December 17, 2008
'Only three movies ever made... portray amnesia with anything approximating accuracy' — Neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale
The quotation above appeared last week in Jurek Martin's Financial Times obituary of Henry Molaison, "the most famous amnesiac in the history of neuroscience."
Martin's piece invoked "Memento," one of Baxendale's aforementioned three.
What are the other two?
Answer here this time tomorrow.
In the meantime, here's Martin's masterful obituary about Molaison, the man whose past never was.
- The most famous amnesiac in the history of neuroscience
Tales of a man with no memory have been a staple of the movies since the silent era. In “Memento”, released to critical acclaim in 2000, the hero finds that after the killing of his wife he can remember nothing for more than a few moments. As he struggles to solve her murder he frantically records every thought, every discovery before it is blanked from his mind.
But it was not all fiction, as almost all movies about amnesia are. It had been inspired by the real life of the man known only to neuroscientists as HM, or sometimes Henry M, whose actual identity was revealed only after his death in Connecticut last week at the age of 82. He was Henry Gustav Molaison and he was, without doubt, the most famous and examined patient in the history of neuroscience.
He was born on February 26 1926 in Hartford, the son of a Cajun electrician from Thibodeaux, Louisiana, and an Irish mother. In 1953, HM underwent experimental brain surgery in Hartford to correct repeated epileptic seizures, which began after he had been knocked over by a bicycle when he was nine. They had become so frequent and severe that he could no longer hold down his job as a motor mechanic and all treatment had failed.
The surgeon, William Beecher Scoville, who had refined lobotomy techniques, removed two finger-length wedges of tissue from HM’s brain by cutting deep into its hippocampus. The seizures became infrequent but the patient’s life was radically, and forever, changed. He could remember his name and his early life but almost nothing that happened after he emerged from the operating table. Each experience, each face, was eternally new to him. Whatever he absorbed lasted in his mind for no more than about 20 seconds, yet his basic intelligence was unimpaired. He was the victim of “profound amnesia”, or, to give its technical term, severe anterograde amnesia. Scoville, conscience-stricken, contacted two Canadian physicians, Wilder Penfield and Brenda Milner, renowned for their work on memory loss. Dr Milner began to visit HM regularly. In this early period of neuroscience, knowledge of the brain was rudimentary, with widespread disagreements over the causes of amnesia. The memory function, it was assumed, was distributed throughout the brain and not dependent on one neural organ or region.
Dr Milner’s seminal study, based on her work with HM, was published in 1962. It revealed there were at least two systems in the brain responsible for creating memory; one was the subconscious, “motor learning”, by which people can remember how to perform basic tasks, such as riding a bicycle; the other, declarative memory, stores facts and experiences until they are consciously recalled. This was based in the hippocampus, part of which had been removed from HM’s brain.
Legions of researchers descended on Connecticut to examine neuroscience’s most famous patient, who was always extremely obliging, even if he could never remember who his repeated visitors were.
He lived at home, with his parents and later another relative, before eventually moving into a nursing home and was able to function at a basic level from what he could remember from the first 27 years of his life. He could prepare a meal, make his own bed and work in a garden. He was also able to do crossword puzzles, more of a motor skill. He had no problems with straightforward conversations. Dr Milner recently recalled him as “a very gracious man, very patient, always willing to try these tasks I would give him. And yet every time I walked into the room, it was like we’d never met.”
Suzanne Corkin, once a student of Dr Milner’s and now of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has similar fond memories of her long collaboration with HM, about whom she is writing a book. “He was like a family member. You’d think it would be impossible to have a relationship with someone who didn’t recognise you, but I did.” She added he tried to show recognition: “He thought he knew me from high school.”
She has arranged to have his brain preserved, much as Einstein’s was, for scientific posterity. Just after his death, she had a team of scientists taking extensive magnetic resonance images of his brain, trying to find out which areas of temporal lobes were damaged and which were not.
Art does not precisely imitate life in Memento, but, according to Sallie Baxendale, a neuropsychologist writing in the British Medical Journal in 2004, it is one of only three movies ever made to portray amnesia with anything approximating accuracy. Common plot devices depict memory loss after a trauma and recovery after another one or show the subject living a normal but different life, which, she writes, is “neurologically improbable”. Fictional film assassins, such as Jason Bourne, are particularly prone to forgetting what they have done.
Her comprehensive article, aptly titled “Memories aren’t made of this”, notes that “Memento” was “inspired partly by neuropsychological studies of the famous patient HM”.
