Major League Amnesia

Given I have been thinking about memory lately, I found it coincidental perhaps to open the New Yorker and find an article by Oliver Sacks—who has long written on brain injuries—on one Clive Barnes, a British musician and musicologist, who has perhaps the worst case of amnesia on record.  He had a form of herpes encephalitis that in 1985 I believe reduced his short term memory to next to nothing and wiped out also all his memories before the date of the disease.

According to Sacks, Barnes has but to blink his eyes and he forgets what he has just seen.  Once he was found standing in a room opening and reopening his hand; in it was a piece of chocolate.  Barnes would exclaim each time he opened his hand, look it’s different, or it’s new, and how do they do that—thinking each time that it was a different piece of chocolate since he could not remember having seen it.  Somewhere between the closing and opening of his hand he had forgotten that he had previously seen it.

Barnes tried to keep a diary too.  Pages and pages of the same thing.  215…I just woke up.  230…I just woke up for the first time today.  245…clearly awake.  The diary was an attempt to impart some sense of continuity to his day; but instead it records a mind with no continuity at all.  Each time he wrote he thought he was waking up for the first time because he could not remember having really opened his eyes for the first time that day.  Funny, though, that writing the journal entry made him feel as if he was waking up (for the first time that day).

 Obviously though he had not forgotten how to write.  Sacks refers to something called the semantic memory.  People with amnesia sometimes retain that.  One man after a stroke forgot all the events of his life but could remember much of the scholarly information he had learned over the years and could also speak several languages.  Barnes retained that memory too.  His wife—they love each other—and have remained married all these years noticed one day that Barnes too had retained this form of memory.  He could remember the words of a song and sing them; and has since his disease conducted orchestras.  He knows what was sung and what is coming up.

Oddly too Barnes remembers his wife.  If asked he could not tell you what she looks like; if he walked by her in a crowd he would not recognize her; he cannot remember when she last visited him.  But when he is told that she is coming, when she enters the door, and he hears her voice, he runs to her, embraces her, and sometimes weeps.  When she returns home she finds messages from him asking her to visit him because it seems like ages since he has last seen her.  This ability to remember his wife, in some fundamental, way Sacks sees as evidence of something called “emotional memory,” perhaps the least understood and known of all forms of remembering.

This is a very interesting article and well worth reading should you happen to have a copy the September 24, 2007, New Yorker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *