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Brenda Milner: The Mother of Memory

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. This week's post is about Brenda Milner, the woman who knows more about memory than anybody else in the world.

 

Brenda Milner was born in Manchester in 1915. Both her parents worked in the field of music, which Brenda took no interest in, focusing on mathematics instead. After graduating from Withington Girl's School – a prestigious school in Manchester, she went on to further her education at The University of Cambridge. She soon realized that Math was not her cup of tea and switched her focus to Psychology. After acquiring a B.A. degree in experimental psychology, she got the opportunity to stay at the university and expand her knowledge, which didn't go according to plan.

Because of WWII starting, Brenda spent the following years in aircrew selection, distinguishing pilots as either bombers or fighters. Her later work with radars led to her meeting her future husband Peter Milner. When he got invited to Canada for atomic research, she went with him and found a position teaching at the University of Montreal.

Through Donald Hebb, she got to study epileptic patients. Many of them came to her with their troubles with memory, making her curious about the correlation between brain lesions and memory problems. Her work got her quite a recognition. She was noticed by William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon, who invited her to work with his patient Henry Molaison (also known as Patient HM), a young man suffering from extreme seizures because of an accident during childhood. Molaison underwent surgery that consisted of removing most of his medial temporal lobe.

Although this procedure successfully cured his seizures, he had no problem learning new tasks or recalling events from before surgery, and his intelligence, motor, and language skills weren't affected either, he became unable to form long-term memories. After noticing this, Brenda made a major discovery about the brain – the medial temporal lobe is responsible for forming long-term memories, which proved that memory is tied to specific parts of the brain. Her discovery made her a pioneer in fields that weren't yet established at the time – neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Later in her life, she began focusing on neural pathways in language learning, specifically the differences between native and foreign languages. She also took an interest in handedness, studying the difference between the brains of left and right-handed people.

Throughout her life, Brenda Milner has received many honorary degrees and awards, and even after her 100th birthday, she continues to work, teach, and research with neverending curiosity, which goes to show just how right she was with her bold decision to begin studying the human mind instead of mathematics as she previously planned.



 

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