It is not known if HM ever used photographs or scratched words in his skin to try to remember what he would forget in a moment, as the character Leonard does in the film, but, in most respects, it gets profound amnesia right. “The fragmented, almost mosaic sequence of scenes in the film also cleverly reflects the perpetual present nature of the affliction,” Dr Baxendale observed.
One can speculate on who might play HM in a film. The late Peter Sellers could have, as he did the simple-minded Chauncey Gardiner; also Dustin Hoffman, who portrayed the autistic-savant Raymond in "Rain Man," or Tom Hanks, reprising his role as Forrest Gump. Each character, while mentally flawed, achieved a certain serenity, as, apparently, did Henry Gustav Molaison. He had, after all, given his brain to science.
Personal Soundtrack T-Shirt
Where's Nick Hornby when we really need him?
Long story short: It was originally an April Fool's joke product but so many people clamored for one they decided to make it.
The working speaker on the front plays any music and sound effects you want at your remote-controlled command.
"Perfect for making your ordinary life more exciting."
Helpful Hints from joeeze: How to remove a broken light bulb (Blast from the past)
Guess what: joeeze's hint worked just as specified below.
Maybe he's not as big a fool as I thought.
- Helpful Hints From joe–eez: How to remove a broken light bulb
This much–loved feature of bookofjoe returns after some time in turnaround.
And it returns with a crash, to wit: the smashing of glass on your floor as a light bulb explodes or shatters in your hand as you're changing it.
The screw part of the bulb is stuck in the socket, with sharp glass pieces sticking out; and those wiggly things in the middle don't look like a whole lot of fun either, I must admit.
Well, guess what: been there, done that, and not very well, I must confess.
Now comes wondergirl Jane Buckingham with a most clever piece of advice on what to do next.
Here we go:
1) Get a potato. No, this is not a joke — just get one.
2) Turn off the power to the socket or light.
3) Remove the fuse or turn the breaker off.
Note: If you don't know how to do step 3 do not continue — repeat, do not continue. Instead, find someone who can execute step 3 for you.
4) Push the narrow end of the the potato into the screw cap/remains of the light bulb.
5) Twist and the broken base should emerge, buried in the potato.
Ms. Buckingham recommends gloves and safety glasses: I concur.
But I must say I was somewhat surprised to read her instructions and see she'd not inserted the cautionary note between steps 3 and 4 above.
Well, that's why you have me too, isn't it?
Sort of like belt + suspenders: one or the other will do the trick for sure.
As any fool can plainly see, what's old is new again.
*For every individual who emails me to tell me how annoying they find my links to definitions of terms, phrases and words they already know the meaning of, there are ten who thank me for making it so easy for them to learn these heretofore obscure (to them, at least) things.
Besides which, I can hardly continue to advertise as an SAT prep site if I don't offer product....
Wait a minute... since when did I start advertising?
I gotta go, gotta find out what's going on around here.
Who's in charge, anyway?
Oh, well, then... that explains everything.
Square Root Watch
From the website:
- Square Root Watch
It's simply smarter than your average analog watch.
The hour markers are given as square roots that translate into whole numbers. (The square root of 1 is 1, the square root of 9 is 3, the square root of 121 is 11....)
Quartz watch has a silver-plated brass case, stainless-steel back and leather band.
1-3/8"Ø face; fits wrists from 7"-8-7/8" around.
Facebook (Australian edition) is happy to serve you — with legal papers
They do things differently in the Southern Hemisphere.
Long story (by Peter Smith and Richard Waters in today's Financial Times) short: The Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court has allowed Canberra solicitor Mark McCormack "... to use Facebook to serve legal documents on a couple who defaulted on a housing loan in what the social networking site believes is the first case of its kind."
"Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, said the case was 'an interesting indication of the increasing role that Facebook is playing in people's lives. We're pleased to see the Australian court validate Facebook as a reliable, secure and private medium for communication.'"
Prediction: Facebook will recant and be ashamed of itself for allowing its site to be co-opted by Big Brother.
Watch for that news upcoming very soon.
Meanwhile, here's the FT story.
- Australian court allows lawyer to serve documents via Facebook
An Australian court has allowed a lawyer to use Facebook to serve legal documents on a couple who defaulted on a housing loan in what the social networking site believes is the first case of its kind.
Mark McCormack, a Canberra solicitor — and keen Facebook user — who is acting on behalf of a lender, said the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court had allowed him to serve papers after more conventional attempts to leave documents at the couple's last known address had failed.
Australian courts have previously allowed judgments to be delivered via e-mail, while Sonny Bill Williams, a rugby league star who walked out early on his contract with a Sydney club to play for France's Toulon, this year was notified of proceedings via SMS text message.
However, Facebook said the use of the site in Australia was thought to be the first of its kind.
