Feature

Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M. by Suzanne Corkin

No one is better suited to write Henry Molaison’s story than neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin.

(Basic, $29)

No one is better suited to write Henry Molaison’s story than neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin, said Ken MacQueen in Maclean’s. The young researcher met Molaison justnine years after he underwent a 1953 brain operation that caused amnesia so severe he could remember almost nothing for more than 30 seconds. Corkin worked closely with Molaison across the next 46 years as she and other researchers tried to learn from his brain—“perhaps the most studied in medical history.” She came to see him as more than a patient. When he died five years ago, at 82, she even delivered a eulogy.

Corkin’s “superb” book weaves an account of that special relationship into a history of 20th-century memory research, said Douwe Draaisma in Nature. Molaison’s mind yielded groundbreaking discoveries, including proof that short-term and long-term memories form in distinct ways. Molaison eventually proved able to retain certain information—gaining dexterity, for instance, when he was asked over and over again to use a mirror to guide his hand as he drew a star shape. He even began to remember that he knew Corkin, though he mistakenly believed for some time that they had been high school classmates.

Corkin’s account raises questions about her professional ethics, said Robert Herritt in TheDailyBeast.com. She describes Molaison as a consistently cheery, sociable man. In fact, “his undeniable humanity” comes across so vividly that a reader might think it unconscionable that Corkin and her peers essentially turned him into their lab rat. One could argue that the researchers at least ensured that Molaison’s tragic initial loss of a normal existence didn’t go to waste. But try to square that with the way Corkin describes her feelings about the postmortem operation that preserved Molaison’s brain: “Seeing Henry’s precious brain in the safety of the metal bowl,” she writes, “was one of the most memorable and satisfying moments of my life.” That’s not friendship; “it’s the stuff of black comedy.”

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