SJ Watson: art, identity and the world’s most well known amnesiac

SJ Watson: art, identity and the world’s most well known amnesiac

From Memento to Before I Go to Sleep, the case of Henry Molaison holds an enduring fascination for artists. SJ Watson, whose bestselling fiction explored lost memory, asks Kerry Tribe about her video installation H.M. and what we can learn from the worlds most well known amnesiac

What does it mean to be conscious? Its the state of being awake, being aware, being alive. Its that thing that human beings have that rocks dont, even though both are composed of the same raw materials. But its more than simply being alive, isnt it? Consciousness is our self, our spirit. Its the ghost in the machine, the feeling that were more than just our bodies, the conviction that theres a subjective I with thoughts and feelings and memories, and its this that stimulates us unique, stimulates us us, in fact. But what is it, this consciousness, and where does it come from?

Im interested in this because I am a novelist of fiction. When I write, Im attempting to render on the page the personal experience of people who dont exist. The terms I prefer should create a doorway to another ego, they should allow the reader to briefly set their own consciousness to one side and experience the world through that of another.

Yet how to do that? We are muscles and bones and flesh, and advances in biology and neuroscience have led to the difficult but inescapable truth: there is no ghost in the machine. Our consciousness, our memory, our ego exists only in the brain. Our identity is encoded in its billions of neurons and the infinity of connections between them; we are nothing more than electrical signals zipping through cells. But still the question is the same. How? How does the brain, this three-pound blob of pink mush, contain the richness of a life? And what happens when it malfunctions?

These are among the questions posed by States of Mind, a collecting of exhibits, writings and art installations indicating at the Wellcome Collection, London. It induces for a fascinating visit. There are pieces examining the injured brain, coma and persistent vegetative state. But for me, given the theme of my first book Before I Run to Sleep, the most interesting part of the exhibition looks at memories, at what they are, how theyre formed, and what happens when theyre destroyed or inaccurate.

Memories define us. They are our autobiography, they form our identity, our sense of who we are. Without them its impossible to both make sense of change and to imagine a future in any concrete style. Yet the majority of members of us take them for granted. Recollecting happens automatically, we think of our memories as a repository, a sort of video recording of our lives to date. We believe that almost any scene is available for recall, to be reviewed and re-experienced, if only we could find it. But how can this be? How can decades of experience be stored in this one organ, and how faithful is the recording?

Henry Henry Molaison in Connecticut, 1974. Photograph: Courtesy Suzanne Corkin

Its now believed that memory is not a single process. We have short-term memories that fade within 20 seconds or so, and a long-term store where memories are coded for future recall and accessible months or even years hence. Both is a consequence of changes in the neurons of the brain, but in different ways. Short-term memories involve only temporary improvements in the synaptic the linkages between cells, whereas long-term memories arise from physical changes in those same connections. When we store a memory long-term, the neurons wire together, and the more periods we recall a particular memory the stronger is this bond. All this happens in various circuits across the brain, mostly in an area called the medial temporal lobe and focused around a structure known as the hippocampus.

So if our memories the tales through which we understand ourselves and make sense of existence are encoded physically in the billions of nerve cells in our brain, what happens when something goes wrong? Amnesia can be the loss of existing memories and/ or the inability to sort new ones and, perhaps because it cuts to the heart of identity, it has long been of interest to writers, artists and film-makers. Both my own Before I Run to Sleep and the Christopher Nolan film Memento are easy examples, but there are many others and one, H.M ., is being demonstrated as an installation in the exhibition from later this month.

H.M. is the work of Kerry Tribe, a Los Angeles-based visual artist. Its title refers to Henry Molaison, arguably the most famous amnesiac in history. In 1953, at the age of 27, Molaison underwent frankly experimental brain surgery in an attempt to alleviate the debilitating epilepsy with which he suffered. Most of the structures in the medial temporal lobes were removed, including the hippocampus. When Henry woke he was confused. He did not recognise his caregivers or recollect the routines or layout of the hospital, and after a couple of weeks it was realised that his condition was not improving. Henry had catastrophic amnesia, and it was permanent. For the rest of his life he was unable to retain any new autobiographical memories and retained merely vague details of the first 25 years of his life. He died in 2008 having lived permanently in the present for over half a century.

