Henry Molaison in the New Digital Age

Henry Molaison was born in 1926 in Connecticut, and became one of the most famous patients in the history of medicine.  At the age of 7, Molaison was the victim of a bicycle accident, and as a result had severe traumatic brain injury, with intractable epileptic seizures. In 1953, he underwent brain surgery, and had his bilateral medial temporal lobes removed.  As a result of the surgery, his epilepsy was cured, but he had severe anterograde amnesia. He could not remember any new experiences. For example, he was unable to recognize hospital staff he had just met; otherwise, he was normal. Researchers studying HM were therefore able to establish the link between the medial temporal lobes, hippocampus, and episodic memory.

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Episodic memory (also known as “autographical memory”) is memory for prior events in our lives. It’s how we re-experience events in vivid detail, again and again. It’s not just “what” happened, but also “where” and “when” it happened. (Alzheimers disease injures the hippocampus, causing memory loss akin to HM’s).

Why bring up H.M.? I’m currently reading The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, by Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. The book focuses on dramatic changes in information technology and connectivity. The book has made me recall the story of Henry Molaison. What if Molaison had been born in 2013 and stored his experiences in the cloud?

With the rapid changes in technology and connectivity, how can we develop our own “External Hippocampi,” and improve our learning and retention?