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Clive: When All You Remember is Music and Love

Yesterday I was exploring the archives of one of my favorite podcasts: Radiolab. This show explores broad topics from a variety of scientific and philosophical perspectives, and the episode I was listening to was exploring the topic of memory and forgetting. If you’re interested in how memories are formed, recalled, and forgotten, I definitely recommend listening to the entire episode, but the story I want to highlight here is the story of Clive.

Much has been written about Clive, including a chapter in Musicophilia, the most recent book by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Clive Wearing has been to said to have the worst case of amnesia ever recorded. His amnesia, which was the result of a rare brain infection, left him with virtually no long-term memory and a short-term memory of only seconds. For him, every moment is a new moment; with every blink, he opens his eyes to a new world. In the Radiolab story, we hear voicemail recordings from Clive shortly after his wife visited him – he can’t remember that she was there, and in each message he begs her to come visit. His life is full of so much new experience – it sounds confusing, frustrating, and terrifying all at the same time.

Two things remain for Clive, though. First, he remembers his wife, the woman who he loves and who loves him. Second, he has his music. Clive was a prominent choral conductor and musicologist before the infection destroyed his memory, and it turns out he can still be fully musical when singing, conducting a choir or playing the piano – in the musical moment, he feels fully alive again.

Though Clive’s case is quite unique, we can see these same connections with many other people who have various memory impairments. In music, it comes in the ability to sing “You Are My Sunshine” or “Amazing Grace” even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In love, it comes from the joy in spending time with family members or sharing a smile or hug with a genuinely loving staff member, even if the person is not quite sure who he is talking to. Music and love – both of these seem to be able to cross the abyss of memory loss. 

It is such a privilege to be able to communicate through music and be a loving presence for people with memory loss. In the midst of so much confusion and anxiety that may come with such problems, all of us can be a source of comfort and a support for feeling fully alive.

When have you seen the unique abilities of music and loving presence to break through the barriers of memory loss?

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