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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: June 2018

Chapter 9 - Memory and Learning

from Part II - Neural Bases of Mental Functions


In response to a seizure disorder that could not be controlled effectively by anticonvulsant medications, in 1953 a young man underwent an experimental surgical procedure that removed medial temporal lobe structures that we only now know are critical to memory. Although the surgery was successful in bringing the seizure disorder under control, it resulted in a profound deficit in memory. After the surgery, this man was unable to remember the events of his life or the people he met after the surgery, such as his physicians and other caregivers, or to learn new facts about the changing world around him. After the surgery he could not tell his age, the current date, or any aspect of his recent history (such as where he was living and how long he had lived there). In fact, on occasion in his later years, he misidentified a current picture of himself as a picture of his father. His memory was no better for people in the public eye or the public events in which they figured. Such deficits persisted until his death in 2008 at the age of 82.

Nevertheless, throughout his life, he still expressed a wide range of memory abilities. He could reason and solve problems, recognize objects, and perform voluntary and reflexive motor acts appropriate to all manner of objects and situations. These abilities, along with his full range of linguistic skills, demonstrated that he could access the considerable store of knowledge that he had acquired early in life before the surgery. His ability to remember the remote past prior to his surgery seemed largely intact, as was his ability to hold information in memory temporarily while working with it, as long as he was not interrupted.

Because of the mixture of memory loss and memory retention, his life had some surreal qualities. For example, he enjoyed solving crossword puzzles and could happily do the same crossword puzzle over and over again, because he didn't notice the repetition. Although he also enjoyed watching television shows, they were difficult for him to understand because the commercials interspersed throughout a show caused him to forget the story line.

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