Living in the mo­ment, be­cause she for­got most of her past

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - SCI­ENCE RE­VIEW BY SALLY SATEL Sally Satel is a psy­chi­a­trist and res­i­dent scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. She is a coau­thor of “Brain­washed: The Se­duc­tive Ap­peal of Mind­less Neu­ro­science.”

In De­cem­ber 2007, a woman named Lonni Sue John­son, 57, lost a lot of her past. She con­tracted vi­ral en­cephali­tis, a po­ten­tially deadly in­fec­tion, that dev­as­tated the parts of her brain that form and store new mem­o­ries. In “The Per­pet­ual Now,” Michael D. Le­mon­ick, opin­ion ed­i­tor at Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, sets out to un­der­stand “what could it be like to live with­out mem­ory? . . . How did Lonni Sue han­dle it?”

Be­fore she was struck, Lonni Sue was a suc­cess­ful com­mer­cial artist, known for her whim­si­cal and clever watercolors that most fa­mously adorned sev­eral New Yorker cov­ers. She lived in a house on land in Up­state New York she named Wa­ter­color Farm and was a skilled ama­teur pi­lot, even bull­doz­ing her­self a land­ing strip on her prop­erty.

Af­ter the cat­a­strophic dam­age to her hip­pocampi, Lonni Sue for­got much of her life. She did not know that her fa­ther had died or that she was once mar­ried for 10 years or that she re­ceived a de­gree in fine arts from the University of Michi­gan. The residue of new ex­pe­ri­ence would linger for about two to three min­utes be­fore it dis­solved com­pletely.

Yet Lonni Sue was able to re­tain “se­man­tic mem­o­ries,” or fac­tual knowl­edge. She still knew, for ex­am­ple, that she was Lonni Sue. She rec­og­nized her mother and sis­ter and re­mem­bered that she owned a farm and had worked as an il­lus­tra­tor.

Lonni Sue even knew that her art­work was in the New Yorker. And when shown old, styl­ized draw­ings that she had made, she sensed that they were prob­a­bly hers. Yet she was un­able, for ex­am­ple, to de­scribe her iconic 1985 sea­sonal cover de­pict­ing a Christ­mas tree whose or­na­ments, upon closer look, were formed by tiny peo­ple hold­ing gifts as they waited in a depart­ment store check­out line that formed the shape of the tree.

Hav­ing poor re­call of spe­cific ex­pe­ri­ences (episodic mem­ory) did not sur­prise doc­tors, but they were amazed by how well Lonni Sue could re­mem­ber how to do things in con­sid­er­able de­tail. On fly­ing a plane, she said: “It was heav­enly, lit­er­ally . . . ex­alt­ing . . . rhyth­mic. . . . If [the wind] is com­ing from the right side it wants to up­lift one wing so you have to steer the rud­der.” She could also re­count the steps in­volved in pro­duc­ing a wa­ter­color, play­ing the vi­ola and rid­ing a horse.

This showed re­searchers that in­tact hip­pocampi are not re­quired for cer­tain kinds of im­plicit knowl­edge; it has to be stored sub­con­sciously else­where in the brain.

With her unique com­bi­na­tion of strengths and deficits, Lonni Sue quickly joined the ranks of fa­mous am­ne­si­acs and was stud­ied ex­ten­sively by re­searchers from Princeton and Johns Hop­kins.

Le­mon­ick be­came in­ter­ested in Lonni Sue sev­eral years ago af­ter her younger sis­ter, Aline, stopped him on the street. She asked whether he’d heard what had hap­pened to Lonni Sue, with whom he at­tended high school in Princeton, N.J., decades ear­lier. Le­mon­ick had not.

But soon enough he joined her ex­tended fam­ily of ded­i­cated ob­servers. She was “awake and aware and fully en­gaged,” he noted upon first meet­ing Lonni Sue. The mem­ory loss “didn’t seem to bother [her] since she had no mem­ory of what she was miss­ing.”

A highly ver­bal per­son be­fore her or­deal, Lonni Sue was now ob­sessed with making fan­ci­ful grids with words hid­den in them. Her im­pulse to cre­ate re­turned, and these puz­zles poured out of her. She seemed to pre­fer con­struct­ing them to do­ing any­thing else, the au­thor notes. Lonni Sue also de­lighted in word­play. A fa­vorite trick was to sing the al­pha­bet while as­sign­ing each let­ter to a dif­fer­ent ob­ject (ap­ple, ba­nana, cran­berry, etc.). She could make novel lists at an im­pres­sive clip and loved when oth­ers tried to keep up with her.

