Hazel McHaffie

Permanent Present Tense

Permanent present tense

Peppers TheatrePhew! It’s baking hot in the Peppers Theatre at lunchtime today. Ladies discreetly fan themselves with their tickets; jackets, jumpers, over-blouses are discarded. Loud thumping music reverberates through the tent for the first 20 minutes. It’s dim, the speaker is using slides, the chairman is very wordy. It’s like a how-not-to manual!

But neuroscientist Professor Suzanne Corkin, seems unfazed. When she was 27 she met a remarkable man and she remained ‘his friend’ for 46 years until his death. She’s here to tell his story; recounted in Permanent Present Tense.

Henry Molaison was 10 when he began to have petit mal attacks, 15 when generalised convulsions began. They became both debilitating and socially damaging, so in the 1950s he underwent an experimental psycho-surgical procedure. For him, the result of years of strong anti-convulsants, followed by the removal of parts of his brain, was disastrous: he lost the ability to form new memories for the rest of his life. Pause for a moment … What would that be like? … Never remembering anything. But Molaison’s catastrophe proved to be a gift to humanity, because studying him facilitated a revolution in the neuroscience of memory. As he put it himself: ‘What is found out about me helps you to help others.

The professor plays a tape of his voice as if to get us closer to the man himself, and then outlines some of the tests she and her team did on him: counting backwards in threes, recalling letters, remembering stories, reproducing drawings, matching words to definitions (oh, simple everyday words like hagira, anchorite, egress, manumit, welkin, minatory, quotidian), identifying celebrities and why they were famous (eg Julie Andrews, Lee Harvey Oswald, John F Kennedy, Ray Charles, Woody Allen, Liza Minelli, Mikhail Gorbachev). Yoiks, I’d have been struggling with some of these tests! HM (as he was known), proved a dab hand at mirror-tracing, but on most exercises he showed a complete inability to convert short term memory into long term.

And yet what shines through is the warm friendship Corkin had for her patient. He was, she says, a gentle soul, intelligent, friendly, altruistic, and witty. As he said spontaneously once: ‘It’s a funny thing, you just live and learn. I’m living and you’re learning.’

A year after his death, in line with his consent, his brain was sliced into 2,401 slices each the thickness of a hair. Ongoing invaluable material for the scientists. What a legacy.

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