My Office on the Columbia Campus

Feb 20, 2017

I remember walking onto Columbia's impressive campus when I first started teaching there. I don’t know anything about architecture, so I can only tell you that when you look at the buildings with the grand pillars, you may feel like you’re in Rome even though you’re in the west side of Manhattan, half a mile south of Harlem.

I walk past the tall iron gates at the campus entrance and ascend enormously wide steps of stone leading up to a large building with Greek or Roman columns. But then I follow a brick path moving along the side of the classical building and I’m surrounded by lawns, trees, and humbler buildings made of red brick. My building, Schermerhorn, is one of the humble ones. Offices in the beautiful buildings must have a view of poor Schermerhorn, because from Schermerhorn you can see beautiful views of the classical buildings.

But my tiny office looks out onto a dumpster. Luckily, I have a pull-down window shade so I don't have to look at it all day. The only advantage to the dumpster is that it’s sometimes filled with furniture from labs and offices that are in the process of remodeling. With my view, I can see what they’re discarding before anyone else does, and some of the furniture looks almost new. Sometimes I'd open the window shade to see if something useful for my lab might have appeared.

Alex, or Different is Good

Feb 13, 2017

Alex is heavy, in his mid-30s. He wears a bulky suit, and only part of his white button-down shirt is tucked into his pants. That part of the shirt is also partly tucked into his underwear. It's hard not to notice.

He’s sitting at a table in the Hungarian Pastry Shop. The lighting is dim. The small lamps affixed to the wall on one side of the tables spread warm areas of light unevenly across the large room. The room’s liveliness comes from voices greeting, laughing, discussing, confiding. Above the background voices the waitress sometimes shouts out a name, sometimes yours, as she brings a coffee and croissant to your table. There’s no music. The owners don’t need to do anything to make the environment upbeat because it is upbeat. And if on some morning, it’s quiet, that’s OK. The ebb and flow of moods in a person or a cafĂ© are nothing to worry about.

Alex is at a table near mine. He has chubby baby cheeks and big, fleshy lips. His chair is turned a bit toward the side, as he converses with someone at the table behind him. As he speaks, a drop of spittle on his lower lip moves with his mouth. His words are forceful and insistent. He's making a point about the idiocy of some group of people -- capitalists or suburban moms or Columbia students or conventional people in general. His observations are exaggerated, but it's interesting to listen to him because he’s unusual and perceptive.

The Hungarian is just blocks from Columbia. The first time we met, Alex and I were seated at separate, adjoining outdoor tables. We'd seen each other a few times, but it was the first time we'd been seated next to each other. He asks me what I do. Actually Alex asks "So what's your story?" I tell him I’m going to be teaching psychology at Columbia, and I do research on learning and the brain. "So what do you know about antidepressant drugs?" he asks. I tell him what little I know about them, how they raise serotonin levels, and that nobody really understands why changes in serotonin raise one's mood. He tells me about doctors who overprescribe them, and we talk about dealing with psychological issues using drugs versus therapy versus using one's own free will to right one's ship.

I enjoy talking to him. He's incisive and his questions are personal, meaningful. The Hungarian was quickly becoming my refuge, my hideout from work at Columbia. I preferred sitting and talking with Alex than to most of my colleagues in the Psychology Department.

The man with no hippocampus

Feb 6, 2017

My research is on the brain underpinnings of learning. Different parts of the brain are needed for different kinds of learning. This became very clear when researchers began examining the cognitive functions of a man who had lost the hippocampus on both sides of his brain. The man lost the ability to store new memories of life events.

Henry Molaison, was 27 when he underwent a surgical procedure that removed the hippocampus and some surrounding brain regions. The surgery was designed to relieve the epileptic seizures he’d suffered since he was very young. Before the brain surgery, Henry’s seizures were so bad that he’d regularly suffer convulsions, often he’d black out, and it became impossible for him to continue his work repairing motors.

The surgery controlled his seizures, but it also produced serious memory impairment. Because he lost so much brain tissue it’s hard to know which region's removal was responsible for his lost memory function. But other people have suffered damage restricted to the hippocampus and shown a similar amnesia, so the hippocampus seems to be a critical structure for memory. Brenda Milner was the Canadian researcher who conducted most of the tests of Henry’s memory and other abilities. The details of Henry’s first meeting with Brenda are not known, but based on records of their test sessions, and quotes from Henry, I imagine their first meeting to have gone something like this:

About a week after his surgery, Henry was feeling fine. He was mildly elated at not having suffered a seizure since the surgery. He was seated in his hospital room after finishing breakfast when a young woman with a notepad entered. She introduced herself as a member of the research staff and shook his hand. He smiled and said “My name’s Henry Molaison, pleased to meet you.” After a few minutes of conversation, she asked if he’d mind answering some questions about his past. “Where was he born? What were his parents’ names, their professions? How many siblings did he have? What were their names? Where did they live now?”

He could tell that this interview was not really about his family history. She was testing his memory. He answered all the questions effortlessly.
 “Very good. You have excellent recall of these memories.”
 "I’m relieved,” Henry said. “I’ve actually been a little worried about my memory.”
 “How so?” the woman asked him.
“I just seem to forget things.”
“Well, would you mind if I ask you a few more questions? I have to step out for a few minutes. Can we resume this when I come back?”
“Sure,” he said. About five minutes later she knocked on the door and entered.
Henry held out his hand and with a smile he said “Hello, I’m Henry Molaison, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Do you remember meeting me before?” she asked.
A look of embarrassment covered Henry’s face. “I’m terribly sorry. I’m afraid I don’t.”