Clive Wearing – Extreme Memory Loss – A Case History

Who is Clive Wearing?

Clive Wearing is a British musicologist, conductor, tenor and musician who suffers from chronic and irreversible anterograde and retrograde amnesia.  He was a specialist in early music and founded the Europa Singers and was in charge of the musical content of BBC3 for the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981.  He was at the peak of career when he was struck down by viral encephalitis in March 1985.  Initially mistaken for severe flu as his illness coincided with a major influenza epidemic, by the time the severity of his illness was recognised by the medical profession his hippocampus was almost completely destroyed and there was also damage to other parts of his brain.  This effectively eradicated his ability to form new memories or retrieve old ones.

Measured in Seconds

His memory span is literally measured in seconds and he is in a constant state of just waking up.  Even though he keeps a journal which he writes in every few moments he crosses out the previous entries because he does not believe he was conscious when he wrote them.  The journal is crucial as he has no sense of time and this constant writing, always marking down the exact date and time of each momentary entry, is his only record that time is actually passed, even if he was not consciously aware of it.  He feels that he has just woken from a coma and wonders why no doctor has been to see him yet.  

Heightened Emotional Awareness

He is also unable to regulate his emotions and is in constant state of heightened emotional awareness.  His semantic memory and procedural memories are still more or less functioning so he can remember music and how to play it but cannot talk about it and is not aware that he is remembering it.  In other words, if you ask him if he knows a particular work he won’t know what he is being asked about but if he sits down in front of the piano, harpsichord or organ he will automatically play it.  Unfortunately music causes him severe distress in that it heightens his emotions but the part of the brain required to process that emotional information is absent so musical performances almost invariably lead to epileptic seizures.

Deeply in Love

He is aware of the fact that he has children from his first marriage but cannot remember their names.  He recognises his second wife, Deborah, although he cannot remember her name either, and knows that he is deeply in love with her.  Although they had been married less than two years at the time of his illness and were making plans to start a family, they had been together for six years and it is believed that it is because they had been together for a significant period of time that he remembers her at all.  His response when he sees her is always joyous even if she has only been out of the room for a matter of a few seconds as every time he sees her he feels he is seeing her and falling in love with her for the first time.

Easily Overwhelmed

He cannot cope with strange surroundings, noise or crowds as he is in a constant state of heightened sensory awareness and is easily overwhelmed.  Conversations have to be carefully scripted to avoid questions that distress him – even a simple ‘how are you?’ can upset him as he does not know how he is.  

Unlike an Alzheimer’s patient, he is unable to remember past episodic or autobiographical memories so the ‘trips down memory lane’ that can be used as conversational tools when conversing with Alzheimer’s patients are inaccessible to him.  As his semantic memory is intact he can, for example, identify a piece of chicken on the plate in front of him, but he does not taste it as by the time the food has reached his mouth he has forgotten what he is eating, or even that he is eating at all so the part of his brain that provides the senses of taste and smell does not register.

Deborah Wearing

His wife, Deborah Wearing, discovered that there were no specialist facilities for his type of brain damage in the Great Britain and that while Clive’s case was extreme, there were other families struggling to cope just as she was.  She became involved in setting up a brain charity, the Amnesia Association (merged in 1991 with Headway), to try to raise recognition for amnesia patients and provide help for families caring for loved ones with similar problems.  

At that point her husband was being cared for in the ward of a psychiatric hospital in London, even though his problems were not of psychiatric origin, as there was no where else to place him and no one really knew quite what to do with him or what his prognosis might be.  Wandering was a problem and both staff and patients alike were constantly on the alert in case Clive went walkabout as with his non existent memory he did not know where he was and was unable to find his way back to his ward, not even knowing that that was where he should be in the first place.

Specialist Care

Now aged 78, Clive lives in a specialist facility in a converted country house in the English countryside where distractions are few and the staff can give him the specialist care that he needs. Although he and his wife were divorced briefly as she thought she should try to start a new life without him, she realised that actually even in his damaged state he was still the man she loved and they renewed their marriage vows in 2002.  She sees him as often as she can and now earns her living as a writer.

Clive’s case of extreme amnesia has been documented in several films in both the US and the UK over the years and his case has been examined by every specialist in the field as it tells us so much about the role of the hippocampus in forming memories.  Deborah wrote a moving memoir, ‘Forever Today:A True Story of Lost Memory and Never Ending Love’ which was published by Penguin books in 2005.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *