Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Who Am I? (part two)

with 8 comments


Some time back I wrote a post where I discussed some aspects of personal identity and how it relates to genetics and gender. A story in the news recently made me think about our personality, is that who we are? And how fragile it apparently is in some cases. A gentleman left his home to walk his dogs last fall. A few hours later his dogs wandered home, but Joe Beiger was nowhere to be found. For twenty five days he wandered the streets of Dallas, apparently with no knowledge of who he was or where he lived.

Then he was spotted by someone who knew him, and after a few minutes conversation his memory began to return. He was returned home, 20 lbs lighter and badly in need of a shave, but within a few hours his normal memory returned…right up to the moment he wandered away. Months later he still has essentially no memories of what he did while he wandered the streets.

Diagnosed with an extremely rare condition called dissociative fugue, Joe now carries a phone with a GPS locater should he wander off again. Science has no idea what causes this or other types of amnesia, though stress or psychological conflict of some sort is strongly suspected. Obviously anything could have happened to him as he wandered away, in fact it makes me wonder how many people who disappear or wander aimlessly into traffic have suffered something like this.

There was a case in CA where a person who just entered a dissociative fugue was discovered in her car at the side of the road. She was alternatively completely unresponsive or extremely combative when two policemen approached her car stopped at the side of a busy freeway. She was taken into custody as a suspected drunk, and when she woke up in a cell the next morning she had no idea who or where she was. Suspected of faking amnesia initially, she was fairly quickly diagnosed as having suffered a dissociative fugue. If the two policemen had not found her when they did she would likely have eventually wandered into an emergency room as such folks often do. Or she would have moved to another town, picked a new name, and started a new life.

Hollywood has really made a mess of retrograde amnesia. Cases like the above two are extremely rare, but they do happen. Sometimes they are triggered by some sort of stress, and often there are previous minor incidents of amnesia in the sufferer’s life. Sometimes they are triggered by a minor head injury. A bump on the head and you’re a new person, your skills and memories intact, but no knowledge of who you are or your personal history. And unlike Hollywood, they person in question does not always miraculously recover their lost memory after another bump on the head or exposure to their friends and family, sometimes they don’t recover it at all.

This is why I always buckle up or hold the hand rail as appropriate. One life and one personality is plenty for me, I have no desire to start over. There was a nineteenth century case where an amnesia sufferer was found years after he disappeared, living in another state with a new name and a new family. He was terribly upset when discovered, he didn’t know what to believe. On his death bed, his last words were, “Please tell me, who am I, really?”

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and it is central to illustrating the post. Credit: © Frederic Bonn / la modern association – 2000-2005 at Look at Me.)

Written by unitedcats

August 7, 2007 at 7:48 am

Posted in Health, Philosophy, Science

8 Responses

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  1. I found your post very interesting. It made me wonder how these temperory memory/identity losses are different from multiple personality disorder.


    August 7, 2007 at 8:22 am

    • They’re actually closely related, both are dissociative disorders.


      December 21, 2021 at 8:46 pm

  2. I didn’t know stress could trigger off such memory loss….


    August 7, 2007 at 8:32 am

  3. An interesting observation, there is some similarity and differences between the two. I am planning further posts on the fascinating (to me at least) topic of personal identity, and Multiple Personality Disorder definitely comes into play in this discussion.


    August 7, 2007 at 8:36 am

  4. I find the topic rivetting! I connect it to the curiosity of people acting totally unlike themselves while under the influence of hypnosis. Apparently,we are never that far away from being someone else..but the idea is scary to most people so it isn’t disucussed much. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the subject!


    August 7, 2007 at 9:10 am

  5. […] global amnesia” or “dissociative fugue”, a subject I have touched on in another post. In this case he might have been “frozen” in position and been unable to move or even […]

  6. […] again. Most people can connect the dots from there. It’s also possible he suffered from a dissociative fugue state, but I think it’s safe to say he lived out his life with his mistress on some obscure beach […]

  7. I’ve yearned for amnesia on more than one occasion. I’ll bet a lot of people have. Memory can be a terrible thing.


    March 15, 2012 at 8:41 pm

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