Letters: H.M.'s Brain Surgery

Our story about the radical 1953 brain surgery on a patient with severe epilepsy drew a number of listener responses. The operation on "H.M." left the patient with almost no long-term memory.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Time now for your letters. Many listeners responded with interest to Brian Newhouse's story last week about H.M., a man who had experimental brain surgery 53 years ago to treat his epilepsy. After the surgery, H.M.'s seizures were cured but he lost his ability to retain new memories.

Wes Lawson(ph) from Cary, North Carolina recalled encountering one patient with a similar condition during his days as a resident in Newport News, Virginia. In his 70s he was bright and engaging and didn't seem frustrated by my queries probing the extent of his memory. He could remember JFK and even LBJ as president, but had no clue as to the then chief executive's identity.

So he asked me, well, who is the president now? Ronald Reagan, I answered, to which he exclaimed, Ronald Reagan? That son of a gun isn't even a good actor. I didn't even try to hold back my laughter, even though it sprang from this sad and sweet bizarre Rip Van Winkle-like story.

Johnny Stone of Mio, Michigan had an even more personal connection to the story. I'll be 34 years old on Monday and have lived with a seizure disorder for 19 years, which causes me to have one to ten convulsions a week when I fall asleep. Sleep and time have become sort of faceless enemies to me.

I was sitting at home in Michigan this morning, listening to the radio, wondering what I won't remember tomorrow, and H.M.'s story came on. Somehow we just keep going.

Others among you took issue with musician James McMurtry's explanation of the phrase see the elephant in his song of that name. Mr. McMurtry said to see the elephant was a euphemism for a young man's first sexual experience.

Stuart Johnson(ph) of Tennessee explained this phrase has roots deep in U.S. history. During the 19th century, when most folks lived on farms or in small towns, the phrase seeing the elephant could describe a variety of experiences outside one's normal routine and considered unusually exciting, exotic, and perhaps dangerous.

For example, it was commonly used to describe a person's participation in the California gold rush. And during the Civil War, the phrase was often used to describe a soldier's initial combat experience.

And finally, this from Tommy Rhodes(ph) of Jackson, Tennessee. In the theme music to your letters segment, I hear a very interesting rhythm instrument that makes a ticking sound, followed by a ratcheting, like the sound of a wiro(ph). What is it and how old must it be? Well, let's give it a listen.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Well, Mr. Rhodes, that rhythm instrument is a large heavy device with a set of keys that when pressed cause characters to be printed on a document, usually paper. It's called a typewriter. We welcome your comments at our Web site, NPR.org. Click on Contact Us.

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