The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat meets Memory: A Very Short Introduction

This is a short review of the book Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M. by Suzanne Corkin.  The title of the post gives my one sentence summary for those familiar enough with books on psychology.

Permanent Present Tense has two primary characteristics that make it a worthwhile read. First, it presents a significant amount of cutting edge research on human memory, much of which was performed in Corkin’s lab at MIT. This presentation remains at the level of the lay person with a limited amount of technical language related to brain regions. It covers key distinctions in memory research, such as declarative memory (broken down further into episodic versus semantic) versus procedural memory and long-term memory versus short-term and working memory. It also covers key figures in the history of memory research such as Ebbinghaus and Bartlett, as well as at least part of the history of brain surgery for neurological disorders.

Second, the book presents this research in the form of a compelling narrative about one of psychology’s most famous subjects of all time, H.M. After his death in 2008, H.M. was publicly identified as Henry Molaison. “Henry” as he was known among those who worked with him experienced severe memory deficits after a surgical procedure intended to alleviate his frequent and debilitating epileptic seizures. While Corkin does attempt to maintain the stance of an objective observer the book is somewhat in the tradition of Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (a classic in the field of psychology that I also highly recommend). The reader leaves with a better understanding of human memory and the way in which experiments involving Henry have advanced that current understand; however, the author doesn’t allow the reader to lose sight of the fact that Henry was a human being who, along with his caregivers, experienced a tragedy difficult for many of us to imagine.

For those interested in human memory, but who might prefer something other than a textbook type treatment of the subject this book is definitely worthwhile. For those who read this blog who are interested primarily in language there are also lengthy sections of the book that deal with Henry’s language deficits as well. Permanent Present Tense both aids in understanding memory and at the same time inspires sympathy for the unfortunate people through whom we sometimes gain our understanding.

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