Oliver Sacks on music and amnesia

In this week's issue of The New Yorker, neurologist and science writer Oliver Sacks tells the incredible story of Clive Wearing, an accomplished musician and musiciologist who in 1985 suffered a brain infection that ruined his memory, limiting his recall to just the previous few seconds. Amazingly though, Wearing is able to remember two incredibly important things: how to make beautiful music and that he loves his wife. Wearing's wife Deborah wrote about her experiences with her husband in the book Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love. He has also been the subject of documentary films. I'd imagine that Sacks's forthcoming book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, includes more on Wearing along with other similarly extraordinary stories. From the New Yorker article:
When I asked Deborah whether Clive knew about her memoir, she told me that she had shown it to him twice before, but that he had instantly forgotten. I had my own heavily annotated copy with me, and asked Deborah to show it to him again.

“You’ve written a book!” he cried, astonished. “Well done! Congratulations!” He peered at the cover. “All by you? Good heavens!” Excited, he jumped for joy. Deborah showed him the dedication page: “For my Clive.” “Dedicated to me?” He hugged her. This scene was repeated several times within a few minutes, with almost exactly the same astonishment, the same expressions of delight and joy each time.

Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other, despite his amnesia. (Indeed, Deborah’s book is subtitled “A Memoir of Love and Amnesia.”) He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.
Link to The New Yorker, Link to Mind Hacks post for more background, Link to buy Wearing's Forever Today, Link to buy Sacks's Musicophilia


  1. Oliver Sacks will give a lecture about this subject in Portland, OR on October 18th:


    Sacks is an interesting speaker. A bit of a introvert uncomfortable with public experiences; he doesn’t do signing or after-talk shoulder rubbing.

  2. i’ve seen him speak, and afterwards he had a q&a session. not a signing per se, but he does interact with his audience (at least, he did in my case). highly recommended, especially if you’ve read his books.

  3. One of my favorite anthologies is The Vintage Book of Amnesia (compiled by Jonathan Lethem), which has non-fiction essays (including one by Sacks) and short fiction, all about the subject.

  4. Hey, posting anonymously because my sign up has not cleared yet.

    I just wanted to say that if you haven’t already, you should immediately read John Varley’s story “Just Another Perfect Day”, [published in 1989 or 1990] which is the story of a man who can only remember things that have happened to him in the past day. That is to say, he resets when he goes to sleep.
    He, too, has a wife who still loves him, etc. and writes himself a letter each night before he falls asleep, which he then reads in the morning.
    The text of the story is the text of the letter
    I suppose truth is at least as strange as fiction.


  5. This reminds me that I saw a piece on Mr Wearing last month. As one can imagine, it’s both poignant and wryly humourous – Wearing makes sense of his condition by constantly believing that he has just come out of a long illness, and several times he gives the same speech to the camera crew about how he feels his case has been terribly mishandled by the doctors – that in fact he can’t recall a doctor ever once coming to see him. Then his wife comes back into the room, his face lights up and he rushes into her arms for the hundred millionth time.

  6. I should imagine he will include Debussy somewhere in that book – I have heard he had progressive brain damage towards the end of his life but could still write music.
    Sacks is a terrific writer for the layperson.

  7. For anyone interested in seeing this in action, I recommend watching the documentary Equinox: Prisoner of Consciousness. Honestly, watching Clive’s boundless joy whenever he sees his wife is one of most touching things I’ve ever seen. Tragic as his affliction is, the fact that he lives his life in 2 minute spurts filled with the passion of music and the love of his wife is stunning.

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