pictures.
    • by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:17AM (#26017523) Homepage
      See? Your motor-memory posting skills are obviously intact!
  • 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.
    • Re:Interesting case (Score:5, Informative)

      by Lurker2288 ( 995635 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:35AM (#26017623)
      I think the guy you mean is Clive Wearing. Whenever showed his earlier writings, he denied being responsible for them. Over time his caretakers learned to always speak to him in terms of the immediate present, and to never refer to their past time together.
    • Re:Interesting case (Score:5, Interesting)

      by TACD ( 514008 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:36AM (#26017629) Homepage
      You're thinking of Clive Wearing [] - pretty much the most severe case of amnesia ever recorded. His wife has written a book [] 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 Ihmhi ( 1206036 ) <> on Sunday December 07, 2008 @11:20AM (#26020455)

        ...and his wife has of course visibly aged, he's not surprised by her current appearance.

        Well of course not, he hasn't seen her in years!

        • by TACD ( 514008 )
          Another time, the staff at the hospital had baked him a cake for his birthday. Well, before his wife or anybody else arrived the nurse in charge of the cake had to leave the room for a short while to deal with an emergency.

          When she got back, the cake was already half-gone. Clive, seeing the cake, assumed it was for him, and so ate a slice - then, seeing the cake, assumed it was for him, and so ate a slice - then, seeing the cake...

          Also, the fits and jerks mentioned in the wikipedia article don't happen so

      • There's also an episode of NPR's RadioLab on memory [], with a segment on Clive []. (Audio file [].)

        I highly recommend listening to it (and other episodes of RadioLab), it's a great show.

        • by TACD ( 514008 )

          There's also an episode of NPR's RadioLab on memory [], with a segment on Clive []. (Audio file [].)

          I highly recommend listening to it (and other episodes of RadioLab), it's a great show.

          Already heard it ;) But yes, RadioLab is an excellent podcast. Along with AstronomyCast, one of a very few I listen to regularly.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tomhudson ( 43916 )

      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 Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:25AM (#26017561)
    for the movie "Memento".
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      ...and 50 First Dates.

      • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        ...and Jaws

        • by pushing-robot ( 1037830 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @01:25AM (#26017863)

          Just when you thought it was safe to form new memories...

        • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
          Common mistake. Both "50 First Dates" and "Jaws" feature hideous man-eating creatures that started out their careers with Steven Spielberg.
    • Funny that there are so many movies called Memento. All the producers save for the first one seem to have forgotten that someone else has already made that movie!
    • by Plunky ( 929104 )
      also it sounds as if Gene Wolfe took inspiration from this story when he wrote 'Soldier in the Mist' which is a totally excellent read (the sequel was pretty good too)
  • 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: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Lurker2288 ( 995635 )
      I'm not familiar with the details of this case, but most likely he was declared unable to manage his own affairs due to his mental status, in which case a caregiver (usually a family member) would be assigned to make decisions for him. It may not be ideal, but it's probably the best way we have of dealing with informed consent in cases of patients who are unable to give fully informed consent.
      • 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 venicebeach ( 702856 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @06:39AM (#26018931) Homepage Journal
          Yes, H.M. was aware of his condition, which is typical of temporal lobe amnesia. (Patients who also have damage to the frontal lobes as in Korsakoff's syndrome [] are often unaware of their memory deficit, a form of anosognosia [].)

          One of the quotes from H.M. I always read in my neuroscience classes:

          "Right now I'm wondering, have I done or said anything amiss? You see, at this moment everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before? That's what worries me. It's like waking from a dream; I just don't remember.... Every day is alone in itself, whatever enjoyment I've had, whatever sorrow."

          RIP, Henry.
        • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

          Well, go over the whole thing with him and get his consent. Have him sign a paper.

          Leave the room, get a new clipboard, repeat. 10/10 times and I'd say you have consent.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Clanked ( 1156473 )
      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: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Korbeau ( 913903 )

      You only have to get his signature on some paper ONCE ;)

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by buswolley ( 591500 )
      If he is unable or unfit to give consent, then his legal guardian would have been. How else do you think that research on children, or with people with Autism is able to get conducted?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by tehcyder ( 746570 )

        How else do you think that research on children, or with people with Autism is able to get conducted?

        Evil Mad Nazi Scientists?

    • Generally speaking,

      consent to treatment isn't predicated on memory per se. Here is the link to a PDF file written by one the noted experts on competence to consent to treatment: []

      The Grisso and Applebaum book "Assessing Competence to Consent for Treatment: A Guide for Physicians and Other Health Care Providers" is the defacto book for health care providers to understand and assess competence as it relates to medical decision making.


    • 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.

      Given the severity of his case, he certainly had some sort of legal guardian who could give consent by proxy.

      What truly worries me are the intermediate cases. Where is the exact point at which you can be assumed to have free will or not? Mental impairment is relative and depends on

  • by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:28AM (#26017579)

    So when we see this article duped next week, now we'll know why?

  • Verbing weirds language :-(

  • Hmm... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Konster ( 252488 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @12:39AM (#26017643)

    Looking down from Heaven, Gustav Molaison was surprised to learn people remembered him.

