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“Remembering HM”: Neuroscience takes the stage at Central Square Theater

A guest post from science writer Stephen Dougherty.

Central Square Theater in a new play called, Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M. (Yesterday).

The play tells the story of Henry Molaison, who lost the capacity to form new memories after undergoing experimental brain surgery designed to alleviate epileptic seizures.

Several years ago, I became familiar with the story of HM as a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal. Brenda Milner, the McGill neuroscientist whose work with HM led to seminal discoveries about the nature of memory, was 93 at the time, still teaching, and extremely sharp.  Dr. Milner was on hand to offer her keen insight at the Neuro Film Series, where a researcher provides commentary on films with brain science themes. (The event was not unlike the Science on Screen at Coolidge Corner Theatre. Memento was the film for the evening — an experimental murder mystery about a man with anterograde amnesia partly inspired by patient HM.  Milner conducted the mirror experiment, which was depicted in play. It showed that different kinds of memory rely on different regions of the brain.

I have always been fascinated when art and science meet and on that evening I thanked the neurogods for this strange and wonderful pairing. Yesterday offers another new artistic portrayal of this remarkable life.

Like Leonard in Memento, Henry Molaison was frozen in time with no autobiographical memory — no mechanism to track his own life through time and this presents certain narrative challenges for a playwright. To overcome this, Yesterday is structured as a “weave of encounters, ‘glimpses’ meant to evoke rather than to explain.” In one, a couple of scientists circle Henry, firing questions rapidly one after another as a piano plays fragmented melodies. The music stops abruptly as one of the doctors asks Henry rather bluntly about his condition.

He replies:

I’m having an argument with myself and why I don’t remember this and why I don’t remember that…it’s like waking up, sort of like waking up in the world. You’re waking trying to push things together yourself, like reaching back. And you wonder at times, just, well, what it is and what it isn’t.

What is it like to live a moment-to-moment existence? After all, you can’t know what’s next if you don’t remember what just happened. In another scene, a doctor asks Henry what he had for breakfast. He wonders why she wants to know this because her face suggests that she already knows the answer and then he begins to wonder how many times he has been asked this very same question. One thing Henry and the scientists had in common was that they were both walking in darkness; the crucial difference is that for scientists the darkness was the brain and for Henry the darkness was nearly everything.

Yesterday brings to life key moments leading up to the scientific breakthrough, like the mirror-drawing experiment. Dr. Milner asked Henry to trace the shape of a star using a mirror as a guide. Even though Henry had no recollection of the test itself, after several trials he was able to trace the star effortlessly. “Oh, I thought this would be difficult, but I seem to have done this rather well,” Dr. Milner recalls Henry saying. This eureka moment showed for the first time clear evidence of dissociable memory systems in the brain. Declarative memory — names, places, and facts — relied on key medial temporal lobe structures, which Henry lost, whereas motor learning — non-declarative memory – relied on regions which were unaffected by Henry’s surgery.

Yesterday creates a bridge between neuroscience and art that fulfills the production’s mission of “providing artistic and emotional experiences not available in other forms of dialogue about science.” Sitting in the audience, thinking about Henry’s memory revealed a more subtle view of my own memory. I walked out of the theater with a new way of seeing, which is ultimately what good art and good science can do, especially when we put them together.

Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M. will be running at Central Square Theater until May 13, 2012.

Stephen Dougherty holds an M.Sc. in Neuroscience from McGill University.

The play is a production of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT (CC@MIT) “a unique collaboration between MIT and Underground Railway Theater (URT), a professional company with 30 years experience creating theater through interdisciplinary inquiry and engaging community.”The theater is offering post performance talks all week:

Wednesday, April 25, following 7:30 p.m. performance
Post-Performance Conversation
Special Guest: Sarah Gumlak, Research Dramaturg for Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.

Thursday, April 26, following 7:30 p.m. performance
Scholar Social
Special Guest: Suzanne Corkin, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and Head of the Behavioral Neuroscience Lab. Her research focuses on the biological bases of human memory networks, cognitive and neural characteristics of healthy aging, and natural history and pathophysiology of degenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. She studied H.M. from 1962 until his death in 2008.

Friday, April 27, following 8:00 p.m. performance
“Adapting HM’s Story for the Stage”
Join Wes Savick and Tod Machover, the Director/Playwright and the Composer of Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M., for a post-show conversation about their journey bringing H.M.’s story to the stage.

Saturday, April 28, 1:30 – 2:45 p.m., before 3:00 p.m. performance
Plays on Memory – Short plays by MIT student playwrights
Special Guest: Playwright Alan Brody, Professor of Theater, MIT. Playwrights: Stephen Giandomenico, Sarah Gumlak, Christopher Smith, and Mark Velednitsky, all MIT students or graduates in the sciences.



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    Debra Wise said:

    Terrific to read this deeply – felt response to Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M. Others reading who are interested in theater tangling with science, we invite you to get to know Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, at Central Square Theater. This Monday, April 30, at 7 pm, we will be offering a free reading of a new play about the intersection of climate change, class and culture among an Inuit community, in the Canadian arctic: Sila, by Chantal Bilodeau.

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