As Deborah Wearing entered the room, her husband Clive ran to her, passionately calling her name and kissing her as soon as they embraced. To a casual onlooker it would have seemed obvious that the couple had been apart from one another for a long time. However, in this case, Deborah had just stepped out of the room momentarily. Each time she entered the room she would receive Clive’s passionate welcome. This bizarre scenario wasn’t surprising to Deborah, at least not at this point. It had characterized each and every reunion with her husband for years.
Clive’s unique situation resulted from an illness that had appeared in the spring of 1985, with symptoms that he originally thought nothing of. But when his symptoms persisted–chronic headache, sleepless nights, fever, and mental confusion—Clive’s doting wife, Deborah, called the doctor, who suggested that Clive had the flu. Hence, Clive and Deborah did not have any warning that, when Clive woke up on Tuesday, March 26, 1985, his conscious experience would be forever altered. Although Clive retained his fundamental level of intelligence and unimpaired use of his sensory and perceptual systems, each moment of his life was almost completely erased each time he blinked.
Nine years after the onset of Clive’s illness, Deborah walked into his room, and Clive asked her how long he had been ill. When Deborah said that it was nine years, Clive returned with, “Nine years! Good heavens! Nine years….I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, felt anything, smelled anything, touched anything. It’s been one long night lasting….how long?” (Wearing, 2005, p. 333) When Deborah asked him to write how he felt, Clive responded, “I am completely incapable of thinking” (Wearing, 2005, p. 155).
Clive’s altered experience is passionately expressed in his daily journal entries. Each time he awoke from a night’s sleep, or even blinked, seemed like his first awakening from an endless unconsciousness, and he thought the momentous occasion should be documented. Clive would document the time and then proclaim that he was finally completely awake, often beckoning for his beloved wife to come as quickly as possible. Seeing very similar entries in his journal that were written just minutes before his latest profound entry, however, created frustration and angst in Clive. His response was to declare the older journal entries rubbish and to try to add superlatives to each new entry…reporting that it was indeed the first time he had been fully awake or using all capital letters and exclamation points, anything to distinguish the event from the endless similar reports that preceded it.
Behind the Scenes
Once Clive was admitted to the hospital, it was obvious to his doctors that his mental confusion was not a symptom of the flu. Eleven hours following his admission, a diagnosis was presented to Clive and Deborah. It appeared that encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by the herpes simplex virus, was the culprit. Brain scans indicated diffuse damage throughout the cortical areas of Clive’s brain—the temporal, occipital, parietal, and frontal lobes. More noteworthy to the neurologists, however, was the virus’s meticulous and complete destruction of one specific area of Clive’s brain, the hippocampus. As you learned in Chapter 2, the hippocampus is involved in learning and memory. Clive’s case certainly corroborated past evidence that the hippocampus plays a starring role in the formation of memories.
From a psychological perspective, Clive obviously could no longer establish memories for events such as taking a bite of his favorite food, celebrating a birthday with his family, or spending a day with his wife. Interestingly, in some cases he knew things that he couldn’t specifically remember. For example, he couldn’t remember his wedding, but knew Deborah was his wife; he had no memory of ever conducting a concert, but knew he was a musician. In fact, his amnesia, or memory loss, didn’t affect his ability to, after declaring no memory for a musical score, sit down, and play it beautifully on the piano. The survival of a subset of Clive’s memories provides evidence for the existence of various types of memory systems that will be discussed throughout this chapter.
Nearly 30 years after Clive’s brain injury, his condition hasn’t changed. Deborah regularly visits her husband in an assisted living facility, experiencing his endless dramatic proclamations of his love for her—perhaps his most enduring memory. They both have accepted that Clive’s life consists of instantaneous scenes…a literal translation of “living in the moment.”