Permanent Present Tense

Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne Corkin

In 1953, 27-year-old Henry Gustave Molaison underwent an experimental “psychosurgical” procedure—a targeted lobotomy—in an effort to alleviate his debilitating epilepsy. The outcome was unexpected—when Henry awoke, he could no longer form new memories, and for the rest of his life would be trapped in the moment.

But Henry’s tragedy would prove a gift to humanity. As renowned neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin explains in Permanent Present Tense, she and her colleagues brought to light the sharp contrast between Henry’s crippling memory impairment and his preserved intellect. This new insight that the capacity for remembering is housed in a specific brain area revolutionized the science of memory. The case of Henry—known only by his initials H. M. until his death in 2008—stands as one of the most consequential and widely referenced in the spiraling field of neuroscience. Corkin and her collaborators worked closely with Henry for nearly fifty years, and in Permanent Present Tense she tells the incredible story of the life and legacy of this intelligent, quiet, and remarkably good-humored man. Henry never remembered Corkin from one meeting to the next and had only a dim conception of the importance of the work they were doing together, yet he was consistently happy to see her and always willing to participate in her research. His case afforded untold advances in the study of memory, including the discovery that even profound amnesia spares some kinds of learning, and that different memory processes are localized to separate circuits in the human brain. Henry taught us that learning can occur without conscious awareness, that short-term and long-term memory are distinct capacities, and that the effects of aging-related disease are detectable in an already damaged brain.

Undergirded by rich details about the functions of the human brain, Permanent Present Tense pulls back the curtain on the man whose misfortune propelled a half-century of exciting research. With great clarity, sensitivity, and grace, Corkin brings readers to the cutting edge of neuroscience in this deeply felt elegy for her patient and friend.

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“Both a compassionate biography and a lucid account of the advances in neuroscience made possible through one man’s personal tragedy.”Kirkus Reviews

“The amnesic patient H.M. is arguably the most important case in the history of neuropsychology. Nobody knew him better than Suzanne Corkin, who has written an engaging and insightful account of H.M.’s memory loss that combines personal stories with accessible discussions of memory research. Just as important, Permanent Present Tense presents a sympathetic portrait of the person named Henry Molaison.”Daniel L. Schacter, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers

“A fascinating account of perhaps the most important case study in the history of neuroscience, rich with implications for our understanding of the brain, our experience, and what it means to be human.”Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought

“The best way to understand memory is to witness the ways it can disassemble. In this remarkable book, Suzanne Corkin gifts us with a rare insider’s view, revealing how a man who could not remember his immediate past so profoundly influenced science’s future.”David Eagleman, neuroscientist and New York Times–bestselling author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

“Suzanne Corkin has written an enjoyable and sensitive story of H.M.’s life and what it has taught us about memory. Millions of patients have been the source of advances in science but few are celebrated as individuals. We learn through H.M. that ‘Our brains are like hotels with eclectic arrays of guests—homes to different kinds of memory, each of which occupies its own suite of rooms.’”Philip A. Sharp, Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

“Drawing on her unique investigations over more than four decades, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin relates the fascinating story of how one severely amnesic man transformed our understanding of mind, brain, and memory.”Howard Gardner, author of Multiple Intelligences

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