The Man with the 30 Second Memory
Henry Molaison after his high-school graduation.
In 1953 Henry Molaison, a sufferer of severe epilepsy, underwent experimental brain surgery that saved his life and robbed him of it at the same time. While the removal of bits of Henry’s brain (the hippocampi and parts of both amygdala) cured his condition, it also left him with a sort of amnesia, the likes of which neuroscience had never seen: every 30 seconds his memory was completely erased. Molaison became the first sacrificial martyr in the study of human memory. Although as a subject he was responsible for 60 years of breakthroughs in neuroscience, as a person he was reduced to clawing at facts that swirled round his conscious. After his father passed away, he carried a note in his pocket that read “Dad’s dead.”
Dr. Suzanne Corkin met Henry in 1962 when she was only a med school graduate. Having become his lead investigator in 1982, she spent the next 46 years of her life working with him. I gave Dr. Corkin a call to try to understand what not being able to remember a parent’s death must feel like.
VICE: Hi Dr. Corkin. In your book, Permanent Present Tense, you make a beautiful analogy which to me sums up Henry’s condition sublimely. You write that “information collects in the hotel lobby of Henry’s brain but can’t check into any of the rooms.” Could you expand on this for me?
Dr Suzanne Corkin: This is what inspired the title of my book, and that means basically that he was always living in the moment. He couldn’t tell you what he had done earlier that day, or the day before, or the month before. Once you distracted him, he couldn’t remember what he’d just been talking to you about.
I’m gonna try an analogy myself: It sounds like the closest experience we would have to Henry’s condition would be walking into a room and immediately forgetting our reason for doing so. Was this a constant frustration for Henry?
Well, he got used to that. He lived in very familiar surroundings after his operation. He lived with his parents and spent a lot of time in that house. So he got used to walking from one room to another without really knowing why. Presumably if he had to go to the bathroom he knew why he walked to the bathroom. He didn’t know where things were kept. He helped with yard work and he didn’t know where the tools were commonly kept.
Did he often watch the same films over and over?
Oh sure, he could read the same magazines over and over too.