Musings on Patient HM and the Human Enigma


I knew vaguely of a few cases of patients whose unfortunate run-ins with brain-altering incidents illuminated new insights into the workings of the brain. Of particular interest to me were the more detailed minutiae regarding HM’s interactions, his interests, such as his constant familiarity with the television and befuddlement with the remote, or his placid cooperative attitude. I found myself wishing that something that held richer data encoding his experiences, his mindscape, such as video or a diary, could have been used. I found myself wondering about other similar cases of patients who like Phineas Gage and HM had changed both their very selves as well as our understanding of the human brain, and in particular what kinds of documentation may have been done for each of these people.

It seems a handful of patients existed whose run-in with a physical injury or disease would leave some portion of the brain permanently scrambled. Many experienced anteretrograde amnesia, with slight retrograde amnesia. In a few cases, the patient themself provided unreliable, exaggerated or altered data that rendered their information difficult to use, as in the case of Scott Bolzan, a former NFL player. A few fascinating mental alterations in addition to amnesia include sudden eidetic memory, where the affected is suddenly bestowed with vastly improved memory recall, the case of Eadweard Muybridge, who suddenly had an uninhibited burst of creative ability, SM-046 and her complete loss of fear and Kent Cochrane’s inability to envision himself in the future.

In the case of Clive Wearing, another anteretrograde amnesiac, the patient logged regularly in a diary. Upon seeing past entries he had no recollection of writing, the patient would cross out the last entry and then write the current entry with an emphasis on the realness of this entry compared to the past entries. Use of such data that provides insight into the patient’s internal world brings to mind the short story Flowers for Algernon, which is written as a series of logs by a test subject of an artificial intelligence booster. Over the entries the subject’s crude, elementary entries grow in complexity to a markedly eloquent, intelligent prose, only to tragically fade back into the subject’s initial retarded state. Perhaps the use of personal recorded material is cruel to the subject, and its use as data also infringing on the rights of the recorder.

I am reminded of Leonardo DaVinci’s graverobbing in his attempts to further undestanding of human anatomy, or of the fictional men of science Victor Frankenstein and Faust. In the case of the two fictional men the men were exemplars of the danger of hubris in science. There is a persistent wariness and fear of carelessly prodding and wielding the knowledge science affords us. The exploits of men of science of more sociopathic lines tend to be regarded with fascination, disgust and contempt. And yet there is also an acknowledgment of the breakthroughs such broaches in ethics have afforded us. Scientific experiments in psychology such as that of Harry Harlow’s Pit of Despair, the Stanford Prison Experiment, or the Milgram Experiment on obedience would have difficulty receiving the go-ahead today. Countless other examples exist of less-that-ethical or less-than-stringent science that nevertheless contributes to our current understanding of reality today. In the article glimpses of this removed nigh-sociopathic mindset bent on knowledge accruel is hinted at in the attitudes and demeanors of the men and women that worked around patient HM. The role of this knowledge-hungry mindset and its role, importance and risk to society is one that piques my interest as well.

These men and women were by no means truly sociopathic, but there were strains of the sociopathic that could be teased out and dramatized in the writing. Few things in life are binary, and most things align themselves to a blurry continuum of shades of gray. Like the instances of sociopathy and compassion most humans exhibit, the memories each possesses, too, can not be claimed resident to two distinct categories of ‘working’ and ‘broken.’ We have instances where we fail to remember or fail to recall. Instances where memory retrieval is quick, flawless and picture-perfect, and instances where all is a blur. Memory is, in that case, an unreliable store of our personal histories. And memory consists of numerous parts, pieces; the visual, the audial, simple numerical details. All these pieces, during the storage or during retrieval, may get shifted a bit, the data being a bit lossy. Perhaps a further investigation into the performance of memory of people along this continuum of memory performance would be one worth conducting, between the amnesiac and the eidetic.