Tribes film is not a straightforward telling of Molaisons story, however. Its a single movie that plays through two adjacent projectors with a 20 -second delay between them, so that the spectator sees simultaneous projections of two different parts of the same reel. Much like Memento also inspired by Molaison and in which the narrative is say backwards, with each scene ending where the previous one began it recreates the cognitive dissonance of amnesia. The effect is haunting and disconcerting.

A A recreated research conference with Henry Molaison in Kerry Tribes H.M ., 2009. Photograph: Kerry Tribe

Given our shared interest in Molaisons story he inspired Before I Run to Sleep, though the book is not about him I wanted to talk to Tribe about her movie. She told me that she has been building run about memory for a number of years, but became interested in Molaison while making Near Miss a film examining the subjectivity of memories. She says she has always loved work with a strong conceptual basis where the form and content dovetail. When she learned that Molaison had about 20 seconds of recall but nothing else, she says she realised 20 seconds could be the lag between my two projectors, and HMs experience or some semblance of it could be materialised for the viewer, conceptually but also viscerally, sensorially. I wanted to achieve an embodied sense of what memory feels like for the spectator and make a scientifically accurate experimental cinema.

Kerry Kerry Tribe Photograph: Gene Pittman

She began work on the film in 2006, two years before Molaisons death, and worked closely with Professor Suzanne Corkin, the neuroscientist who examined and looked after him for over 50 years. I travelled anywhere I could that I knew had been significant to Henry his childhood neighbourhood and high school, lakes he may have swum in as a son, government departments where he was studied at MIT with a Bolex camera. The Bolex is unique in that it is powered by a hand crank and records for about 20 seconds before it stops. The resulting cinema is a montage of haunting images, narrated by Corkin and intercut with scenes of Molaison talking to his doctors or undergoing appraisal, all with that 20 -second delay.

At the end of the movie the voiceover tells us that Henry was never filmed, photographed or videotaped. The moment is jarring, as the spectator feels theyve merely expended 15 minutes in his company. I asked Tribe how she made the movie. The re-enactments that feature HM are staged with actors on a situate and shooting on digital video. Everything said is real in the sense that all of HMs dialogue comes immediately from transcripts, and Professor Corkin plays herself. And those funny-looking tests you assure HM performing in my film are the real objects he being implemented in testing back in the 1960 s. But the hands are all part of relevant actors. Molaison was in a nursing home by the time she started working on the project, she adds, and no longer verbal. Plus, his privacy had been carefully guarded for decades and I didnt want to compromise that. But Darryl Sandeen does a fantastic performance as HM nearly everyone presumes its him.

A A scene from AR Hopwoods False Memory Archive, Crudely Erased Adults( Lost in the Mall ), 2012 -1 3. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

The film was first exhibited in 2009, after Henrys death, and though inspired by his narrative it asks the spectator to be considered memories more generally. Amnesia is a terrifying prospect, but another installing at States of Mind looks not at the lack of memories, but at their inaccuracy. False Memory Archive: Crudely Erased Adults( Lost in the Mall) is a series of red tinted images of a shopping centre, in which every adult figure has been erased leaving merely lone and isolated children. It was created byAR Hopwood and refers to an experiment performed in the early 90 s by the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. She found 25% of people would recount in great detail the untrue narrative of being lost in a shopping mall as small children, a false memory that had been successfully implanted during a previous testing conference. Loftus has expended decades analyse false memories. Many people believe that memory runs like a recording device, she said in her TEDGlobal talk in 2013.( But) memory runs more like a Wikipedia page: you can go in there and change it, but so can other people.

This has frightening implications. Loftus has talked about people who have been found guilty of crimes they didnt commit on the basis of eyewitness evidence that was later revealed to be a false memory. In one famous instance, witnesses to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes reported that he leaped over the ticket barrier at Stockwell underground station before running down the escalator, despite CCTV footage proving him passing through the barrier ordinarily. Those studying the phenomenon would suggest that it was probably a police officer who jumped the barrier, yet the charged atmosphere around the shooting, and subsequent events, caused the confused memory to become embedded in the mind of eyewitnesses as truth. I asked Kerry Tribe whether she though memory might be more malleable than we might like to think. Yeah. There are so many interesting and troubling things we detect when we enter the word of neuropsychology. I lately learned that memories arent produced abruptly when something happens. Its a slow process of solidifying, like dessert, over time. If stress hormones are present during the solidifying process, the strength of the events memory is increased, along with the related impressions of stress.

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