Who Am I? (part two)
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.)