Thursday, December 4, 2008


Yesterday was the day Henry Molaison died.
He was 82, but he thought he was 27.
If you asked him what color his hair was, he would have never guessed it was grey.
Yet he was never surprised seeing himself in the mirror as an old man.
He knew, and yet he didn't know.

In 1953, Henry Molaison underwent brain surgery.
His mediotemporal lobes were removed, on both sides.
Those were the sources of his epileptic attacks.
When Henry woke up, his epilepsy was gone.
So was his memory.

Psychology students all over the world knew him by his initials -- HM.
Now we all know his name.
He was Henry Molaison.
And he was not.
HM was Henry Molaison's frame -- an increasingly older man, forever boyish, polite and courteous, with a gentle gleam in his eye and a keen sense of humor.

Henry lived in a world that was only 7 seconds long -- he saw 5 seconds in the past, foresaw 2 in the future.
The surgeon's knife had severed the connection between his working memory -- the mind's RAM -- and his long-term memory -- the mind's ROM.
Nothing new entered his permanent memory.
And so Henry knew no longer who he was; he only knew who he had been.
So 27 he stayed.

There you have it.
This is why you need ROM memory: to be who you are.

I heard it told that Henry's 7 seconds were not always happy.
Sometimes he had this vague sense of dread, he mentioned to his friends.
As if he had done something wrong.
After all, if you can't remember what you just did, why shouldn't you assume that you perhaps did something wrong?
Like a child waking from a dream, Henry said: not knowing what is real.
What am I doing here? The awakened child asks.
What am I doing here?
Henry Molaison went for the deep questions.
You better be deep if you only have 2 more seconds to live, every moment of your life.
Make those seconds worthwhile, make them last.

I heard it told that there was one joke Henry really liked.
He laughed out loud every time he heard it.
Even if you had just told him that selfsame joke an hour ago.
As if he heard it for the first time.
Which was technically correct: He heard it for the first time.
That joke was so good, it cracked him up every time.

I wish I knew that joke.
I wish I could now tell it to the night.
To poor lonesome Henry, floating somewhere among the stars.
Jokes help, you know, with that vague sense of dread.

It is said that every night Allah destroys the world; he recreates it before dawn.
Every day is new.
Such was HM's life.
Every day he met the world anew.
Unaware that on that very day a fantastically excellent joke was waiting for him.
A fantastically excellent joke -- waiting just for him.


Sergio C. Gutiérrez-Negrón said...

great post, great post.

Anonymous said...

I took care of Henry in the past 9 years. He did love to joke, though I don't remember any one specific joke. Maybe it was before my time, but I will ask if any of the old timers know it. Henry was sometimes serious, but more often just liked to do crossword puzzles, watch TV, and talk to those of us who cared for him. He had to have an idea of how things were. He did not seem lost when he woke up, or fearful of how he got there. He must have had a lot of trust in us for that.