While reviewing my philosophy weblog news feeds I came across a link to the live webstream of a brain dissection on the internet. H.M., a famous neuroscience patient, died a year ago. He was famous in brain studies because a surgery to cure seizures resulted in his being unable to form new memories.
“He loved to converse, for example, but within 15 minutes he would tell you the same story three times, with same words and intonation, without remembering that he’d just told it,” said Suzanne Corkin, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied and followed Mr. Molaison in the last five decades of his life.
Each time he met a new acquaintance, each time he visited the corner store, each time he strolled around the block, it was as if for the first time.
Before H.M., scientists thought that memory was widely distributed throughout the brain, not dependent on any one area. But by testing Mr. Molaison, researchers in Montreal and Hartford soon established that the areas that were removed — in the medial temporal lobe, about an inch deep in the brain level with the ear — are critical to forming new memories. One organ, the hippocampus, is especially crucial and is now the object of intense study.
I am a neophiliac by personal inclination and this story cuts both ways. I’m astounded by the very fact that this procedure is being webcast on the internet in real-time. I watched as one of the scientists climbed onto the laboratory bench to adjust the apparatus just a few minutes ago.
On the other hand I’m terrified whenever I try to imagine myself as H.M. How would I feel if I could no longer form new memories? Would I even be able to tell the difference between my life today and my life after losing the ability to form new memories?
If there is more convincing evidence for the biological basis of the self then I don’t know it.
This article for the San Diego paper goes into more detail on the procedures used to preserve the brain and scan it.