One of the subjects I have lectured on from time to time is the various ways that movies like Memento (2000) and 50 First Dates (2004) have dealt with the subject of memory — including, but not limited to, short-term memory loss. And in the course of that lecture, I usually talk about a man who is known in the medical literature as H.M.; this is the relevant passage:
Now, I don’t think Drew Barrymore’s condition exists in real life — I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think there is a condition where people remember everything until they fall asleep, and then the events of that day are wiped from their brains. But there are people who suffer from conditions that are quite similar to this, the most famous of which is a man known as Henry M., or H.M. In 1953, H.M. was admitted to the hospital for brain surgery to treat his epilepsy; he was 27 years old at the time. Among other things, the doctors removed his hippocampus — a portion of the brain that is crucial for storing new memories. We all have a short-term memory — or a “scratch pad” memory, which holds on to things for just a few minutes — and a long-term memory, which holds on to things more or less forever. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that moves memories from the short-term area to the long-term area. So after his operation, H.M. could still remember everything that had happened in his life up to that point — but he became incapable of remembering anything else for more than a few minutes.
However, doctors also discovered that H.M. could learn new skills, even without the ability to make new long-term memories. It turns out that procedural memories and declarative memories are formed by different parts of the brain. The authors of Star Trek on the Brain explain the difference this way: If I ask you what your personal identification number is for your ATM card, you might answer by just rattling off the number — that would be declarative memory. But some people remember only by pretending to punch in the numbers on an imaginary keypad — that would be procedural memory. H.M. was taught to solve a puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi, which involves moving rings back and forth among a series of pegs. He does not remember ever seeing the puzzle or learning it, but if you sit him down in front of it, he will solve it much, much more quickly than a complete novice would.
I don’t know if H.M. is still alive, but if he is, he would be in his 80s by now. Last I heard, he was living in a nursing home in Hartford. He reportedly leads a life of quiet confusion — he usually guesses he is about 30, and he is always surprised by his reflection in the mirror, and every time he hears about the death of his mother, he grieves as if it were for the first time. He also lives with the uneasy sense that he has done something wrong, but he just can’t remember what it was.
Which brings us to Memento. . . .
I mention all this now because Variety reported tonight that Columbia Pictures and producer Scott Rudin plan to develop a film about H.M. as seen through the eyes of Suzanne Corkin, a professor of behavioural neuroscience who worked with H.M. for 45 years, up until his death two months ago.
The film will apparently be based on a memoir to be written by Corkin, as well as Memory’s Ghost: The Nature of Memory and the Strange Tale of Mr. M, a book by Philip Hilts that was first published in 1996. Could be interesting.