Music, love survives the densest amnesia

Oliver Sacks has written an engaging piece for the latest edition of the The New Yorker on how musical ability can survive even the most severe amnesia, with particular reference to the famous case of Clive Wearing.

Wearing was a renowned classical musicologist and conductor, involved in recreating some of the most challenging Renaissance works. You can still find him in the sleeve notes of some of his professional recordings, usually described as having retired due to ‘ill health’.

In his case, ill health meant being struck by herpes simplex encephalitis, a viral infection that is known to attack the key memory areas in the brain, leaving him with a dense amnesia.

Even today, he is severely memory-impaired and remains unable to maintain anything in his conscious memory for more than a few seconds.

But in an almost Homeric twist of fate, as if he had bargained with the Gods themselves, he retained the memory that he loved his wife, and his ability to play music.

Clive has been the subject of two documentaries (clips of which are available online) and a recent book by his wife, entitled Forever Today (ISBN 0385606265).

He’s also been the subject of various scientific studies, summarised in a chapter of the book Broken Memories: Case Studies in Memory Impairment (ISBN 0631187235).

This chapter is co-written by Clive’s wife and Prof Barbara Wilson, a respected British neuropsychologist who specialises in memory.

The chapter contains a wealth of information about the neuropsychology of his memory, but also contains this interesting snippet:

For many years, Clive has experienced auditory hallucinations. He hears what he thinks is a tape of himself playing in the distance. He refers to this in his diaries as a ‘master tape’ (a term used in broadcasting for the original audiotape which should be protected from casual use and should certainly not leave the studio).

If asked to sing what he can hear – a sound only ever heard in the distance – he picks the tune up in the middle and is puzzled that no-one else can hear it. Half an hour later when asked to sing what he can hear it is usually the same tune but sometimes sung in a different style as if it were replaying in variations.

The New Yorker article is written with Sacks’ trademark sensitivity and wonder, and is a engrossing exploration of music and memory.

It comes shortly before the release of his new book Musicophilia, of which there is a short audio excerpt on the bottom of the book’s webpage.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Music and amnesia’.

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