Return Home


Back to Episode

The story of a man who’s lost everything. Clive Wearing has what Oliver Sacks calls “the most severe case of amnesia ever documented.” Clive’s wife, Deborah Wearing, tells us the story along with Oliver Sacks. And they try to understand why, amidst so much forgetting, Clive remembers two things: Music and Love.

Thanks to Uden Associates Productions for excerpts from the 1986 film about Clive Wearing, "Equinox: Prisoner of Consciousness."


Dr. Oliver Sacks and Deborah Wearing

Comments [40]

My husband John is like Clive: no memory. He was a professor of Chinese literature, spoke 8 languages until he got herpes encephalitis 13 years ago. He has no memory at all but he knows he loves me although he can't remember my name. Somehow emotional memories seem to be intact somewhere in a precious tiny safe vault in his brain, enough to keeps us going. Thanks, I love your work.

Jul. 18 2015 12:10 AM
Pat from t

What 'memories' versus 'skills' are preserved after amnesia that is caused by damage to hippocampus such as with encephalitis is well-explained by research into 'memory systems' (explicit, implicit, procedural) types of memory, each related to different brain regions. The foundation for this theory was from university of Toronto, Psychology.

Jul. 03 2015 02:07 PM
Jon B from michigan

Ok, now I feel a bit foolish. I checked the article from Oliver Sachs in The New Yorker and it was from 2007. Um, that's 7 years ago. We have learned more about the brain since then. How old was the Radio-lab show? I'm now confused.

As well The New Yorker article was very detailed and brought up many things not mentioned on the radio show. I understand much more after reading the article, although I didn't agree with it 100%, it did answer plenty.

Aug. 04 2014 04:24 AM
Jon B from michigan

They only briefly touched on 'love' and suggested that it went to the rear of the brain, our reptilian brain? I don't know.

We build up memory of other humans. Other people are our confirmation that we are not alone in our species. We need others to confirm ourselves beyond ourselves. We use them to help us remember things. We naturally trust that aspect to those closest to us, our families and best friends. We certainly like them because they are a part of our extended memory.

We can 'love' them because the are so reliable in being our extended memory. We 'love' that shared experience. We 'love' our mates because we opted to have them in our lives and help be our extended memory and vice versa in a symbiotic memory relationship. Our mates become our best extended memory via another human because we are around them more.

Reptilian brain is about sex, not 'love.'

I don't buy into the notion that "opposites attract" in a 'love' sense. We want people who can confirm our own ideas, share the same ones, so as to be an echo chamber or easy reminder of our own beliefs. I think people feel 'love' when another person remembers things the same way. It confirms to us that our memory is 'accurate' in what we believe. Not truth in the sense it confirms something like 1+1=2, but accurate in the sense if I believe 1+1=3 and my mate agrees, I get confirmation to my distinct memory, wrong in truth that it might be.

Later when we learn the real truth that 1+1=2, we feel a little let down by our mate, they didn't correct us for whatever reason. We lose a little 'love' or 'trust' in them. Then our brain looks for those patterns anew. Has our mate been lying to us? Not helping us? We begin to check our mates more than before. We can go on like this and fall out of 'love.'

Aug. 04 2014 03:25 AM
Jon B from michigan

In the story presented they never remarked on his ability to know two languages, English and music. Clearly he could take in sensory information to the cortex. The patterns laid down from the audio waves were matched to prior language patterns, he understood those patterns and could respond with his voice in a coherent way, others understood him. He had language memory and other sensory data as well. I bet he could still smell and see things and those inputs also were recognized in his cortex patterns.

We now know the brain has looping pathways. In some way a path was not working to loop back. He had a stream of consciousness, it was working. He had short term memory, very short as it was but it was there. In some way, his short term memory and long term memory were not connected well, but his long term memory was joining into the stream of consciousness. He knew the music for instance.

I would bet that all those phone calls to his wife's voice mail were indeed added to his memory, and if he could have the broken or failed loop fixed, he would remember that he repeatedly called her.

Did they do much testing of his language skills? For instance, if they had asked him a series of fill-in-the-blank phrases, how might he do? "The grass is always greener on ____." I bet he would have done ok, on the other side, so to speak.

