The Quickening Art
We went to an interesting play last night. It’s called Yesterday Happened: Remembering H. M.. It’s about the life of Henry Molaison. He’s famous in the medical literature as HM. In 1953, experimental brain surgery left him unable to form new memories. For the rest of his life he lived with a growing gap between the year 1953 and the present.
The play did a good job of giving an impression of what Henry’s life must have been like. He spent most of his life being studied by researchers. Suzanne Corkin was one of the scientists who worked with him the longest. In this interview with Nova, she describes a little bit about what that was like, and what they learned from studying him. And they certainly did learn a lot. These studies of Henry form the basis of almost everything we now know about how memory works.
I was particularly impressed by Tod Machover’s music for the play. It was composed of dozens of tiny fragments of familiar music which were tied together in strange and unexpected ways. Throughout the play, your brain kept waking up and yelling “I know this music”, and then going, “no, nevermind, that’s not it”. It probably did a good job of giving you some idea of what it would be like to have a defective memory. Of course it’s especially appropriate that the music is such an important part of the play, because music is a powerful tool for helping patients with memory problems, as seen in the new documentary Alive Inside, which features another wonderful character named Henry.