From the Archives: Brenda Milner

Most of us know researcher and Dana Alliance member Brenda Milner from her decades-long work with amnesiac Patient H.M. (Henry Molaison) and the peek into memory he offered. While Mr. Molaison died in 2008, she still is at the lab bench, continuing to delve into the mind and brain.

In this week’s New York Times, she told interviewer Claudia Dreifus she’s working to tease out what are left/right brain differences. Here’s my favorite exchange:

We all loved H.M. Yet it was very strange, psychologically, because when he died we all felt as if we’d lost a friend. And this is funny because one thinks of friendship as a bilateral thing. He didn’t recognize us or know us, and we felt we’d lost a friend.

We also did a Q&A with Milner, in 2010, with this fabulous photo of her:

Brenda Milner

Photographer: Owen Egan; Courtesy of the Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University

She was generous with her time, and just as excited about her work. And she gave us great quotes, like this one:

I had a chance to change fields at the end of the first year, and I thought, ‘I’ll do philosophy!’ And then people from my college said, ‘Brenda, don’t you have to earn a living?’ (I was as poor as a church mouse then, I was on scholarships.) They said, ‘No one ever learned a living doing philosophy, so forget that!’ And now comes the real bit of luck. In England, in Cambridge pre-World War II, experimental psychology was grouped with philosophy and ethics, under the “moral sciences.” Since I had mentioned philosophy, they suggested psychology because [as a psychologist] you could always get a job as a factory inspector.

Then I discovered I was good at it. I was a good observer and I enjoyed working with people in the lab. But it was luck, you see. I didn’t even know what psychology was!

In  2007, a Dana Gray Matters radio segment featured her work with Mr. Molaison—you can listen to or read a transcript of the segment, which includes the voices of both Dr. Milner and Mr. Molaison. Following Mr. Molaison’s death, the Dana Foundation partially funded the dissection and digital preservation of his brain as part of the Brain Observatory Project. Now we all can be brain researchers. Investigate the micrometer-thin slices built into 3-D images and see what in his surgically  damaged anatomy could have led to the extreme and specific memory losses he showed.

– Nicky Penttila

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