So somehow there is a break in the looping paths. It could be the stream of consciousness gets a very quick repeat or confirmation of what it has already done. So that we remember that we remember. And the longer we think on something, the longer time we devote a thought to that stream of consciousness time, we are remembering that we remember and remember and remember. We can get 'stuck' looping memory through the stream of consciousness, a sort of counter amnesia. Sometimes we just can't get something out of the stream of consciousness, it keeps popping back in.

But this is still speculation. We have a ways to go before we understand the true flowchart of those looping connections.

Aug. 04 2014 02:39 AM
stanley b klein

From Lisbeth: "but what bothers me about most every case of amnesia I've read or heard about, is that syntax and grammar seem to be pretty much intact, in working order."

If you go by radiological or anatomical evidence, grammar and word meanings are not located in the same cortical areas as are "memory". More, language is stipulated to be at least based on "memory", but that stipulation has little to back it other than language is learned. Learning does not need eventuate in "memory" -- it can produce imagination, inference, though, belief....

Aug. 03 2014 07:36 PM

@Radio Lab from new york city:
Hi all. The music used during the Clive segment comes from Orlando Lassus, performed by the London Lassus Ensemble and conducted by Clive Wearing himself. Check out for more information on the composer. And if anyone needs a specific playlist, hit us at and we'll send it to you!

Jun. 17 2007 01:21 PM

Hi! I loved this piece, and found it to be thought provoking and painful all at the same time. My heart goes out to the Wearings.

I was (like many others here) entranced by the ambient choral music, but sadly the link you provided above for the composer is an unregistered domain. Would you please post the specific song information for us? I did find many recordings of several songs, however I'm not sure which song to reference. Thank you so much!

Aug. 02 2014 07:23 PM
lisbeth jardine from Port Angeles, WA

"Clive forgets everything, but not her"--but what bothers me about most every case of amnesia I've read or heard about, is that syntax and grammar seem to be pretty much intact, in working order.

But what makes an "uncontaminated" memory (an unremembered memory) somehow superior to a memory that's recalled frequently? Is an unexamined memory netter than memories (I guess the plural should be used here) of repeated abuse--psychological, physical, sexual--by parent(s)and, over time, examining and coming to understand what went on around at the time that one was not aware of and can't have memories of because, maybe, some of those things were events that happened before one was born?

And I won't even mention the memories I have of my husband's sister who died 15 years before I ever met him, but he couldn't remember her or refused to remember her. I'm not sure which. But he's dead and all others who might know are gone, one way or another.

Aug. 02 2014 04:59 PM

I know someone who had a similar amnesia. I would say he was able hold time in memory for two minutes or less. For hours, he asked the same questions over and over, starting with where was he [in the hospital] and why was he there. It was terrifying. Fortunately, his memory started to return the next morning, and he made a full recovery. They never did figure out why it happened.

Aug. 02 2014 04:19 PM

Apparently there's an update in the book Musicophilia about Clive's condition as he ages. He's been noticed doing things such as finding a lost object for a caregiver who complained of losing it (10 minutes after the fact), and keeping track of some slightly long-term schedules.

Apr. 05 2014 06:26 AM
Chris from Boston!

During the "Clive" piece I fell in love with the haunting vocals (liturgical music) in the background, what was the specific recording and where can I find it?,

Nov. 10 2012 04:00 PM
Ashley from New Jersey

I was not particularly fond of this piece. i found it difficult to follow, and it was not enjoyable to listen to. One phrase I did take notice to is when it was mentioned about the possibility of there being a storage compartment in our brains for "memories that matter the most."

Dec. 19 2011 11:22 PM
Mikaela from georgia

When I listened to the part where the wife receives voicemails from her husband every 15 minutes, begging her to come, I just cried. How heartbreaking, to hear your husband's panicked voice over and over and be unable to help...
I called my husband, crying, to tell him I love him. He was at guys' night. It was funny to hear him struggling to be comforting while retaining his man persona.

