As the diamond-sharp blade of the microtome passes across the frozen block of grey matter projected onto the stage-wide screen, it becomes apparent that we and the three performers seated before it are gazing at one of the most important brains in scientific history. Indeed, when this particular brain was sliced into the 2,401 separate objects of the play’s title, more than 400,000 people watched it live on the internet. Not because it belonged to a renowned thinker or a celebrated genius, but because it’s owner was Patient HM, ‘the world’s most famous amnesiac’; the study of this brain, while it was still inside the head of its owner, Henry Molaison, helped to establish the field of cognitive neuropsychology, and now that it is sectioned into micro-thin slivers, it continues to offer invaluable insights into how the structure and function of the brain relate to specific mental processes. Analogue’s beautifully layered, compelling piece –winner of a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 2011 – introduces us to the human being at the centre of this ongoing research project.
In 1953, Henry Molaison underwent experimental brain surgery to control his severe epilepsy. When he woke, minus his hippocampus, he had lost all recollection of the two years prior to the operation and was unable to form any new memories. He spent the rest of his life, until his death in 2008, locked in the present moment. In the scenes concerning Henry’s later life in a residential home, we see him existing inside these pockets of the now,repeating conversations he’s had two minutes previously, greeting his nurse of many years as a new acquaintance, all with a gentle affability that implies an inability to fully grasp what he has lost. Surely, a blessing.
The dramatisation of Henry’s pre-operative life with his parents reveals the extent to which his epilepsy controlled all their lives; it would seem that, before and after surgery, Henry was completely at the mercy of his brain. By having older Henry recall a romantic gesture between his parents, then playing it out, the production highlights the experiences in life denied Henry by a quirk of circuitry, and then more devastatingly by the surgeon’s knife. This layering is used throughout the performance to poignant effect.
Analogue are renowned for their use of multimedia, and here the projections – a picket fence, a neighbour’s window – create not only the landscape of Henry’s past, but evoke the gauzy intangibility of events recalled from years ago. The screen is a particularly important aspect of the set (stools and lamps slide underneath as the action slips effortlessly between past and present) and is used like the blade of the microtome to slice away episodes in Henry’s life. The central scene, following Henry’s decision to undergo surgery, is a masterful episode of hands slipping through hands, his parents being pulled from his grasp underneath the screen as his perception of the world is altered forever.
The recorded words of Dr Jacopo Annese, who heads up The Brain Observatory in San Diego, where Henry’s brain is studied, frame the piece, and invite us to consider the mass of grey jelly inside our skulls. We press our hands against bone, and are told that underneath our thumbs, deep inside the brain, lie the twin hippocampi. These ‘printing presses’ process all the words and images, all the sensory information, from the world around us and send them whizzing around the brain to be stored as memories, emotional resonance attached. When the surgeon removed Henry’s hippocampi, he created a void into which all the world was poured without ever saving a drop. Incredible.
At the end, Dr Annese’s disembodied voices points out that for us, watching the performance, a lot has changed neurologically. We have created new memories, vivid images that we can replay on the screen inside our minds. And a lot of what we know about why and how that happens is thanks to Henry’s brain, this ‘artefact that made archaeologists of us all’. Analogue’s compassionate rendering of this story reminds us that at the heart of every scientific discovery there is always a very human drama.