Clive Wearing – The Man With a 30-Second Memory

Clive Wearing, once an accomplished musicologist and orchestra conductor, is now known as the man with the 30-second memory, and for having one of the worst cases of amnesia ever recorded.

Can you imagine being unable to remember most of your life or to make any kind of new memories? Most of us can’t even begin to understand what it must be like to do something or meet someone and then forget the entire experience in a matter of seconds. The most mundane things, like eating, waking up, or seeing a family member all melt like snow every 7 to 30 seconds, leaving a blank canvas that is wiped clean again at short intervals. It’s impossible to even imagine, and yet that has been the life of Clive Wearing, a former musicologist, conductor, tenor, and keyboardist, for nearly four decades now.

Photo: Geralt/Pixabay

Clive Wearing’s life took a dramatic turn on the fateful day of March 29, 1985, when he collapsed on the floor of his home and was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in London, by his wife, Deborah. He had been suffering from headaches for a couple of days, but he never imagined that his brain had been infected by an insidius virus that would end up obliterating his hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with the way we form and trnsfer memories.

The herpes simplex 1 virus, which usually causes cold sores, was to blame for Clive’s brain inflammation. In very rare cases, the virus wakes up from dormancy near the spinal chord and, instead of causing a cold sore as it usually does, it travels to the brain, where is causes it to swell up against the skull, essentially crushing it. And while it is among the rarest form of encephalitis, it is also one of the deadliest.

Doctors only gave Clive a 20 percent chance of survival, but after being pumped full of antiviral drugs for days, he started improving, at least physically. However, as time passed, the doctors, Deborah and eventually Clive, understood that his brain wasn’t the same anymore.


At first, Clive was unusually euphoric, waltzing through the hospital, jumoing out of wardrobes, playing the jester, or even jumping out of a moving car. He was put on all kinds of tranquillisers, because he was too hard to control, but this also helped hide what had actually happened to his brain. Then, as he began to realzie what was happening to him, Clive’s mood change. He began to cry, and Deborah say he cried continuously for a month before he started coming to terms with his new reality.

Clive Wering severe encephalitis left him with anterograde amnesia, which means he can’t create new memories. Every day, he feels like he is waking up several times per minute, he forgets what he is eating or what it tasted like while he is eating it, as his brain basically resets at intervals between 7 and 30 seconds. And as if that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, Clive realizes that something is wrong with him, he just can’t realize or remember what.

At one point, Wearing started keeping a diary of what was going on in his life, as a way of keeping track of it all. It ended up full of entries like “I am awake” or “I am conscious,” entered again and again every few minutes. Instead of helping him, the diary became proof of Clive’s desperation.


“His ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he did not seem to be able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink,” Deborah wrote in her book, “Forever Today”. Indeed, if he did blink, his eyelids parted to reveal a new scene. The view before the blink was utterly forgotten. Each blink, each glance away and back, brought him an entirely new view.”

Clive’s anterograde amnesia is only half the problem. He also suffers from retrograde amnesia, meaning that he has lost most of his long-term memory as well. He knows that he is married but can’t remember anything about his wedding. He knows that he has children – from a past marriage – but cannot recall their names.

The former musicologist, now 84 years old, remembers very little about his life before 1985, but his procedural memoy remains intact. He remembers how to shave or to shower, and his muscle memory, which wasn’t affected by the severe amnesia, even allows him to play musical intruments beautifully.


Clive Wearing’s heartbreaking story was the subject of the 1986 documentary “Prisoner of Consciousness,” as well as in his wife’s book, “Forever Today”.

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