The Day His World Stood Still - Page 4
Henry Right Now
Study of Henry's case has led to some very seminal findings about memory. Specifically, it seems that the hippocampus is required for the formation of conscious, long-term memories, but not for unconscious, long-term skill memories or short-term recall. Perhaps even more importantly, Henry has vividly illustrated that there is a biological basis for memory and that it is possible to use biological techniques to study a subject as elusive as memory.
As for Henry's current status, he lives in a nursing home in Hartford and still travels occasionally to MIT for memory testing. He enjoys doing crossword puzzles and watching detective shows on television. His life is peaceful, if not completely happy. He worries often that he has done something wrong, and it is not possible for him to make any real friends since he cannot remember a person from ten minutes to the next. At times, he seems to have a sense of humor about his condition, as in the following anecdote taken from his biography, Memory's Ghost: The Strange Tale of Mr. M. and the Nature of Memory, by Philip Hilts:
When walking down the corridor at M.I.T. with Henry, Dr. Suzanne Corkin made the usual kind of small talk. "Do you know where you are, Henry?"
Henry grinned. "Why, of course. I'm at M.I.T.!"
Dr. Corkin was a bit surprised. "How do you know that?"
Henry laughed. He pointed to a student nearby with a large M.I.T. emblazoned on his sweatshirt. "Got ya that time!" Henry said.
Mainly, though, he leads a life of quiet confusion, never knowing exactly how old he is (he guesses maybe thirty and is always surprised by his reflection in the mirror) and reliving his grief over the death of his mother every time he hears about it. Though he does not recall his operation, he knows that there is something wrong with his memory and has adopted a philosophical stance on his problems: "It does get me upset, but I always say to myself, what is to be is to be. That's the way I always figure it now."
Often, Henry will express the hope that others can learn from his unfortunate situation, as he told Philip Hilts in an interview several years ago:
"Well, what I keep thinking is that possibly I had an operation. And somehow the memory is gone...And I'm trying to figure it out...I think of it all the time. I don't remember this, and why I don't remember that."
"Is that worrisome?" Hilts wanted to know.
"Well, it isn't worrisome in a way, to me, because I know that if they ever performed an operation on me, they'd learn from it. It would help others."
Sadly, the very nature of his memory loss prevents Henry from ever knowing the incredible contribution he has made to the field of psychology, but his tale stands as an important prologue to the ongoing story of memory research. Long after Henry passes on, "H.M." will be studied as the man whose unwitting sacrifice first vividly illustrated the important link between memory and brain.
Joanna Schaffhausen earned a B.S. in psychology from Tufts University in 1996. She is currently a graduate student at Yale University, interested in the cellular mechanisms of learning and memory.