Making Memories

Eric Edelman/
Collage by Eric Edelman

On September 1, 1953, William Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, operated on a twenty-seven-year-old man named Henry Gustav Molaison, who suffered from severe epilepsy. Scoville removed two pieces of tissue—the left and right sides of the hippocampus—from Molaison’s brain. The hippocampus, located near the center of the brain, forms a part of the limbic system that directs many bodily functions, and Scoville thought that epileptic seizures could be controlled by excising much of it. The result, however, as the journalist Philip Hilts wrote in Memory’s Ghost (1995), was that

from H.M.’s moment in surgery onward, every conversation for him was without predecessors, each face vague and new. Names no longer rose to the surface, neither histories nor endearing moments came anymore. Reassurances of welcome had to be sought every moment from every look in every pair of eyes.

H.M., as he came to be known in the medical literature (his real name was not disclosed until his death in 2008), could no longer remember anything he did. He could not remember what he had eaten for breakfast, lunch, or supper, nor could he find his way around the hospital. He failed to recognize hospital staff and physicians whom he had met only minutes earlier, remembering only Scoville, whom he had known since childhood. Every time he met a scientist from MIT who was studying him regularly, she had to introduce herself again. He could not even recognize himself in recent photos, thinking that the face in the image was some “old guy.” Yet he was able to carry on a conversation for as long as his attention was not diverted.

H.M.’s condition suggested that the hippocampus was essential for the conversion of short-term memories to long-term memories, and he became the most widely cited example in studies of the distinction between them. Eric Kandel, James Schwartz, and Thomas Jessell drew on his case in 2000:

Brain trauma in humans can produce particularly profound amnesia for events that occur within a few hours or, at most, days before the trauma. In such cases older memories remain relatively undisturbed…. Studies of memory retention and disruption of memory have supported a commonly used model of memory storage by stages. Input to the brain is processed into short-term working memory before it is transformed through one or more stages into a more permanent long-term store.1

Patient H.M., by Scoville’s grandson, Luke Dittrich, is a memoir of his grandfather and H.M. Much of the book describes, with justified quiet indignation, the failures of the neurosurgical procedures that were widely practiced by Scoville and other neurosurgeons in the past century.

The procedures that Dittrich describes have a long history. In the late nineteenth century, for example, Dr. Gottlieb Burckhardt, a Swiss psychiatrist, “performed the first modern neurosurgical attacks on mental…

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