Mike Jay reviews Suzanne Corkin's Permanent Present Tense: The Man with No Memory, and What He Taught the World in the LRB:
Memory creates our identity, but it also exposes the illusion of a coherent self: a memory is not a thing but an act that alters and rearranges even as it retrieves. Although some of its operations can be trained to an astonishing pitch, most take place autonomously, beyond the reach of the conscious mind. As we age, it distorts and foreshortens: present experience becomes harder to impress on the mind, and the long-forgotten past seems to draw closer; University Challenge gets easier, remembering what you came downstairs for gets harder. Yet if we were somehow to freeze our memory at the youthful peak of its powers, around our late twenties, we would not create a polished version of ourselves analogous to a youthful body, but an early, scrappy draft composed of childhood memories and school-learning, barely recognisable to our older selves.
Something like this happened to the most famous case of amnesia in 20th-century science, a man known only as ‘H.M.’ until his death in 2008. When he was 27, a disastrous brain operation destroyed his ability to form new memories, and he lived for the next 55 years in a rolling thirty-second loop of awareness, a ‘permanent present tense’. During this time he was subjected to thousands of hours of tests, of which naturally he had no recall; he provided data for hundreds of scientific papers, and became the subject of a book (Memory’s Ghost by Philip Hilts) and a staple of popular science journalism; by the 1990s digital images of his uniquely disfigured hippocampus featured in almost every standard work on the neuroscience of memory. Since his death his brain has been shaved into 2401 slices, each 70 microns thick, compared in one account to the slivers of ginger served with sushi. Suzanne Corkin, an MIT neuroscientist, first met him in 1962 and after 1980 became his lead investigator and ‘sole keeper’. Permanent Present Tense is her account of Henry Gustave Molaison – his full identity can finally be revealed – and the historic contribution he made to science.
Corkin had a reputation for strict policing of access to Henry, a charge she happily concedes: ‘I did not want him to become a sideshow attraction – the man without a memory.’ After the death of his mother, his last thirty years were spent at a Connecticut nursing home in strict anonymity, with staff sworn to secrecy and filming prohibited. More than a hundred carefully screened researchers were admitted over the years to perform brain scans and cognitive tests, but were never told his name. Corkin’s lucid, well-organised telling of Henry’s story merges intimate case history with an account of the current scientific understanding and how it was reached.