The man with a memory only seven seconds long

May 17, 2021 • 1:45 pm

I was fascinated and horrified by the story of Clive Wearing (video below), once a good musician and conductor (and still can play music) but, laid low in 1983 by a herpes simplex virus that damaged his brain, he was left with a memory that lasts only seven seconds. He can’t remember anything that took place more than seven seconds earlier, and it’s given him what he considers a living death. Each time he sees his wife it’s as if he meets a new person. His consciousness is completely reset every few seconds.

It’s ineffably sad but also scientifically fascinating. Why seven seconds? What kind of damage would impose a time span like that?

I believe Oliver Sacks wrote about people like this, but I can’t remember whether he wrote about Wearing.

And a bit from Wikipedia:

Wearing developed a profound case of total amnesia as a result of his illness. Because of damage to the hippocampus, an area required to transfer memories from short-term to long-term memory, he is completely unable to form lasting new memories – his memory only lasts between 7 and 30 seconds.[2] He spends every day “waking up” every 20 seconds, “restarting” his consciousness once the time span of his short term memory elapses (about 30 seconds). During this time, he repeatedly questions why he has not seen a doctor, as he constantly believes he has only recently awoken from a comatose state. If engaged in discussion, Wearing is able to provide answers to questions, but cannot stay in the flow of conversation for longer than a few sentences and is angered if asked about his current situation.

Wearing remembers little of his life before 1985; he knows, for example, that he has children from an earlier marriage, but cannot remember their names. His love for his second wife, Deborah, whom he married the year prior to his illness, is undiminished. He greets her joyously every time they meet, either believing he has not seen her in years or that they have never met before, even though she may have just left the room momentarily. When he goes out dining with his wife, he can remember the name of the food (e.g. chicken); however he cannot link it with taste, as he forgets what food he is eating by the time it has reached his mouth.[3]

In a diary provided by his caretakers, Wearing was encouraged to record his thoughts. Page after page was filled with entries similar to the following:

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.

32 thoughts on “The man with a memory only seven seconds long

  1. This is my nightmare. Years ago friends told me of staying at a B&B where the husband owner had eaten mussels that had some bacteria in them that caused him to lose his long term memory. (This must be a very rare thing, or mussels wouldn’t be routinely eaten.) He, of course, had to quit his job, and worked at the B&B cooking, where everything he had to do was written on a blackboard. He couldn’t read a book, because by the time he reached the bottom of a page, he’d forgotten what he’d read. I pretty much stopped eating mussels after that, although I love them (and I know the risk is vanishing).

  2. Poor man — a truly horrifying existence. I remember seeing the 1986 documentary about him in which he conducted a piece of music lasting several minutes during which he was totally absorbed and gave every appearance of continuous consciousness, though suffered a kind of minor fit as soon as it ended. I remember it was some kind of Renaissance polyphony like Palestrina, and perhaps the seamlessness of the musical texture gave him a kind of continuous bridge from one moment to another.

    1. I remember that documentary, it was heart-breaking, especially his wife’s torment each time they met. I’m not sure, but I think the piece he conducted was Mozart’s Panis Angelicus.

    2. Ah, I thought his name rang a bell.
      Some years ago the neuro-something-ologist Oliver Sacks did a book about the weird interactions between music and the brain, and I think this case was reported in that. Quite why Dad thought is a suitable birthday present for me, I can’t guess. Interesting, book. Didn’t explain a thing.
      Musicophilia, that’ll be it. I think I got another couple of Sacks books out of the library on it’s basis.

    1. It was a fantastic book. It was one of the last I read of his after becoming obsessed with him, thinking it would be mostly about HIS love of music, but like all his books, it was about so much more than music or the brain or how that complex organ functions or malfunctions. I don’t think anyone has touched me more deeply or profoundly through their words than dear Oliver Sacks.

      1. I was inspired to read it after my dad got brain cancer. He’s been a musician all his life, and in his retirement has been playing in a classic rock cover band with a couple friends. He discovered the tumor because he suddenly couldn’t hear melodies, or even distinguish between a major and minor chord. 14 months later now, he’s slowly recovering those abilities, but still nowhere near well enough to play.

  3. I remember seeing Wearing in a TV documentary maybe around 1980. He was shown greeting his wife for the nth time in a day as if it were the first. Then he was shown a concert organ and he asked what it was. He was told it was a musical instrument and that he knew how to play it which surprised him. He then sat down and played a complex piece of keyboard music.

    It indicates that musical memory must work differently from that lasting only seconds: I have heard it called “muscle memory”: I have great difficulty memorising music though I read it pretty well. When I do manage to memorise a piece, it seems to be more or less “automatic”. If I try to consciously remember the hand positions, I usually lose it completely.
    Systematic memorising of music is a particular skill which can be learnt (so my professional teachers tell me). I find it very difficult and uncomfortable. Others I know, learn a piece after a couple of runs through it and are often very poor sight readers (they commit it to memory as fast as possible in order to avoid reading from score).

  4. I didn’t watch much of the video, it drives me crazy. There must be someone living with him, he wouldn’t know where anything is. He can’t leave the house or he would never get back. There are many things worse than death.

    1. Yes. The husband of a friend of mine was in a similar condition: massive heart attack causing oxygen starvation of the brain for too long.
      He seemed perfectly normal and would chat and recite the same story over and over like script from a play. He didn’t seem to learn new things much. He had been a talented doctor and head of an intensive care unit.
      Anyway, one day he went out of the house on his own, borrowed some money from the paper kiosk and went to buy a train ticket and disappeared until tracked down by the police and brought home. He had to have round the clock supervision.