Feb. 03 2011 03:13 PM
Martha from Seattle

Listening to this particular story was such an emotional experience for me. Bits and pieces practically brought me to tears. His wife's incredible patience. The reference to the Proust quote-"no such rope is available for Clive". Yet love for his wife and a connection to music remains-his rope-so sad, yet so beautiful.
"Where there is love, there is hope" came to my mind during the story. Perhaps that's why this story touched me so profoundly.

Mar. 30 2010 12:23 AM

Hey, who is that Russian woman at the end? In the credits?

Oct. 26 2009 11:15 PM
John E Hein from Portland, Oregon

I stumbled upon a rebroadcast of this show and was blown away! I'll be listening to more RadioLab, for sure.

May. 20 2009 11:41 AM
Wayne and Linda from Franklin, NH

Caught in a massive traffic jam between DC and Baltimore. Listened to this program as a podcast through car radio and didn't even care that we were only moving at 2 mph for an hour.
We were in a different world. Now we load up on RadioLab podcasts and pull them out whenever a drive sees tedious or slow.
Keep up the great programming!

Apr. 09 2009 06:06 PM
Dan Mauzy from Manhattan

This from Cormac McCarthy's The Road:

Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.

Jan. 05 2009 01:09 AM
cynicdesign from Las vegas< Nevada, US

This is at once the most horrible and absolutely most romantic thing I have ever heard.

I tend to be the type that is hesitant to endorse the ever-lasting Disneyesque idea of ramantic love but this story- this story- moves me. Moves my heart in a profound way like nothing I've heard before.

I'm very sympathetic to the difficulties Mr and Mrs Wearing must face bcause of this condition, but I would have them know that their story has moved something in me like no other.

Thank you for sharing and thanks to WNYC for producing such a worthy program.

-Jason Wood

Apr. 14 2008 04:27 AM
Sharron Witters from Lawrence, KS, USA

Having recently read Deborah's book, it was very touching to hear her and Clive's voices. My husband's amnesia began in 2005 and I have sought in vain to speak with another spouse who was further along in this journey than I. My husband's memory is generally a few minutes long yet I found so many similarities between Clive and Lynn's experiences. Within days after beginning to awaken from his coma, he could play the drums flawlessly and sing hymns with me. Music and love survive. Thank God.

Mar. 30 2008 08:41 AM
Karl Otto from Chicago, IL

It would be nice to know about forgetting. Throughout the program, I was wondering what factors and processes make us determine what we remember and forget. Can anybody shed some light on this for me?

Feb. 22 2008 05:17 PM
Clifford B. Anderson, Ph.D. from Hanford, California

Thank you very much for this informative show -- extremely well done!

We just got access to Radio Lab on the local public radio station in Fresno.

Jan. 14 2008 01:32 PM
Senthil Gandhi from Mountain View

I just came back from the Gim, listened to Memory podcast today. Oh my bleep! It was absolutely amazing. The idea that the more we remember something the more we alter it was something that I knew in the back of the head, but to have it proved by simple repeatable experiments, now thats a treat.

This kind of plants a new idea in my head. I feel that science is a form of literature nowadays .Science and actual literature are converging more and more in being an exploration of humanity. Even in its rudimentary forms like when this guy dropped the stone from pisa tower it was already making bold statements about human nature and existence, but nowadays its hitting more stronger and closer to home base.

The part about the person forgetting everything except the love for his wife, now had I read it some short story I would have brushed it aside and even puked at the amount of mushy wishy ness in the plot - but to actually hear the actual tapes of him waking up, suffering, suffocating for want of some thing that he cant quiet understand, its sends a sharp shiver down my boney spine.

Albert Einstein knew it all when he said Reality is an illusion albeit a persistant one.

Oct. 31 2007 01:30 AM
Chel from brooklyn

#3 - WHERE can I find that documentary? I haven't seen it in 10 years and can't find it anywhere now! Help help! (thanks!)

Oct. 16 2007 01:52 PM
Nance from nyc

Thanks my late husband died of a maligant brain tumor and he was also a musican. It brought back so many things his love for his music and family.

