SARAH HOLT’S AWARD-WINNING TELEVISION DOCUMENTART, “How Memory Works,” vividly introduced NOVA’s viewers to how researchers are uncovering the complex chemistry behind the way our brains store and retrieve memories.
Now, in a dialogue with The Kavli Foundation, Holt shares how the piece evolved, the way stories are developed for the PBS television series, and the challenge of bringing science to television. She also discusses the story's anchoring to the recent death of “H.M.,” a famous psychology subject who in 1953 underwent a radical brain surgery to relieve the symptoms of severe epilepsy. It was an operation that dramatically altered H.M.’s ability to retain memories – allowing him to remember his childhood but unable to recall short-term memories such as what he ate for lunch. His life opened the window for understanding memory – a window he raised even higher with his death, having donated his brain to science, which is where Holt dramatically opens her story.
THE KAVLI FOUNDATION (TKF): Sarah, to begin, can you discuss how this project took off at NOVA?
SARAH HOLT: In this particular instance, the idea came with the death of H.M. A researcher for NOVA was aware that H.M. had donated his brain to science, and now it was going to be sliced into 3,000 slices, stained, mounted on flat slides and put up on the Internet for everyone to study. She thought this was the nugget for a good story, but at the time, it wasn’t clear what the story would be beyond that. Still a lot of times NOVA gives me a story idea, and then I go out and explore it further, seeing where the threads take me. In this case, this initial idea was the starting point for bringing the public up-to-date about what we’ve learned about memory and the brain. H.M. allowed me to look at the work of Brenda Milner and Eric Kandel, and the recent research of André Fenton, which was a huge story on the front page of The New York Times when I returned to NOVA to discuss the story.
TKF: These are fantastic researchers. How do you work with scientists on a project like this?
HOLT: At its best, you make real bonds with your sources. You make them feel you haven’t just told your story; you’ve told their story. And you’re kind of in service of their story, and they help you in return. For example, Brenda Milner, who worked with H.M. helped me reenact the “star experiment,” which is the experiment where she found that, while H.M. couldn’t remember what he ate in the morning, he could learn how to draw a star in reverse. He had no memory of doing it, but physically his body remembered so he kept getting better and better at the exercise. So she brought up the contraption she had used, a student from the University of Toronto stood in for H.M., and we recreated the moment so I could weave it into my interview. And André Fenton spent hours with me working on explanations for how memories are kept in the brain, and doing rat experiments that I could film. In the end it’s a collaboration with the scientists. It’s the minds of many people coming together. I sometimes feel I’m just the needle pulling the thread through all the pieces.
TKF: Do these interactions also lead to new story ideas?
HOLT: It can happen, particularly when you are so impressed with someone’s work, you feel you’re just at the tip of the iceberg of something greater. For instance, I did a story about the effort to grow body parts in the lab, and I could see this is going to transform transplantation and one day be another amazing science story. It’s not there yet, but soon you are going to be able to grow organs in the lab on demand from the patient’s own cells. And when it happens, I want to do it.
Unfortunately one of the realities is that the budgets for stories keep dropping, and you have less and less time to come up to speed on really complex topics, so just having a new idea isn’t enough. But Howard Hughes Medical Institute is getting ready to put $60 million dollars toward science documentary programming, which gives hope to people like me that there will be funding for well thought out science documentaries.
TKF: Are the challenges for a science documentary unique to documentaries about other fields?
HOLT: I’ve made other types of documentaries, including historical and biographical, but I find science documentaries often the most challenging. That’s because, even though you may have strong characters and a strong story, you have to pull back to explain to people on the simplest terms just what the science is, what the detective work is, and pray that you aren’t going to break the narrative when you do that. But it’s also exciting. I’m working for NOVA on topic that is incredibly fascinating. It’s about how we’re entering a new era where, for better or worse, each of us is going to know what’s in our genomes. The technology has advanced so far and the price has dropped so quickly that we are going to be confronted with that reality and it’s inescapable.
It will be a really timely and important film. Recently, a news team in Milwaukee received a Pulitzer prizes for a story on a young child who had a baffling illness. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, so they sequenced his genome and determined he had this rare genetic trait that was causing him to have an immune disorder. The moment they realized he had an immune disorder, they gave him a bone marrow transplant and saved his life. Now I’m in touch with that medical team to see what their next case might be. I’ve also been on the phone with Francis Collins at NIH. And I’m working with the Hastings Institute in New York to help me think about the bioethical issues. It’s controversial. Not everyone sees this as a good use of medical time and dollars. But I can also see this is an unstoppable revolution. The information is going to be there and people are going to have to decide if they want to know it or not. What does it mean to even interpret it? Right now I’m really at the beginning stages, but the interesting thing is, if you had asked me six weeks ago if this was the story I would have wanted to make, it wouldn’t have been on my radar screen. This is part of what I enjoy about this.