No book on mem­ory is com­plete with­out dis­cus­sion of the most cel­e­brated am­ne­siac in med­i­cal sci­ence, H.M., or Henry Mo­lai­son, whose case rev­o­lu­tion­ized the study of func­tional brain anatomy. As Le­mon­ick re­counts, when Mo­lai­son was 27, in 1953, doc­tors sur­gi­cally re­moved his hip­pocampi in an at­tempt to con­trol his se­vere epilepsy. Be­cause the hip­pocam­pal re­gions were pre­sumed to process smell (and to play a role in cer­tain seizure ac­tiv­ity), doc­tors were stunned to dis­cover that, post-surgery, their pa­tient could re­mem­ber al­most noth­ing of his past.

Like Lonni Sue, Mo­lai­son would meet some­one and five min­utes later need to be rein­tro­duced. Mo­lai­son could learn new things, and so could Lonni Sue. She’d play a piece on the vi­ola and even get bet­ter with prac­tice, but then for­get she just played it.

Also like Lonni Sue, Mo­lai­son seemed con­tent. By con­trast, poor Clive Wear­ing, an­other fa­mous pa­tient, lived a per­pet­ual night­mare. A British ex­pert in Re­nais­sance mu­sic, he con­tracted the same virus as Lonni Sue in 1985. Af­ter­ward, he could still read mu­sic, play the or­gan and con­duct a choir, but he was con­stantly be­wil­dered and afraid. “It was as if ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment was the first wak­ing mo­ment,” his wife wrote.

Why was Clive’s ex­is­tence a living hell while Lonni Sue and Henry main­tained their cheer and sweet­ness and co­op­er­ated gladly with re­searchers (though typ­i­cally for­get­ting they’d been tested a few days be­fore)? Sci­en­tists spec­u­late that the two some­how re­tained a sense of “con­ti­nu­ity,” but they can’t yet say what re­gions and func­tions of the brain make this pos­si­ble.

Nor do re­searchers know the an­swer to an­other holy grail ques­tion: How does the brain en­able cre­ativ­ity and imag­i­na­tion? Clearly, hip­pocampi are not needed to sus­tain such tal­ent once it has been es­tab­lished. In that pur­suit, re­searchers have been us­ing imag­ing tech­nol­ogy with Lonni Sue that was not avail­able to ear­lier pa­tients.

Lonni Sue’s per­pet­ual now seems like a pretty nice place to be. Her mother, Maggi, an artist who taught her to draw, and sis­ter Aline swad­dled her in love and were fiercely ded­i­cated to her re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

A num­ber of ar­ti­cles have been writ­ten about Lonni Sue over the years, but Le­mon­ick’s is the first book. He does an ex­cel­lent job of ex­plain­ing why her “enor­mous store­house of knowl­edge” re­gard­ing vis­ual art, mu­sic and avi­a­tion made her an es­pe­cially rich re­search sub­ject. “Ex­plor­ing what she re­tained and what she’d lost in each of these ar­eas would be an un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity for the sci­en­tists.”

Read­ers ex­pect­ing an Oliver Sacks-like ac­count may be dis­ap­pointed. One of the fore­most cin­e­matic chron­i­clers of neu­ro­log­i­cal ex­ot­ica, he brought to his work a vast in­quis­i­tive­ness and the gifts of em­pa­thy and awe. Le­mon­ick’s book, by com­par­i­son, reads as if writ­ten by a very dili­gent re­porter.

But the story of Lonni Sue, one of the great ex­per­i­ments of na­ture, is in­trin­si­cally fas­ci­nat­ing. And her tragedy has brought out grace in ev­ery­one in­volved, Lonni Sue her­self, her fam­ily and the sci­en­tists who val­ued her as a per­son as well as an end­lessly in­trigu­ing brain.


Lonni Sue John­son lost much of her mem­ory af­ter con­tract­ing vi­ral en­cephali­tis, but she re­tained skills such as play­ing the vi­ola.

THE PER­PET­UAL NOW A Story of Am­ne­sia, Mem­ory, and Love By Michael D. Le­mon­ick Dou­ble­day. 282 pp. $27.95

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