There is only one way we tell stories about other people, and it’s the only way we’ve ever told stories about other people. We find the connections between us and them, and then we use those connections as a bridge. (Luke Dittrich)
The first time I met patient H.M I was sitting in front of my computer watching a video about memory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWeKVzx6NSk&t=12s After the Greek word hippocampus, the small seahorse ‘most of us’ have safely stored in our brain, a man whose name was composed only by two-letters was brought into the picture of my knowledge. He did not have a history or a family, everything was about his missing seahorses or at least part of them. A few months passed, until one day in the higher shelf of the Harvard Bookstore in Boston I found Luke Dittrich’s book about the famous amnesiac patient titled Patient H.M. A Story of Memory, Madness, And Family Secrets. Do I actually know more about H.M.’s life now after reading it? Not quite. Dittrich’s book, in fact, is not about the history of the emotional, cognitive or rather personal life of one of the most famous ‘seahorseless’ man in history. It is rather a very interesting volume that depicts the history of neuroscience and the limitless struggle to reach for knowledge that human beings go through.
Dittrich’s book is divided into five Macro-section, a prologue, an epilogue and a thorough section of endnotes which were added after a New York Times reviewer noted that “Any book with neuroscience this complex and content this provocative really needs footnotes. This book has none […]”. As in a sort of a kaleidoscopic roller coaster, the reader gets to play the marionette of the Dittrich’s show. He will skillfully start by catapulting you into the neuroanatomist Jacopo Annese’s lab slicing through H.M.’S brain artifact and then in a flash you will be standing in front of the child H.M. falling from a bicycle, and without even noticing it you will receive a plausible reason for Henri Molaison’s epilepsy. Don’t worry, you will not stay there long! Dittrich will pull you out of that place in a blink of an eye and you will get to assist to his grandmother’s madness, his grandfather’s trial and error playing Operation. You will be the audience of many surgical performances and finally, in the last section of the book titled “Secret Wars,” you will get to root between TEAM DITTRICH or TEAM CORKIN.
On this note, I should then introduce our second player in the H.M. historical background series, Suzanne Corkin, author of the book Permanent Present Tense. The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient H.M. published in 2013. Corkin was the neuropsychologist who took care of Henri while obsessively studying his brain after ‘The Operation’ in 1953, and if some of you have just met H.M. in this review you might wonder of what operation I am referring to. On Tuesday, August 25, 1953, the neurosurgeon Dr. William Beecher Scoville stole part of H.M.’s hippocampi by sucking them into a vacuum that paralyzed a body and a mind into a world of constant present moments.
“Every day is alone in itself” states Henri Molaison (H.M.) during an interview with Suzanne Corkin. Henri’s memory was a series of photograms that never met. His history was puzzled out by other people. The problem is that not everyone likes to solve puzzles in the same way. The result is that Henri’s life has been a sequence of different possible outcomes! One man with many different conflicting stories.
Dittrich’s and Corkin’s books represent a war that started long before Henri’s death. While Corkin’s apparent intent in writing about H.M. was to inform readers about memory and finally to create an elegy for his deceased patient and friend, Dittrich’s motive seems to be quite different. His 416 pages, in fact, constitutes the minutest brick that finally led to the construction of the famous H.M. statue. The book doesn’t provide the reader with emotional details about the man Henri Molaison, it rather walks me through the pathways that led to the creation of his two-letters pseudonym. What makes the book juicy? The fact that Dittrich himself is the grandson of one of the limitless human beings who happened to steal seahorses from people in order to learn something from them.
Scientists are not machines, they are insatiable heartless scavengers that strive to break through the dura mater and uncover one of the most mysterious lands, our brain. Reading through Dittrich’s and Corkin’s pages I grew hungrier and hungrier for facts and knowledge. After the first few patients’ leucotomies (the surgical cuttings of the white matter) I became eager to know more about the different bridges connecting the inside platforms of the human brain.
Dittrich’s approach to these practices and to his grandfather is very complex and borderline. One moment, he will delve into William the grandad with his convoluted, weird and withdrawn personality and a few chapters later, we will meet Dr. William Scoville the perfectly scrubbed neurosurgeon who seemed to lack any connection with his right hemisphere (the emotional side of the brain). The emotional side of this book is exactly it, the struggle to remain objective in a very subjective matter. Dittrich doesn’t only report his grandfather problematic and grandiose personality, he also quite vividly exposed the painful history about the hospitalization of his grandmother (Scoville’s wife) who underwent several shock therapies (also called electric sleep), hydrotherapy, Insulin and Metrazol injection etc. The disturbing side of all these recollections of ‘scientific’ procedures is the lack of empathy, humanity and just simple ethics that you would expect from a grandson writing about his grandfather.
What by its cover seems to be a book about Patient H.M. and his memory loss is actually a semi-autobiographical recollection of a grandson that tries to come to term with the idea that his own grandfather was not the sweet, white-beard old man that most of us think about when we picture our grandpa. “’ Did my grandfather ever feel guilty?’” Dittrich asked Dr. Brenda Milner. With these words, we don’t merely see an author eager for information, but a boy’s need for explanations about his grandfather’s apparent sociopathic traits.
Jumping into Corkin’s book we definitely find a different kind of atmosphere. While in Dittrich’s writing we met Henri at the margins of the page, in Corkin’s book Henry is placed at the center of the equation. The recently deceased neuropsychologist was working with the scientific data in a way that it seems to function as a smaller planet rotating around one center; Henry’s brain. Corkin’s book is divided into thirteen chapters that seem to weave memory science and Henri’s life. Although, as soon as I have tasted half of the book, I had realized that everything kept going back to the present Henri. Every study about memory, which projected me into the past history of neuroscience was constantly interrupted by Corkin’s studies on Henri’s recollection.
Left) Mooney face perception test: scores the subject’s ability to form mental pictures with minimal visual information. Henry did very well. (The Guardian)
Right) Visual stepping stone maze: Henry had to discover and remember a prescribed ‘correct’ route across the dots – wrong moves elicited a clicking noise. In 215 tests, Henry failed to reduce his errors, indicating a declarative memory deficiency. (The Guardian)
Dittrich vs. Corkin
How do I want to remember Henri?
The reader gets to choose between Corkin’s or Dittrich’s spectacles. My suggestion though would be to wear both! Some moments fit together in perfect molds while others tend to create a distorted image of Henri which will define his kaleidoscopic fabricated identity. The two books are the emblem of a weird diatribe, an implicit and explicit dialogue between two significant icons fighting to keep their most wanted toy; H.M. brain.
Henri Molaison could not link any of his life’s photograms but thanks to Dittrich and Corking we definitely can. Is that a good thing? Do we have the authority to own the story of a man that wasn’t even aware to have one? These are questions that will probably never receive an ultimate answer. For the moment, I enjoy having met a seahorseless man!