Sep. 23 2007 11:15 AM
Darri from Edinburgh, UK

Heart-rending story. Quite odd structure to the show - weirdly intrusive voices and fragmented sources. Much like Clive's own experience? Very moving.

Sep. 20 2007 02:58 PM
cckent from Moscow, Russia

OOps, sorry to ask a redundant question about the affect of amnesia on language.

Sep. 20 2007 01:17 AM
cckent from Moscow, Russia

Would one recognize the loss of language as amnesia also, or is that considered a different problem? Does a different style of music affect Clive the same way, say jazz or Chinese opera?

Sep. 20 2007 01:11 AM
Kenny from Miami, FL

I immediately sent this to my old college choir director. A tear jerker for sure. There really is some inexplicable bond formed around music. (inexplicable, that is, until the Music episode of radio lab premiers)

Aug. 27 2007 12:45 AM
Hemanth from Bangalore

A touching encounter. I enjoyed listening to it.


Aug. 23 2007 11:17 AM
Dixie Yid from East Coast

Once again, a great program. It always gives me something to think about. I've posted another reflection about what I learned on the program here:

Great job Radio Lab team!

-Dixie Yid

Jun. 20 2007 10:33 AM
Radio Lab from new york city

Hi all. The music used during the Clive segment comes from Orlando Lassus, performed by the London Lassus Ensemble and conducted by Clive Wearing himself. Check out for more information on the composer. And if anyone needs a specific playlist, hit us at and we'll send it to you!

Jun. 17 2007 01:21 PM
Greg from Maryland

I agree with Mike, I would LOVE for anyone to let us know which music was used during the show. I'm guessing it was music he directed with the choir he worked with, but I'd like to buy some of that music! Please help!

Thanks in advance...

Jun. 17 2007 12:53 AM
Marge Congress from Oregon

I am trying to subscribe to Radio Lab but it doesn't want to download through ITunes. The shows are dated in 2006, and I can't get the latest ones. What's the answer?

Jun. 14 2007 12:08 PM
Mike from DC

Great Show!

Quick question: Could anyone tell me the music that was played in the last portion of the show (14 minutes of this episode? It was that ambient choral music that was playing during Dr. Oliver Sacks' discussion about Clive.

Thank you.

Jun. 13 2007 09:15 AM
Steve from Minnesota

I loved the show, but I was hoping you would answer as to why Clive could not remember anything, yet Clive could still form coherent english sentences. This raises the question of where does speech and communication skills fit into our memory. Obviously, Clive could still "remember" the process of producing thoughts into english, but how could he do this if his memory was "broken"?

Radio Lab producer Ellen Horne here. Just wanted to comment on your very good question. Clive retained his procedural and emotional memory -- he can still remember how to do things (like make a cup of tea, tie his shoes, even conduct a choir, and, to your point, speak and understand conversation) and he remembers how he feels about things (his wife most noticably!). After the first few months of drastic recovery from the virus, I believe his language and most of his conversational skills were intact. Oliver noted that he was quite witty and has a really jovial sense of humor -- a demeanor which serves Clive very well today given that he can't remember anything that has just happened. He greets the world mostly with a bemused surprise these days. At any rate, your comment goes to the heart of that peice: there are different kinds of memory. Some which are deeper and better guarded than others. It was Oliver's impression that Clive has kept safe in a "subcortigal safe vault" the things which matter most.

Thanks for asking!

Jun. 12 2007 11:17 PM
Radio Lab

Thanks Jen, the link is now fixed!

-Radio Lab

Jun. 11 2007 12:34 PM
Jeff Repka from brooklyn

Wonderful show...I've seen the documentary on Clice, thanks for the update!
(I sent to my niece, who will soon be entering a clinical psych program.)

Jun. 10 2007 06:55 PM
Patricia Valle de Lacerda from Brazil

I am a huge fan of Dr. Oliver Sacks' work on neurology, specially of his commitment with the 'who' and not just with the 'what'.

Jun. 09 2007 04:45 PM
jen from oakland, ca

FYI, the link to this episode from the main Radio Lab page is pointing to 2006/06/08 instead of 2007

Jun. 09 2007 04:10 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.