Then, H.M. was this patient who had had these seizures from an early age, he’d been treated with every kind of medication that was available in the day. Dr. Scoville thought maybe this operation [on both sides of the brain] would be useful in this desperate case of H.M. And he agreed to it, and the operation was carried out. And after that, though, there was this huge memory impairment.
You mentioned that he could learn how to do something perfectly, but he could never remember having done it.
He couldn’t learn a poem or something like that or the route to the bathroom, but he could improve a motor skill. In this case, it was trying to follow the outline of a star on a piece of paper when it’s reflected in a mirror. If you only see your hand in the mirror, you really make a mess of it at first. We all do. That’s normal. The beautiful thing was that H.M. showed this improvement toward the end. He was doing this drawing on the table, and he did this beautiful drawing, and he said, “that’s funny, it looks like it would be difficult, but it looks as though I’ve done it quite well.”
He was so amazed because he had absolutely no recollection of the 30 trials of this he’d done over three days. So the motor learning systems were still intact in him. When you have a patient who doesn’t remember anything, the challenge isn’t to show if he’s forgetful—that’s obvious. The challenge is to show if he can learn anything at all.
The most exciting moment in my research was that. I had not predicted this.
How did your peers react to that discovery?
This was the early 1950s, and people were doing research on animals or with graduate student volunteer subjects.
So some said, "Well this is one peculiar case, who knows what else is going on in this person's brain? You’re claiming that these structures are so important for memory, and we don’t have an animal model.”
The important thing was to get an animal model, from monkeys ideally, in whom these temporal lobe structures had been damaged and then you could show a comparable equivalent impairment.
And it took about 17 years before there was an animal model, and then once we had that, everyone was really excited about the human findings.
What do you think is your most enduring breakthrough?
In terms of what has attracted attention and continues to, I suppose this evidence of the importance of the hippocampus [a structure in the temporal lobe] in memory processes. And in terms of all the work it's generated all over the world, that’s the most important thing.
When I began this work, memory was not a fashionable topic in psychology. I didn't go into neuropsychology with the intention of working on memory. But when you have a patient in their 20s complaining of memory problems, you feel that this is something you have to investigate. It was a long time before these findings became accepted, and after that people became interested in memory.