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Memory's Ghost: The Nature of Memory and The Strange Tale of Mr. M

1995

 

In 1953, experimental brain surgery was performed on a young man named Henry M. It was a time when lobotomies were in fashion, and Henry's doctor speculated that his epilepsy could be cured by a radical operation. Two holes were drilled into Henry's skull, above his eyes, and through silver straws the hippocampus--a grayish-pink, seahorse-shaped bit whose function was unknown--was sucked out from within his brain. When Henry recovered, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. He could talk and read and write. But when asked where he was, or who the people were at his bedside, he did not know. Nurses could speak to him and return a moment later, only to find he had no memory of them. He could read the same newspaper over and over, each time as if it was his first. He is perpetually waking from a dream, suspended in uncertainty about what day it is and what lies ahead.

 

Henry, though he has been shielded by researchers and access to him strict regulated, has become over the past fifty years the most studied human in the history of science. His misadventure has become an extraordinary fount of knowledge about what memory is and how it works. In this book, Philip Hilts, one of a small number of people who have had access to him, tells Henry's remarkable story.

 

But Henry's story is only part of the book. While telling of Henry's life, Hilts takes the reader on a fascinating trip down Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, in search of Mnemosyne, the goddess of mind and imagination. Memory's Ghost travels from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where scientists map the electrical activity of neurons in sea snails, in order to study the birth of thought and memory, to the birth of civilization, when ancient people began to puzzle out the meaning of memory. The book follows the human study of memory from Plato and St. Augusting to Samuel Johnson, Proust and William James.

 

The book was named a New York Times Book Review "Notable Book of the Year" during 1995.

Critics' Comments


"This stimulating, resonant beautifully written investigation looks at memory through the multiple prisms of science,literature and history." --Publisher's Weekly

 

"Few tales are more fascinating than that of Henry M." -- Howard Gardner,The New York Times Book Review.