Let me open with a rather obvious oberservation--As an historian, memory is rather important to me. That, in part, is why I find amnesia so fascinating.
All of us forget stuff all the time, but forgetting has a deeper side. This fact was vividly demonstrated to me in a remarkable article in the November 2007 National Geographic. In it there is an article titled, “Why We Remember, Why We Forget.” This article warns of what happens when we forget. A man who has lost his memory is described this way: “Without a memory, EP has fallen completely out of time. He has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate. If you were to take the watch off his wrist—or, more cruelly, change the time—he’d be completely lost. Trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate, he lives a sedentary life…” (37).
Trapped in the limbo of an eternal present…between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate. Now think about that for a minute. With no memory, become slaves of each and every minute—living only for the moment. What a challenging way to live!
More recently I learned of the case of Henry Molaison. Molaison underwent brain surgery at the age of 27 due to epilepsy. The surgery made it impossible for him to form new memories. The result was that he had an at least average recall of public events that occurred previous to his surgery. However, while he could recall the general impressions of things he had experienced, he had lost concrete memory of the specific events, as well as the ability to form personal memories of his experiences.
As one who works in the realm of memories, this is a devastating prospect to me; while it is simultaneously fascinating. And it is why thestory on Molaison, which aired on the BBC today, was utterly engaging to me. You may find it at the following link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t6zqv
The program is 30 minutes in length, and worth the time. The following is the text that appears at that link.
"Without a few unusual people, human behaviour would have remained a mystery - ordinary people whose extraordinary circumstances provided researchers with the exceptions that proved behavioural rules. Claudia Hammond revisits the classic case studies that have advanced psychological research.
"When a 27 year old man known in the text books simply as HM underwent brain surgery for intractable epilepsy in 1953, no one could have known that the outcome would provide the key to unravelling one of the greatest mysteries of the human mind - how we form new memories.
"HM was unable to remember anything that happened after the operation, which was conducted by Dr William Scoville in Hartford, Connecticut, though his life before the surgery remained vivid. For 55 years, until he died in December 2008 at the age of 82, HM - or Henry Molaison, as he was identified on his death - was studied by nearly 100 psychologists and neuro-scientists; he provided data that enabled them to piece together the memory process. The research was first coordinated by Dr Brenda Milner of McGill University and then by Professor Suzanne Corkin at MIT. Both women got to know Henry well, but he never got to know them; for him each meeting with them was the first.
"His inability to form new memories meant that HM was unable to look after himself, but he remained cheerful, with a positive outlook on his condition. He was happy, he maintained, to provide information that could help others. And this he continues to do, even after death. His brain was dissected by Dr Jacopo Annese of the Brain Observatory at UCSD, and is the subject of an ongoing on-line collaborative study."