  5. Wait, this kind of anterograde amnesia provided the premise for the Christopher Nolan film Momento, both as to the lead character played by Guy Pearce and the story-within-the-story character, “Sammy Jankis,” played by the character actor Stephen Tobolowsky.

    1. I think that Nolan (or the scriptwriter, if not the same) was looking more at a different case – the boy who was lobotomised in the early 50s to “treat” severe epilepsy and lost the ability to form new memories. Henry Molaison – that’s the guy.
      The situation seems to have a recurring appeal for film makers in particular. Someday there will be a film about a sufferer of anterograde amnesia trying to make a film about a victim of anterograde amnesia. Central Casting would need to find a pair of identical twins, one for the actor, one for the director/ scriptwriter/ producer.

        1. I’d hesitate to infer that there is an awful lot of incestuous activity within Hollywood.
          Mostly I’d hesitate because the real question is if Hollywood is more (or less) incestuous than the rest of the arts, industry or just plain humanity. “It is,” as the saying goes, “not what you know, but who you know”.

  6. Such a sad story. It was hard to watch and I had to pause the video before it was half way thru. Even though his memory is about as shallow as it can be, you can see that the man himself has depth. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also touching that he has people who love him and who seem to give him some kind of anchor. That side of the story refreshes my hope for people even if his condition chills me to the bone. I’ll try to watch the rest later, but I don’t think there’s going to be any happy ending.

  7. My father, at the end of his life, suffered from dementia. It was not defined as Alzheimer’s; but that’s a distinction of no importance.

    Towards the end, his short-term memory was, I would estimate, 10 seconds. He would repeatedly ask certain questions or make the same observation over and over. It took great patience to deal with this — a skill one had to acquire.

    Since he had no short-term memory, he needed to see his known landmarks (his home, its rooms, my mother, etc.) constantly. You can imagine the mental turmoil that would result from never really knowing where you were. If he wasn’t at home or couldn’t see my mother, he got very agitated.

    His long-term memory was still there. He really lived in his long term memory: He would tell stories about long ago times. As he continued to age and decline, these times (the times that were still real to him) progressed further and further into his past.

    More recently, my wife experienced an event of Transient Global Amnesia (TGA). During this event, she, too, formed no memories of any kind. She was only alive in the moment. She was very agitated and afraid until she was home and could see me. (My experience with my Dad was good training.) I got her to the hospital and they diagnosed her. They said most MDs would never see this condition in their careers. After about 6 hours, she started to come around and was fine by morning. The neurologist said she would likely never experience it again. It is often induced by stress, and she had a super-stressful meeting that afternoon.

    Ken Kukec (at 6) mentions the film, Memento which I can also highly recommend. I need to watch it again after my recent experiences noted above.

    1. Yes, my step-grandfather ended up with a very short memory span. He had about four anecdotes, which cycled on almost instantaneous repeat. One of them involved him being the driver of a hearse for a firm of funeral directors before the First World War and then serving as an ambulance driver (he was at the Somme, so kudos). On learning about his civilian job his co-driver said “First time I’ve been second driver for an undertaker”. Tom must have died over forty years ago, but I can still hear those stories!

      1. and then serving as an ambulance driver (he was at the Somme, so kudos).

        He might have met Gandhi (who also spent part of WW1 as an ambulance driver, I think) or Marie Curie (with her X-ray waggon).

  8. I noted on one of his diaries he wrote “this is hell on earth”. What a nightmarish situation to have to live in, both for him and his family.

  9. See my note at (8) above.

    I have heard many say they they dreaded dementia at the end of life. I used to feel this way. However, after speaking to friends whose parents or spouses were fully cognizant at end of life, I am not sure about that at all anymore. They all experienced serious pain over long periods of time. They became progressively physically disabled and fully experienced this loss of capabilities.

    All in all, dementia might be a better way (assuming one doesn’t get to choose a painless exit or have the luck of having a sudden, painless death, as my Mom did).

    1. It was my goal to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse — though it appears I’ve perdured past that last option.

        1. Yeah, the two go hand-in-hand, although I wake up every morning still thinking I’m about 26 … until I wipe the steam from the shower off the mirror to shave.

  10. All those years, and doctors could not come up with a treatment to try and change this? Wouldn’t something be worth a try, rather than than leaving him like this?

    1. I’m not certain there is anything doctors can do to repair damaged brain tissue. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong. 🙂

  11. Pinker deals with anterograde amnesia in his latest series of lectures (he plugs on his twitter – they’re excellent, btw).

    What a hell this guy and his family live in.
    Memento was an amazing film: “Am I chasing him? Oh no, he’s chasing ME!” and he lives by writing post-its to himself. For a movie about amnesia it is very, very memorable.

  12. I turned off about 30 minutes into a film last week – “Source Code” – when the McGuffin turned out to be (I paraphrase) “recovering the memories from corpses, which last for 8 minutes, then (palaver)”. I thought it was pure bullshit then, but now I’m wondering if the scriptwriter wasn’t hooking on, in some way, to this case.
    Scriptwriters certainly do seem to like plots involving mucking around with memories. “Total Recall” and it’s re-make have both been broadcast recently.

    Let me guess – an “elevator pitch” averages seven seconds because of the attention span of producers?

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