On December 2, 2008, Henry Gustav Molaison, who was 82, died in a nursing home in Connecticut. He was known to most of the world (or the part of world that cares about brain research) only as H.M. But his passage made the front page of The New York Times this past Friday, because H.M. emerged from an experimental brain operation in 1953, with a permanent inability to form new memories. Reports the Times: “For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it was as if for the first time.”
H.M. became the most important subject in the history of brain research. Up until now, with the advent of brain imaging and other sophisticated means for seeing the brain in action, this patient and gentle amnesiac was the biggest source of evidence that researchers had about the difference between explicit and implicit memory–the difference between conscious memory and instinctive learning (that is, he would master difficult mechanical tasks after many trials only to experience that long process of learning as having done the task for the first time and finding it “easier than I thought it would be.”) By many accounts sensitive and open to a good joke, H.M. nonetheless had to move to a nursing home when he was 54 and his loved ones had died because he could only navigate through a day doing rudimentary things like making his bed and helping rake leaves by drawing on a few early memories. Otherwise, he had only scattered snapshot memories, “gist” memories, no narrative.
Clearly, even those of us who meditate and engage in other practices to cultivate mindful awareness of the present moment, need our narratives. We just need to take them with a large grain of salt. It seems to be the case that those of us who are seeking to wake up from what we sense is ego-driven illusion…are seeking to wake up to a bigger story, a universal story, a story that rings true for all people in all times…a story that will last perhaps?
A friend emailed that she was going to stay for a time with her mother who has lately become afraid to go to sleep. The older woman is afraid that she may not wake up. This touched me very much because I recognize that I carry a similar anxiety about forgetting who I am…and being forgotten. How is it that lettling go of notions of self can seem the easiest and most natural thing in the world and also the hardest–liberation and annililation.
To be continued….