Discovering the Roots of Memory

An interview with Brenda Milner, who studied one of the most famous patients in the history of psychology. Her findings shaped everything we now know about the way we remember.

As a 95-year-old psychologist, Brenda Milner still remembers the “bad old days” of frontal lobotomies as a treatment for psychosis. In fact, her research provided some of the first evidence showing why such invasive brain operations could be harmful.

Milner, who teaches and conducts research at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Quebec, is perhaps most known for her work with Henry Molaison, a patient formerly known as H.M.

Molaison had epilepsy and was treated by having specific regions of both his temporal lobes—the parts of the brain we now know are responsible for memory—removed in 1953 by William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital. The operation helped Molaison’s epilepsy but gave him anterograde amnesia, meaning he could not form memories of new events, though his working memory was unaffected.

Milner in 1965 (left) and today. (Courtesy of Brenda Milner and Meera Paleja)

Through her studies on H.M., Milner found that he could learn new motor tasks, but he had no memory of having done so. For example, he was able to draw a reflected image of a star by looking in a mirror, but he couldn’t remember practicing the skill over the course of days.

This discovery, as well as Milner’s future work, led to a greater scientific understanding of different types of memory

I talked with Milner by phone last week. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

How would you describe the field of neuropsychology?

I suppose it's the idea that as a psychologist, I'm a student of behavior, the scientific study of behavior. That’s my definition of experimental psychology. Where you make the leap into neuropsychology is by thinking that you should try to correlate these behavioral phenomena, such as memory or perception, with what is going on in the brain. And of course, before we knew so much about the brain, it was just speculation. But the more we found out about the brain, the more reasonable this approach seemed to be.

In World War II, you spent some time performing aptitude tests on fighter pilots and bomber pilots. What was that like?

In World War II, scientists in the U.K. were a reserved occupation; they couldn’t be drafted into the army. If I had gone into the arts, I would have been in uniform and maybe been in France. But scientists were considered brains that could be used at home, so I was in Cambridge. I had just completed my bachelor's degree in 1939 when war broke out. I had a scholarship from my college for two years research.

In Cambridge, we were very near a lot of airfields where planes were taking off and landing. It became very natural that our department was working on research that was relevant to the Airforce. What I had been interested to study, even before the war, was perception and what you do when you get conflicting information from different senses. Or what happens if you get sensations as you’re flying a plane that disagree with what your instruments are telling you. What we were doing in Cambridge—we were working with the Airforce to try to decide which of the incoming airmen who were going to be pilots, which of them should be directed to fly in bomber planes and which should be directed to fly in fighter planes.

Everybody had to trust their instruments, but there were many different tasks ... we were looking over the whole array of what these potential pilots had done on various tests. And of course it all depended on the needs of the moment. At the Battle of Britain, we needed fighter pilots, but later in the war, the emphasis was on bombing German cities. They were exciting years.

Did you face any sexism early in your career?

No, I’ve never seen any sexism. I didn't find it difficult. The Montreal Neurological Institute, when I went there, was a very authoritarian place. Dr. Penfield was a very dominant figure— when you were young and new there, you didn’t speak out of turn. It was hierarchical, but it was not sex discrimination.

The only gender discrimination I discovered was a structural one: When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to go to Cambridge University. There were very few women students at Oxford or Cambridge, and back then the women couldn’t go to the men’s colleges. In 1936, across the whole university and all three years it took to get your B.A., there couldn't be more than 400 women, and there were thousands of men. To get into one of these women’s colleges, there were very few places. And I had to get scholarships because I had no money. The situation that was competitive was structural in that there were so few women’s [places].

But [sexism] isn’t something I’m interested in as a topic. I enjoy men as companions. I work well with men.

How did you come to start working with H.M., the patient who suffered the memory loss?

I was working here with Dr. Wilder Penfield, who founded the Montreal Neurological Institute. In those days, we did not have MRIs. We had no way of looking into the brain, so the surgeon did not know what he was going to find until he opened up the brain.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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