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Chapter 8: Memory Overview

Conductor Clive Wearing at the keyboard. After developing a brain infection that nearly took his life, his musical abilities remained intact but his memory was never the same. JIRI REZAC


On March 25th 1985, Clive Wearing tossed and turned unable to sleep due to an extremely high fever causing him to sweat and vomit. Clive reported to his wife he was experiencing a “constant, terrible” headache, as if a “band” of pain was tightening like vice on his head (Wearing, 2005, p.27). Over the next couple days, Clive’s symptoms declined and the doctors caring for Clive continued to tell his wife Deborah he would be fine and was getting over a bad case of the flu. Clive spend three nights completely awake and in pain. On the third day, Clive turned to his wife remarking “darling…. I can’t…. think of your name” (Wearing, 2005, p.31).


Deborah called the doctors immediately who arrived a couple hours later and informed her that her husbands confusion was related to the lack of sleep Clive had just experienced prescribing sleeping pills. Later in the day after leaving Clive to sleep, Deborah returned home expecting to find Clive napping on the couch. To her surprise, all she found was a heap of pajamas. She called for Clive and looked everywhere in the house but he was nowhere to be found. Clive was later found when a cab driver dropped him off a the local police station because he was unable to recall his address to get home after he had wandered off. Although Clive did not even recognize their home upon arrival, Clive was escorted inside where he rested more. Awaking Friday morning Clive’s symptoms appeared to be getting worse where his confusion was so severe that he could not recognize the toilet among other items in the bathroom. As Deborah called the doctors in a freight, Clive went unconscious and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance.


Before these symptoms arose, Clive Wearing had been a widely accomplished musician, a conductor who sang at Westminster Cathedral for many years and also a regular guest to Covent Garden and London Sinfonietta as chorus master instructing singers and instrumentalists through emotionally complex music of his favorite composer, Orlande de Lassus. Clive had produced music for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), including music that appeared during the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer (Sacks, 2007; Wilson, Baddeley & Kapur, 1995; Wilson, Kopelman & Kapur, 2008). However, Clive’s entire lifework in music and performance quickly dissolved when a virus that normally created blisters on the mouth invaded his brain.


Clive had suffered from a common form of the herpes virus (HSV-1) which on rare occasions (1 in 500,000 annually; Whitley, 2006) invades the central nervous system and causes a condition called herpes encephalitis. Clive’s misdiagnosis unfortunately represents something fairly common in medicine where symptoms of herpes encephalitis are mistaken for symptoms of an extreme case of the flu, meningitis, a stroke or epilepsy (Sabah et al., 2012).


Clive had survived his extreme series of symptoms, however he had suffered major damage many different areas of his brain. Although Clive was able to sign and play the keyboard (of which he continued to do often), he was unable to continue working as a conductor and music organizer (Wilson & Wearing, 1995). Clive could now barely get through his day to day life due to his inability to remember what he was doing and recognize normally familiar objects. Even eating was difficult for Clive. He would try to eat a menu, would confuse concepts such as “scarf” and “umbrella” and shaved his eyebrows and nose (Wearing 2005; Wilson & Wearing., 1995).


In the months following Clive’s illness when he was recovering, he noticed a continual feeling of waking up and experiencing everything around him for the first time. Deborah described this experience saying, Clive saw the world anew with every blink of his eyes (Wearing, 2005). In constant struggle to figure out what is going on after “waking”, then forgetting and “waking” again, Clive would pose the same questions over and over again. He would repeat the same conversational phrases when talking to people, and claimed he had not known or seen the people he had been talking to before. Due to this ongoing confusion, Clive continued to record his experience in his diary, where he wrote the same conclusions every day. On August 25, 1985 (similar to many other days recorded), Clive writes, “I woke at 8:50 a.m. and bought a copy of The Observer,” which is then crossed out, and followed by “I woke at 9:00 a.m. I had already bought a copy of The Observer.” The next time reads, “This (officially) confirms that I awoke at 9:05 a.m. this morning” (Wearing, 2005, p.182). The herpes virus had destroyed areas of Clive’s brain important for proper information storage and retrieval.


The story of Clive Wearing sets off our journey through memory. This chapter will discuss opposite ends of the spectrum: from memory loss to incredible feats of remembering. We’ll consider the psychological and biological processes that underlie how memories are stored and forgotten, and discuss strategies that may help you to remember material for exams and everyday life: passwords, terms, concepts, theories, names, and where you left your keys.


Openstax Psychology text by Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett and Marion Perlmutter licensed under CC BY v4.0. https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology


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