Update on Clive Wearing

October 8, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

The New Yorker recently published an article by Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and author, with an update on an equally famous patient: Clive Wearing, a British musician who suffered an attack of viral encephalitis in 1985. Although Wearing recovered, the infection destroyed the areas of his brain associated with storing memories. As a result, for the last 22 years, Wearing has been living in an eerie, amnesiac void – unable to make any new memories, unable to remember anything beyond a few moments ago.

Sacks gives us a startling glimpse of Clive Wearing’s effort to comprehend his condition – which, of course, he cannot learn the truth about any more than he can learn any other new information. At times he seems aware that something is dreadfully wrong, but he can never tell what it is. So severe is his amnesia that he continually believes he has only just awakened after being unconscious for an extended period:

Desperate to hold on to something, to gain some purchase, Clive started to keep a journal, first on scraps of paper, then in a notebook. But his journal entries consisted, essentially, of the statements “I am awake” or “I am conscious,” entered again and again every few minutes. He would write: “2:10 P.M: This time properly awake. . . . 2:14 P.M: this time finally awake. . . . 2:35 P.M: this time completely awake,” along with negations of these statements: “At 9:40 P.M. I awoke for the first time, despite my previous claims.” This in turn was crossed out, followed by “I was fully conscious at 10:35 P.M., and awake for the first time in many, many weeks.” This in turn was cancelled out by the next entry.
This dreadful journal, almost void of any other content but these passionate assertions and denials, intending to affirm existence and continuity but forever contradicting them, was filled anew each day, and soon mounted to hundreds of almost identical pages.

What I found most amazing is that Deborah, Clive’s wife, has stayed by his side despite his incurable memory loss. The love and devotion she’s showed to her husband in the face of their 22-year ordeal beggars belief; if there are such things as saints, she is surely among them. As she wrote:

“Clive was constantly surrounded by strangers in a strange place, with no knowledge of where he was or what had happened to him. To catch sight of me was always a massive relief—to know that he was not alone, that I still cared, that I loved him, that I was there. Clive was terrified all the time. But I was his life, I was his lifeline. Every time he saw me, he would run to me, fall on me, sobbing, clinging.”

Notwithstanding his wife’s devotion, Clive Wearing does have one other “lifeline” – his musical skill, which was not taken from him by his illness. Dr. Sacks notes that only when playing does Clive seem truly in the present:

Clive’s performance self seems, to those who know him, just as vivid and complete as it was before his illness. This mode of being, this self, is seemingly untouched by his amnesia, even though his autobiographical self, the self that depends on explicit, episodic memories, is virtually lost.

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Category: Current Events, Psychology Cognition, Science

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I'm an author, skeptic and computer programmer living in New York City. I'm also an unapologetic atheist, and believe passionately that freethinkers deserve a much stronger voice in our culture than they've been given in the past. Since politicians and the mainstream media aren't willing to give us that, it falls to us to take our case directly to the public. Both on my own weblog, Daylight Atheism, and here on Dangerous Intersection, I hope to be able to spread the good news of freethought!

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    The New Yorker story of Clive Wearing was both touching and deeply disconcerting. As you mention, it was inspiring to learn of Deborah’s unflinching dedication to Clive, as well as to learn of Clive’s ability to continued ability to experience the joy of performing music.

    The importance of incorporating new memories is well-considered and presented by Oliver Sachs. Perhaps my reading of the article is affected by my own viewing (probably ten years ago) of a video documentary of Wearing’s predicament. As I watched the documentary, I saw Wearing's ebullience each time Deborah arrived to visit. I saw how the all-encompassing present brought him such reassurance whenever he had the opportunity to rehearse with a choir.

    I’m glad that Sachs spent considerable time on the issue of emotional memory. I try to imaging the confusion that I would experience had my own wife walked into the room, suddenly twenty years older. It would seem that Wearing must be soaking in some sort of emotional memory given his repeated and complete-seeming happy acceptance of Deborah.

    The passages about Wearing’s reaction to his own journal are especially moving. The documentary I viewed showed scenes of Wearing’s brief though intense struggles to reconcile his journal with his conflicting memory. What? His own handwriting indicates that this was not the first time he met this visitor, but his own memory tells him that this IS he first time. The visitor was the person making the documentary—perhaps it was Sachs himself. My own memory is not clear, though, a reminder that each of us is on that same continuum with Wearing. I often think, “Thank goodness for my continuous loss of memory, that I am allowed to live life in reasonably good conscience.” But there is also a downside to this existential analgesic.

    Wearing’s story is disconcerting, though, in that it reminds me of the effects of Alzheimer’s. I know several adults who are currently caring for their own aging parents afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The story of Wearing has many parallels, including the slow retrograde amnesia and the frustration when these patients semi-realize that something is wrong. For those in the advanced stages, every day becomes the same day, where they might do such things as ask their own adult children what they do for a living or ask where their long-deceased spouse is.

    In the end, even Wearings’ mind successfully and usually seamlessly fills in the huge memory gaps. His mind works hard to steer him around the horrific possibility that he is quite unwell. It continually writes an extradinary narrative that steers around the possibility that Wearing is not really living in the present. I saw this same phenomenon with my own grandmother, who, toward the end, had a tried-and-true repertoire of rather simple greetings and farewells to buttress a dramatic loss of her ability to update the present. Did it “work”? Depends on how you define “work.”

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    The devotion of women to severely ill mates is remarkable. A friend of mine several years ago was diagnosed with M.S. and as is my wont I flew into a spate of research to learn all I could about the disease and one of the statistics I learned was that well over 70% of women stay with the afflicted partner.

    The sad thing is, for men this is almost reversed, with well over 60% of men finding an excuse to leave the sick partner. Conditioning? Hormones? I don't know, but it deeply troubled me at the time.

  3. Sometimes I think I'm one cynical person and think too bad of men and then someone like Jason comes along and brightens my day…

  4. Anon says:

    I was taking an intro to psych class when i first learned about Clive Wearing. Since then I like to look up more information about him because I find it so fascinating that such a tramatic experience has occured and yet what has remained intact for him is love, and knowlegde of music. I think that it is such an unusal love story that truly makes everyone reflect on how they would feel in that situation. But I love that no matter how bad things are getting for him he has his wife by his side and loves her dearly.

  5. I'd find a comic he can take in at a glance and makes him laugh. I'd find a painting he loves. I'd find him an inspiring quote or short and moving poem. Forgetfulness can be a gift. Exploit that.

  6. Chuck says:

    I have long found the story of Clive Wearing – my first exposure to which being the documentary many years ago already mentioned and the latest being exposure being the New Yorker article – absolutely fascinating. The connection between memory and the self-awareness that makes us "human" has often been seen as almost definingly distinct. Yet we see Wearing, who can form no new memories, recall no previous memories, and can not help but be stricken by his utter "humanness." Eloquent, logical and passionate, Wearing is at once completely crippled and unencumbered by memory.

    Equally remarkable is the devotion of Wearing's wife, Deborah, who has remained his only constant for more than two decades. While Wearing had his disease thrust upon him, Deborah has seemingly accepted her fate while wrapped in the cloak of memory, while Clive lives on, free of his own.

  7. keyonna says:

    it's devastating to forget things in a short period of time. this case is sad, i feel dreadful. i couldn't imagine for any person to go through this, it's horrible. god bless Clive Wearing soul!!!!!!!!

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