Mr McCormack said using the site to contact people who had fled was a logical next step for solicitors and it had been easy to track down the couple. "In their loan application document, they provided an e-mail address. We typed the address of one of them into the Facebook search engine and it came back with only one Facebook profile matching that address," he said.
Some of the information in that profile, such as names and birth dates, had matched information in the loan application, and this had also helped persuade the court the right people had been found.
Facebook, whose 140m users make it the world's most popular social networking site, said users could adjust optional privacy settings to prevent anyone from outside their personal network contacting them, a move that would close off a legal manoeuvre such as Mr McCormack's.
Users can also choose to keep their existence on Facebook secret from internet search engines, though that would not stop someone who is already a member on Facebook from searching for them on the site.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the Australian case was "one more reminder that as our lives move increasingly online, the real world, including the lawyers and the judges, are likely to follow".
Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, said: "We're pleased to see the Australian court validate Facebook as a reliable, secure and private medium for communication."
Slow day at the office?
They're all slow?
Hey, I can't do much about that but I can offer you a link to 54 (at last count) other stories from around the world about Facebook's new incarnation as a process server.
Cubicaller Cubicle Doorbell — 'A civilized way for visitors to announce their arrival at your cubicle entrance'
Makes perfect sense to me.
But then it would, wouldn't it?
Select from 12 different sounds and 3 volume levels.
Self-adhesive Velcro included.
Music blasting so loud through your earbuds you wouldn't hear it anyway?
No problema — Just put it on the back of your neck.
$14.99 (2 AAA batteries included, for a nice change).
If you're not up to ponying up for one, hey, no biggie: the marketers offer a whole host of no-cost alternatives here.
And if you're in the mood for annoying everyone around you right this minute, well, you're in luck: they offer a medley of all 12 sounds here.
I bet there are lots of these at the Googleplex.
Anyone sends me a picture from there, it goes right up if that's what you want.
Or your money back.
BehindTheMedspeak: God can ease your pain
"Brain scans of volunteers who were subjected to electrical shocks revealed that Roman Catholics felt less pain than atheists and agnostics when they were shown a painting of the Virgin Mary."
The quote above is the second paragraph of an October 1, 2008 Guardian article by science correspondent Ian Sample about recent research by scientists at Oxford University.
Here's the Guardian story.
- Religious belief can help relieve pain, say researchers
Scientists have uncovered an ancient and elaborate source of pain relief that is based purely on the power of the mind, according to research published today.
Brain scans of volunteers who were subjected to electrical shocks revealed that Roman Catholics felt less pain than atheists and agnostics when they were shown a painting of the Virgin Mary.
Images of the volunteers' brains showed that in devout believers, an area of the brain that suppresses reactions to threatening situations lit up when they were shown the picture.
Researchers at Oxford University, led by Katja Wiech, recruited 12 nonbelievers and 12 practising Roman Catholic students. In the tests, participants were shown either an image of the Virgin Mary by the 17th-century Italian painter Sassoferrato [top] or Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century "Lady with an Ermine" [below]. After looking at the picture for 30 seconds, the volunteers were zapped with electrical pulses for 12 seconds. Each time, they were asked to rank how painful the shocks were on a scale of zero to 100.
The researchers describe how Roman Catholics and nonbelievers reported similar levels of pain after viewing the Leonardo painting. But the two groups responded very differently to the Virgin Mary painting, with Catholics experiencing 12% less pain.
When Wiech's team looked at the brain scans of the two groups, they found marked differences between them. After seeing the Virgin Mary, an area in the brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex lit up in the religious volunteers.
"The Roman Catholics engaged a brain mechanism that is well known from research into the placebo effect, analgesia and emotional disengagement," said Wiech. "It helps people to reinterpret pain, and make it less threatening. These people felt safe by looking at the Virgin Mary, they felt looked after, so the whole context of the test changed for them."
It is highly likely that non-religious people could achieve a similar ability to control pain, perhaps through meditation or other mental strategies. "There's no suggestion that this effect is specific to religion and we've not found the God blob in the brain. This is about the state of mind you can achieve," said Wiech.
Preliminary studies on lapsed Catholics suggest that images of the Virgin Mary lessen their sense of pain too, the researchers said.
Above, "Lady with an Ermine" (1489-1490) by Leonardo da Vinci.
[via Christopher Davis writing in the December 2008 issue of Anesthesiology News]
Got Veggies? Reluctant Eater Construction Utensils
Here's a new game for reluctant veggie eaters: While a little one bulldozes his food around the high chair tray, you can steer the tidbits where they belong.
The set includes a fork lift fork, bulldozer pusher and front loader spoon.
Dishwasher safe plastic.