Saturday, May 27, 2006

Living in Memento

In the 2000 film Memento, Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man who has committed his life to finding the man who murdered his wife and caused the brain injury that prevents Leonard from forming new memories. It wasn't exactly amnesia. He could remember who he was, his family, his wife and everything up to the point where his brain injury occurred. After that, though, any new information he learned would only stick around in his memory briefly. Kind of like when someone gives you their phone number but you don't have a pen or paper. You might be able to keep the number in your brain for a little while; repeating it helps a little, but if you start talking to someone else, that number probably goes away and gets lost for good. That was what the Leonard character had to live with 24 hours a day for the rest of his life.

I was surprised to learn that there's a real-life version of Leonard. His name is Henry M. and he currently resides in a nursing home in Hartford, Connecticut.

As a young man, Henry suffered from severe epilepsy. In 1953 he underwent a radical brain surgery that was supposed to cure the epilepsy by removing portions of his temporal lobe. The seizures went away. Unfortunately, his ability to remember anything new that has happened since the operation has also been lost. Henry, now eighty, has woken up every day for the past fifty years thinking he is still a young man of twenty-seven, and is always confused and taken aback when he sees his reflection in the mirror. He relives shock and grief whenever he is told of the death of his mother. He has become one of the most-studied cases of memory in medical history. Read his fascinating and tragic story here.

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