Clive Wearing


Clive Wearing (b. 1938) is a British musician and musicologist suffering from an acute and long-lasting case of anterograde and retrograde amnesia. Specifically, this means he lacks the ability to form new memories, dubbed the ‘memento’ syndrome by laypeople and the media, after a film of the same name based on the subject.

Clive Wearing is an accomplished musician, and is known for editing the works of composer, Orlande de Lassus. Wearing sang at Westminster Cathedral as a tenor lay clerk for many years and also had a successful career as a chorus master and worked as such at Covent Garden and the London Sinfonietta Chorus. In 1968 he founded the Europa Singers of London, an amateur choir specialising in music of the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries. It won critical approval especially for performances of the Monteverdi Vespers.

Whilst working at the BBC, Wearing was made responsible for the musical content of Radio 3 for the whole of July 29, 1981, the day of the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. For that occasion, he chose to recreate, with authentic instruments and meticulously researched scores, a Bavarian royal wedding which took place in 1568.

In 1985, Wearing, then an acknowledged expert in early music at the height of his career, contracted a virus which normally causes only cold sores, but in Wearing’s case attacked the brain (Herpes simplex encephalitis). Since this point, he has been unable to store new memories. He has also been unable to control emotions and associate memories well.

Wearing developed a profound case of total amnesia as a result of his illness. Because the hippocampus, an area required to transfer memories from short-term to long-term memory is damaged, he is completely unable to form lasting new memories – his memory only lasts between 7 and 30 seconds. 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).

He 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, believing he has not seen her in years, even though she may have just left the room to fetch a glass of water. 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 has forgotten.

Despite having retrograde as well as anterograde amnesia, and thus only a moment-to-moment consciousness, Wearing still recalls how to play the piano and conduct a choir – all this despite having no recollection of having received a musical education. This is because his procedural memory was not damaged by the virus. As soon as the music stops, however, Wearing forgets that he has just played and starts shaking spasmodically.

These jerkings are physical signs of an inability to control his emotions, stemming from the damage to his inferior frontal lobe. His brain is still trying to fire information in the form of action potentials to neurostructures that no longer exist. The resulting encephalic electrical disturbance leads to fits.

He keeps a diary, but earlier entries are usually crossed out, since he forgets having made an entry within minutes and dismisses the writings–he does not know how the entries were made or by whom, although he does recognize his own writing.

Wearing can learn new practices and even a very few facts–not from episodic memory or encoding, but by acquiring new procedural memories through repetition. For example, having watched a certain video recording multiple times on successive days, he never had any memory of ever seeing the video or knowing the contents, but he was able to anticipate certain parts of the content without remembering how he learned them.

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