Clive Wearing suffers from the world’s most profound case of amnesia; he is unable to either form new memories or recall many of the events his past.
In 1985, Wearing contracted a herpes simplex virus. Shortly thereafter, it attacked his central nervous system and he became afflicted with viral encephalitis; he has been unable to form new memories ever since and constantly believes he is awakening from a deep void and gaining consciousness for the first time.
I’m touched by the tragedy and beauty of Clive Wearing’s condition. On one hand, he’s lost nearly everything except his most profound long-term memories. He still has consciousness, but it’s not in a form any of us can really understand or empathize with; my best analogy would be to imagine having a computer that erased your new documents and would reboot every 2 minutes. No doubt, there’s few of us who would have the patience to use such a machine. Therefore I greatly admire Wearing’s courage to continuously awaken and face an unfamiliar and daunting world.
Clive Wearing’s brain reboots every 30 seconds. Would you use a computer that did that? Click to tweet this!
One can not help but be touched by the glee he experiences whenever he sees his wife as well. On some level, I think his consciousness is even purer than mine; he lives fully in the present and is driven by his emotions yet is not weighed down by them. Any great tragedy he faces is quickly forgotten, although sadly this is true of the joy he experiences as well. Nevertheless, his condition aptly illustrates the connection between memory and our concept of what consciousness is.
Long-term memory is effectively permanent and consists of the things we learn as well as events we remember. Many elements of Clive Wearing’s long-term memory remain intact. He remembers his wife, his past experience as a conductor, and working for the BBC. Surprisingly, Wearing has been able to learn and recall a handful of facts since contracting encephalitis; he is aware of the reunification of Germany as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, among other things. Nonetheless, Wearing’s ability to form new long-term memories remains extremely impaired.
Explicit memory consists of things we can consciously recall such as a friend’s name or the president of the United States. Implicit memory, on the other hand, consists of the things we don’t realize we remember. I’m fascinated by Wearing’s inability to locate the kitchen yet having no problem making a cup of tea when asked. This would indicate that his explicit memory has been damaged while his implicit memories remain intact. Another way of looking at this would be to compare procedural versus declarative knowledge. Procedural knowledge can be thought of as “knowing how”, while declarative knowledge can be thought of as “knowing that”. Clive Wearing’s procedural knowledge of how to make a cup of tea remains intact, but he cannot declare the location of the kitchen.
Despite Clive Wearing’s tragic condition, we’ve learned a lot about the human brain from studying him. It’s reassuring to know he lives comfortably, is taken care of by nurses who understand his condition, and that he has a loving wife that has stood beside him despite his condition. Although he faces daily hardship, he’s clearly lucid and retains consciousness despite the loss of his memory.
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