  • by buswolley ( 591500 ) on Sunday December 07, 2008 @01:06AM (#26017767) Journal
    Seriously. As far as the summary: Decalarative vs Implicit memory systems. Yes. But also: Semantic vs. Episodic Memory Systems.

    The most important contribution of H.M. is helping pin down the fact that for Episodic memory, the Medial Temporal Lobe is critical. From there a whole lot of work has been done pinning down the sub regions of the Medial Temporal Lobe with memory function:

    The hippocampus: CA1 CA3 and dentate gyrus, is important for associating memory traces with contexts. The surrounding cortices important for making global assessments of the familiarity of a memory trace. Look up Professor Andrew Yonelinas at his UC Davis website for some current reviews of Recollection and Familiarity processes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by zappepcs ( 820751 )

      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

    • Funny I always thought there was more then 1 type of memory, guess I was right. Although
      it isn't always needed, triggering a traumatic episode during a course you need to remember, makes things easier to remember. Shock memory therapy I call it....when you remember that mugging like it was yesterday better then what you DID eat yesterday.

  • by Matt Perry ( 793115 ) <perry.matt54@[ ] ['yah' in gap]> on Sunday December 07, 2008 @01:31AM (#26017891)

    I find this stuff fascinating. Oliver Sacks [], who has researched this condition, wrote a lengthy article about Clive Wearing [], who is another person with the same condition as H.M.

  • He will be remembered.
  • 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 jcnnghm ( 538570 )

      This is interesting. I will commonly try to think about tough programming problems just before going to sleep, and generally find that in the morning the solution is apparent. I've also used to notice I did better when studying at night, knowing information I was shaky on well in the morning. I had no idea it also worked with motor skills.

    • I have a defect in this area - the more I do something the worse I get. I am unable to memorize rote motions.

      Although nominally athletic, I have only been able to have an somewhat repeatable motion in athletics (golf, shooting a basketball) by letting my arms follow the path that my stiff joints want to go.

      Light practice is helpful for my basketball shot, but my best golf days were always after months of not playing.

      As an 17 year old employee of a grocery store, I was unable to comp

  • It doesn't matter. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Renozhin ( 1423301 )
    As long as you remember Sammy Jenkis you'll be fine.
  • 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."
  • Here is an interview with Suzanne Corkin [] that includes taped dialog with H.M. featured at NPR. []

    He sounds like a very nice person. Dr. Corkin is with the Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.

  • 3 Case Studies (Score:3, Informative)

    by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Monday December 08, 2008 @12:50AM (#26028187) Journal

    Due to an accidental needle stick while working in surgery, I contracted hepatitis C. I didn't know it until my liver almost stopped working. The way I found out about it was being told that I'd totaled my van the day before as well as having two other accidents. In all 3 cases the police came and didn't detect any evidence of intoxication. And I wasn't intoxicated. But I was anesthetized. I was taking prescribed amounts of Ativan and Benadryl. My liver wasn't clearing them out of me, and they built up to a level that made me a fully functional zombie. I've since had another episode of amnesia caused by medication, and my liver is running at 100% now. I took Ambien, and ended up 2 days later finding out that I'd spent the previous 2 days eating all 30 days worth of the stuff, forgetting that I'd taken any previously. The first dose caused it. And it's even listed as a side effect: "can cause sleep walking with no memory of the event". It's not sleepwalking, but it's a good description anyway.

    The most distressing case of amnesia I ever saw was an educational movie about a man who had been an orchestra conductor, had been in an accident, and due to the whiplash effect of the brain inside the skull, sustained brain damage in the hippocampus, where memories are formed. The best (or worst, you decide) example of what a person goes through was shown in the movie as he wrote in his journal "I have just woken up. I have only just this moment become aware." Over, and over, and over, day after day.

    I once visited a man in a nursing home who had amnesia. He was due to all the thiamine (vitamin B-1) being washed out of his hippocampus by alcohol. Commonly called "wet brain", its clinical name is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It appears almost exactly like Alzheimer's. You can tell the difference by giving the person a list of words to remember. Later, ask them to recall the words, and neither can. But give the first two letters of the words, and the W-K patients can recall the words. They have implicit memory -- they can remember, but they don't know they remember. The Alzheimer's patients can't recall even having been given the list if shown the complete list later. As I spoke with this man, he frequently interrupted and asked me my name, what I do for a living, and similar questions, and asked these same questions again every couple minutes. He never once caught on to the fact that I was his son, and I didn't bother to tell him, because he wouldn't have remembered it just a few minutes later.

    • Just FYI, the conductor is Clive Wearing, and it was caused by Herpes Encephalitis rather than whiplash.

      • Just FYI, the conductor is Clive Wearing, and it was caused by Herpes Encephalitis rather than whiplash.

        Thanks for the correction. The memory of the movie is 20 years old. It was probably another case in that same movie that was whiplash.

  • This is one of those things that really is disturbing to me. It's terrible enough when your body turns on you in the form of cancer or such things, but the idea that your mind could be damaged in this type of way really spooks me.

Who goeth a-borrowing goeth a-sorrowing. -- Thomas Tusser