Clive Wearing - the man with no memory

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Ivan Seeking

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In March of 1985, Clive Wearing, an eminent English musician and musicologist in his mid-forties, was struck by a brain infection—a herpes encephalitis—affecting especially the parts of his brain concerned with memory. He was left with a memory span of only seconds—the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded. New events and experiences were effaced almost instantly. As his wife, Deborah, wrote in her 2005 memoir, “Forever Today”:

His ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he did not seem to be able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink. Indeed, if he did blink, his eyelids parted to reveal a new scene. The view before the blink was utterly forgotten. Each blink, each glance away and back, brought him an entirely new view. I tried to imagine how it was for him. . . . Something akin to a film with bad continuity, the glass half empty, then full, the cigarette suddenly longer, the actor’s hair now tousled, now smooth. But this was real life, a room changing in ways that were physically impossible.

In addition to this inability to preserve new memories, Clive had a retrograde amnesia, a deletion of virtually his entire past...

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  • #2
That New Yorker article by Sacks contains almost the whole chapter on Wearing from Sacks' book Musicophilia.

The thing not included in the article is this weird and frightening opening passage:

Oliver Sacks said:
In January of 1985, his wife records, Clive Wearing , an eminent English musician and musicologist in his mid-forties, was reading “The Lost Mariner,” a piece I had written about a patient with severe amnesia. My patient, Jimmie, I wrote, was “isolated in a single moment of being, with a moat or lacuna of forgetting all round him….He is a man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment.”

“Clive and I,” Deborah Wearing wrote in her memoir, Forever Today, “could not get this story out of our heads and talked about it for days.” They had no way of knowing that they were, as Deborah put it, “staring into a mirror of our own future.”

Two months later, Clive himself was struck by a devastating brain infection…

p. 201
  • #3
I don’t know that Clive’s condition is all that unusual. Someone I know (Jane) has a similar condition that was brought on by mini-strokes. There’s a medical term for it but I’ve forgotten it now.

The only difference I see between Jane and Clive is that Clive’s condition is a bit more severe. Clive can’t remember more than 10 seconds ago which includes his past life. Jane can remember most of her life leading up to the onset of the mini-strokes but now can’t remember anything more than a few minutes ago. This condition has persisted for the past ~ 5 years.

What’s interesting is that both cases show that there ARE memories which are not accessible to the conscious state. Both Clive and Jane have memories for example, of how to speak English, how to write, how to play card games and music learned when younger, they remember faces, etc… There are very complex, stored memories available to their present conscious state, but they seem to be ‘unconscious’ memories. The big difference between Clive and Jane is that Jane has consciouss access to many childhood memories and also many memories leading up to the mini-strokes but Clive may only have unconsious access to those memories.

The phenomenon seems to share something in common with blindsight in which a person has access to present information but they are not conscious of that information. Still, an individual with blindsight can act on the information which they don’t have conscious access to just as Clive and Jane can act on information (ie: memories) which they don’t have conscious access to. In Clive’s case, he has access to memories and acts on that information (such as giving his wife a warm and loving greeting whenever he sees her) but these unconscious memories conflict with the information available to the conscious part of the brain.

In both blindsight and Clive’s memory loss condition, unconscious memories come into the conscious state without phenomenal qualities (or properties) and therefore they are in conflict with the phenomenally available information.

There’s been research recently that suggests memories may be aided by or even maintained by methyl groups which bind to our DNA. I wonder if there’s any evidence in Clive’s case, that the virus is somehow preventing those methyl groups from binding to DNA. I’m sure it isn’t as simple as that, the virus could act on the connections between neurons and in the case of Jane, there seems to be damage to neuron connections caused by the mini-strokes. But it seems there must be considerable research into the various causes of memory loss that include molecular level causes. The same might hold true for such things as blindsight.
  • #4
Q, you oughta read the stuff at the two links in Ivan's post.
  • #5
I once met a vet at a VA hospital who had no short-term memory. He was able to tell me that he was in Vietnam and was hit with agent orange, but he also introduced himself several times while we were talking. It was a very strange converation, to say the least!
  • #6
I once met a vet at a VA hospital who had no short-term memory. He was able to tell me that he was in Vietnam and was hit with agent orange, but he also introduced himself several times while we were talking. It was a very strange converation, to say the least!

Apparently that's one of the possible symptoms of Agent Orange poisoning:

Vietnam veterans who served in the conflict between 1961 and 1971, and who suffer from memory loss that Agent Orange caused, may be eligible under the law to receive benefits from the US Department of Veteran Affairs. The Department offers comprehensive medical exams, hospital care, medical care, home care, disability benefits, and other social programs for victims of Agent Orange exposure who have suffered physical harm as a result.

Memory loss Agent Orange induced is just one symptom that is recognized to be a presumptive condition of Agent Orange exposure. The most distinguishing adverse effects of Agent Orange exposure include Chloracne, liver dysfunction, personality disorders, cancers, and birth defects. Numerous other conditions have also been associated with Agent Orange exposure.

Agent Orange is an herbicide that was used extensively by the US military during the Vietnam conflict between 1961 and 1971. The US military dropped more than 100 million pounds of Agent Orange over six million acres of land in South Vietnam in order to clear plant life and expose the enemy during conflict. Exposure to Agent Orange can cause serious birth defects including spina bifida, missing body parts, and other serious health problems in offspring of Agent Orange exposed victims.

It is estimated that 2.6 million US troops (and millions of allied troops and Vietnam citizens) were involved in the conflict in South Vietnam. All of these veterans are at risk for developing serious adverse health problems as a result of Agent Orange exposure. The memory loss Agent Orange causes can be just one symptom of a more serious psychiatric or neurological condition. The affects of Agent Orange can appear soon after exposure or it may take up to twenty years for adverse health symptoms to develop.
  • #7
Apparently that's one of the possible symptoms of Agent Orange poisoning:

Yes, he understood what had happened to him and he was allowed to roam the complex, so he must have been able to learn new things. However, based on our conversation and what I can remember about it, I would guess that his conversational memory was limited to the last few minutes... maybe less than that.

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