April 15, 2015 (Vol. 35, No. 8)

Mitzi Perdue

Still Curious, Determined, and with a Strong Love of Knowledge at 96

Looking back on her 96 years, science legend Brenda Milner, Ph.D., has some advice for young people who are thinking of a career in science: “Know yourself.” It’s the same advice that Plato gave, but in Dr. Milner’s case her guidance relates to some specific factors: know what you’re good at, and find something you care about so much that you’re willing to endure the long hours, tedium, and discouragement that can attend a career in science.

Her own life is an example of the advice she gives. Today this McGill University researcher is known as the founder of neuropsychology, and is legendary for her contributions to neuroscience. The honors that have come her way include more than 20 honorary doctorates, memberships in the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Canada, and the National Academy of Sciences and, last year, the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.

However, it was a long road to reach the heights that she has now attained. Interestingly, her home environment would not have led someone to predict a scientific career. Both parents were musicians and her opera critic father homeschooled her. “I did a lot of German and Shakespeare with him and French with my mother” she remembers. The homeschooling also included some mathematics, and when later on she attended the Withington Girls’ School, her dream was to study math at Cambridge.

The headmistress of her high school had other ideas. She felt that the young woman had a gift for languages and should be steered toward Oxford, which was strong in languages. The choice became a battle in part because of scholarship money: at that time getting a scholarship to study languages would have been far easier than finding one to study math and physics.  Still, the young woman knew what she wanted and in 1936 was admitted to Newnham College (Cambridge) to study math.

Within a year, Dr.Milner became convinced that although she could excel in the logical part of math, she was not good at the perceptual side of it. “I would have loved to be a great mathematician, but I was just an ordinary one,” she reflects.


Dr. Milner is known as the founder of neuropsychology, and is legendary for her contributions to neuroscience. [McGill Reporter]

Experimental Psychology

Not wanting to be a mediocre mathematician, she contemplated switching to philosophy. “But dear, don’t you have to earn a living?” one of her older college mates asked her. Dr. Milner then switched her attention to experimental psychology. This was a satisfactory choice in the eyes of her Cambridge advisors. “You can be a factory inspector or something,” someone helpfully told her.

During the war years, she helped devise tests for selecting aircrews and later, she worked on display and control systems to be used by radar operators. During this time she met her husband Peter Milner, an electrical engineer, and in 1944 the couple moved to Canada where Peter was recruited to work on atomic research.

In Montreal, as part of her doctoral studies, she began working at the Montreal Neurological Institute with word famous brain surgeon Wilder Penfield. The Institute provided surgical treatment for epilepsy, and her job was to study young adults who were facing elective surgery to deal with uncontrolled seizures. Her studies revealed that temporal-lobe surgery could cause unexpected emotional and intellectual changes in these patients, including deficits in memory. As a result of a paper she wrote in 1954, many surgeons began choosing to avoid surgeries that that they otherwise might have performed.

As she continued studying the effects of damage to the medial temporal lobe on memory, she came into contact with a man who was to become the most famous patient in cognitive science, Henry Molaison. Known in the literature as HM, he had undergone a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy by American neurosurgeon William Scoville that included removal of major portions of his hippocampus. Through observation and cleverly devised tests, Dr. Milner was able to prove that even though HM was unable to remember new events, he was nevertheless able to learn new motor skills.

Under her direction, HM learned to draw a star shape accurately from an image he was shown in a mirror. Surprisingly, though he could learn to do this, he had no conscious memory whatever of the three days of training that it took to learn this skill. Dr. Milner’s relationship with HM continued for more than three decades, but during the entire time that they worked together, HM was never able to learn Dr. Milner’s name or to recognize her when they met.

The disconnect between HM’s ability to learn a skilled motor task and his inability to remember how he had learned it showed Dr. Milner that there are different types of learning and memory, each dependent on a separate system of the brain. In the case of HM, Dr. Milner was catching a glimpse of both a procedural memory system and an episodic memory system.

Procedural memory is memory for the performance of particular types of action and it usually takes place below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and used for such cognitive and motor skills as tying shoelaces, driving a car, or reading a book. In HM’s case, he used his procedural memory to learn the new motor skill of drawing a star from its mirror image, but could not remember the process of learning how to do it.

Episodic memory is the memory of autobiographical events such as times, places, events, and the emotions that went with them. It is the memory of past personal experiences such as something that occurred during a childhood birthday party. In HM’s case, the episodic memory, at least for the recent past, was not functioning.

Dr. Milner’s research established that people have multiple memory systems, governing different activities like language or motor skills. Knowledge of the existence of different memory systems helped propel the academic and medical specialty of neuropsychology. In the years since, Dr. Milner also conducted much of the early work that established how the different hemispheres of the brains interact, and this in turn has had an enormous impact on understanding cognitive learning, language, sensations, and emotions. Today much of her work explores the interaction between the brain’s right and left hemispheres.

Thinking again of advice she would give young people, she points out, “It’s never a case of, you come home one night and at dinner say, ‘Look, I discovered something!’” Instead, she says “Science entails long hours of taking notes, running experiments, changing hypotheses, discovering the flaws in your design and the noise in your data. It’s a slow business, and you have to gather a lot of information, you need a lot of statistics, or at least you have to understand statistics enough to know that you need help with statistics. In my case, I was prepared to work hard.”

But there is something deeper that drives Milner. “The thing that has driven me my whole life is curiosity. I’m incredibly curious about the little things I see around me. I’m a ‘noticer.’”