Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…
It is highly likely that your brain just completed that sentence from memory thanks to the activity in a section of your brain called the hippocampus. This area is a center of storing and mapping. When you read those first words, a map inside your hippocampus came alive and supplied the rest of the nursery rhyme:
…couldn’t put Humpty together again.
This is an example of a healthy brain at work; however, for some of you, it showed a lag in recall. Much like those “it’s on the tip of my tongue” moments, the memory of the final verse may have been just out of reach, no matter how hard you thought about it.
This is an over-simplified example of what has defined the work of Dr. Donald G. MacKay, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA. An expert on memory, language and emotion where they intersect cognition and aging, Dr. MacKay shares not only his expertise, but a true-to-life and ironically memorable case study in Remembering: What 50 Years of Research with Famous Amnesia Patient H.M. Can Teach Us about Memory and How it Works.
Styled somewhere between narrative and monograph, Remembering provides both the average reader and the clinical psychologist with the overarching questions, hard science, real-life ramifications and the journey of a researcher. While it’s definitely not a book you would take on your next beach vacation, the depth of insight provided makes it a must-read for even the intellectually curious.
Equal parts case study and textbook on the neuro-foundations of memory, Remembering focuses on the life and brain of famous amnesiac Henry Moalison (Henry), a man known to the modern scientific community for not only his unique circumstances, but for his contributions to the field as a whole.
Henry’s amnesia was the unfortunate and unexpected result of a surgery gone wrong and right at the same time. A 1953 surgery performed on the hippocampus by Dr. William Scoville that was intended to address Henry’s rather severe epileptic seizures accomplished just that while also destroying his ability to process and retain memory. It was the first surgery of its kind, and per Dr. Scoville’s remarks, the last of its kind.
Left without seizures but with the inability to create new memories, Henry was a scientific marvel. His openness to serving science as a living specimen resulted in years of study on the brain, memory, cognition and amnesia, and a large portion of this study was completed by Mackay.
While it would be nearly impossible to summarize a neuroscience work of this length and caliber, Dr. MacKay makes it simpler by cataloging the results of his research on Henry’s brain along with others through a series of questions, asked not only of Henry, but also of the reader.
What follows could be described as an in-depth conversation with the author, complete with slide presentations of data mixed with narrative and honest-to-goodness personal reflection. This combination of narrative techniques makes Remembering read less like a hard neuroscience primer and more like nonfiction, an accomplishment that speaks not only to the author’s ability to relate his passion and life’s work, but also to his commitment to engage his audience as a writer while honoring his work’s subject. From the reader’s perspective, this is an astounding feat, one worthy of its own singular paragraph in this review.
In the annals of neuroscience and psychology, rarely is there anything of genuine humor. Dr. MacKay breaks this trend by injecting a levity and lightheartedness that doesn’t at all match the subject while simultaneously making it easy to read. Add in questions for reflection and engagement, as well as call-outs noting his and other’s reflections on particular facets of this incredible true story, and the book is perhaps one of a kind in the scientific arena.
As a student of psychology only, I cannot comment on the research itself. That would be outside my expertise by farther than I can say. What I can comment on confidently is the usefulness of the text to someone just like me: a non-scientist committed to understanding the world, my own body and how things work together. What Remembering does for amnesia and memory is the same as what a Masterclass does for a topic you are so passionate about studying.
This highly readable book doesn’t just tell a story. It teaches and relays the principles learned through Mackay’s research in such a way as to add value on more than one level. While the author masterfully weaves this part into the main story, the book is filled with real-world applications for the reader, from the process of retrieving memories in daily life and strengthening memory mapping mechanisms to maintaining a strong hippocampus as you age.
To Dr. Mackay, I say, “Please write another! The world needs the knowledge you have in the way you communicate it.” Even as I write this review, I have already recommended this book to a broad audience based on its fascinating storytelling style, well-designed engagement, fascinating science and highly accessible advice on staying sharp and in the loop as we age. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Remembering: What 50 Years of Research with Famous Amnesia Patient H.M. Can Teach Us about Memory and How it Works
Prometheus Books, January 2019
Hardcover, 400 pages