When musician Clive Wearing was struck down by a brain infection in 1985, it stole his memories. It also prevented him from making new ones.
Fresh events and experiences are lost in the blink of an eye. Herpes encephalitis had infected his brain and destroyed his memory. He sees and hears everything in a crystal clear fashion. Yet holding onto the precious moments is like catching smoke in a bottle – impossible.
It is the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded.
His memories last for a mere 7 to 30 seconds before disappearing. He perpetually feels as though he is awakening from a coma and asks over and over why he hasn’t seen a doctor yet.
An example from his diary looks like this:
8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.
9:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.
9:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.
He repeatedly crosses out previous entries because he has no memory of writing them.
His wife, Deborah, describes his condition as a “never-ending agony.”
“It was as if every waking moment was the first. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness. He had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before.”
In 1993, Clive was moved to a small country house for the brain-injured. Over the next 15 years his memory would remain broken but he became more sociable and communicative.
Clive remains a stranger to himself, but he is able to find comfort in two anchors, his wife and his music. On some fundamental level, he continues to recognize Deborah. His love for her has survived the illness.
Deborah explained, “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.”
The amnesia could not snuff out his emotional memory or his love for music.
Clive can still play complex musical pieces on the piano, sing and conduct a choir. Like driving a car, playing music uses a type of memory called procedural memory that was not affected by his amnesia. Clive needs no conscious knowledge of what comes next or what has gone before to play music.
The momentum of the music allows Clive to follow the melody instinctively without conscious thought. And through the momentum of the melody, his present moment is filled with joy. By losing himself in the music and through the eternal love for his wife, Clive becomes whole again.