Henry Molaison, the famous but pseudonymous amnesic patient H.M., died earlier this week.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact this one man had on cognitive neuroscience — at the cost of the total destruction of his life.

One thing I learned from the article is that Scoville, who was an author on at least one early H.M. paper, is the surgeon who took out his medial temporal lobes. It’s hard to know how to feel about this. I feel certain that, if it had happened two or three decades later, he would have been sued out of existence. There’s a part of me that thinks he should have been. But this is one of those areas of ethics that resist satisfactory analysis. The utility gained from the leap in our understanding about memory is just incomparable to the destruction of H.M.’s ability to lead a normal life. Apples and aircraft carriers.

This is the sort of thing I think about a lot. Cognitive neuroscience is expensive, and I’m now proposing to do TMS, which can have — is designed to have — somewhat long-term effects on the brain (on the order of an hour). For that matter, I’m not exactly cheap; I made $90,000 from the NSF over three years, for what returns? I’ll emit a few publications in modest-to-medium journals; I’ll have added a small, noisy contribution to the edifice of cognitive neuroscience; I’ve gotten good training for further work. It’s hard to know how to rank those benefits in relation to the good $90,000 could have done in some other capacity. Forgetting the fellowships, how much does the GRFP program cost in overhead every year? How much is that compared to the useful work that wouldn’t have gotten done if NSF fellows didn’t get their fellowships? How big is that set of useful work, anyway?

These questions are useful, even if they are unanswerable. It’s good to keep in mind how much other people do for you.


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