kitchen table math, the sequel: Lost in Time

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lost in Time

Here is Oliver Sacks' article about Clive Wearing in The New Yorker: The Abyss.

In March of 1985, Clive Wearing, an eminent English musician and musicologist in his mid-forties, was struck by a brain infection—a herpes encephalitis—affecting especially the parts of his brain concerned with memory. He was left with a memory span of only seconds—the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded. New events and experiences were effaced almost instantly. As his wife, Deborah, wrote in her 2005 memoir, “Forever Today”:

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. 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. I tried to imagine how it was for him. . . . Something akin to a film with bad continuity, the glass half empty, then full, the cigarette suddenly longer, the actor’s hair now tousled, now smooth. But this was real life, a room changing in ways that were physically impossible.

In addition to this inability to preserve new memories, Clive had a retrograde amnesia, a deletion of virtually his entire past.

When he was filmed in 1986 for Jonathan Miller’s extraordinary documentary “Prisoner of Consciousness,” Clive showed a desperate aloneness, fear, and bewilderment. He was acutely, continually, agonizingly conscious that something bizarre, something awful, was the matter. His constantly repeated complaint, however, was not of a faulty memory but of being deprived, in some uncanny and terrible way, of all experience, deprived of consciousness and life itself. As Deborah wrote:

It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before. . . . “I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything,” he would say. “It’s like being dead.”

Desperate to hold on to something, to gain some purchase, Clive started to keep a journal, first on scraps of paper, then in a notebook. But his journal entries consisted, essentially, of the statements “I am awake” or “I am conscious,” entered again and again every few minutes. He would write: “2:10 P.M: This time properly awake. . . . 2:14 P.M: this time finally awake. . . . 2:35 P.M: this time completely awake,” along with negations of these statements: “At 9:40 P.M. I awoke for the first time, despite my previous claims.” This in turn was crossed out, followed by “I was fully conscious at 10:35 P.M., and awake for the first time in many, many weeks.” This in turn was cancelled out by the next entry.


Clive’s loquacity, his almost compulsive need to talk and keep conversations going, served to maintain a precarious platform, and when he came to a stop the abyss was there, waiting to engulf him. This, indeed, is what happened when we went to a supermarket and he and I got separated briefly from Deborah. He suddenly exclaimed, “I’m conscious now . . . . Never saw a human being before . . . for thirty years . . . . It’s like death!” He looked very angry and distressed. Deborah said the staff calls these grim monologues his “deads”—they make a note of how many he has in a day or a week and gauge his state of mind by their number.


Back in his room, I spotted the two volumes of Bach’s “Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues” on top of the piano and asked Clive if he would play one of them. He said that he had never played any of them before, but then he began to play Prelude 9 in E Major and said, “I remember this one.” He remembers almost nothing unless he is actually doing it; then it may come to him. He inserted a tiny, charming improvisation at one point, and did a sort of Chico Marx ending, with a huge downward scale. With his great musicality and his playfulness, he can easily improvise, joke, play with any piece of music.

His eye fell on the book about cathedrals, and he talked about cathedral bells—did I know how many combinations there could be with eight bells? “Eight by seven by six by five by four by three by two by one,” he rattled off. “Factorial eight.” And then, without pause: “That’s forty thousand.” (I worked it out, laboriously: it is 40,320.)


ElizabethB said...


I recently read about a similar case, but he's now recovered his mind, although he still has some physical symptoms.

Remarkably, he re-taught himself Greek using his own textbook:

"My Greek grammar had come out in the summer of 1996. I had spent seventeen years working on it, taking it through five pre-publication drafts that had been used in the classroom since 1979. In the fall of 1997, when I was teaching intermediate Greek again, I found myself not recognizing very much that was in the grammar. I couldn’t even understand the concepts, let alone recognize that these were my words! Then I discovered that even my basic Greek skills—parsing, vocabulary, translating—had all but disappeared. I had to relearn Greek in the midst of teaching it. I was teaching first-year Greek at the same time, and that helped me to relearn the basics. It was a very difficult year though, because I was really only one step ahead of the hounds all year. As I kept coming back to Greek, the synapses in my brain began to kick in. It was easier relearning Greek the second time around, but the circumstances were a bit unusual, especially having to reread my own grammar to understand the language better."

Catherine Johnson said...

I would love to know if a mathematician who suffered this brain injury would retain his ability to do math.

I'm guessing he or she would -- but I'm not sure why I think so.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow -- that's fascinating (the man reteaching himself Greek)

ElizabethB said...

Certain kinds of math, probably, like that described in "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid."

They're pattern-knowledge, not fact-knowledge.

I have a short page about learning and patterns on my website:

"Liz has played the trumpet for 15 years. She started young, then did not play for 12 years, then began playing again. She reads music, but mainly plays by the sound and feel of the notes, seeing the music as an instinctive pattern rather than as a series of notes or numbers on a scale. A visiting musician talked about the numbers of the notes on a scale that are most prevalent. Liz had to think through the patterns of notes and translate them to numbers on the scale before she could agree with him.

She also learned German as a series of patterns. Jeff and Liz were speaking German (poorly) to our neighbors when we lived in Germany. Jeff used the word alle when he should have used jede. Jede and alle do not have direct English equivalents. Liz instinctively knew which one to use with which words, but had to think through the pattern within several German phrases and translate them into English before she could explain the difference between the two and explain to Jeff when to use each word."

Catherine Johnson said...

Yes, you're right of course - to the extent that math is procedural knowledge, you'd still have it...

I wish I knew to what degree things like constructing proofs coincide with procedural memory.

(Procedural memory is "how to" memory - like how to ride a bike.)

LSquared32 said...

I would think that proof constructing would be retained quite well, because it is almost all recognizing how conclusions fit together logically. You would have to have a rather better short term memory (you have to be able to hold all of the pieces in your mind as you write), and it would have to be in a simple enough context that you could relearn the axioms and definitions readily (that wouldn't retain), but the proof construction part is really quite like riding a bike.