The dissociative fugue state: Forgetting one’s own identity

The New York Times has an interesting article about a rare and poorly-understood form of amnesia called dissociative fugue, in which some or all memories of one’s identity become temporarily inaccessible:

Last year a Westchester County lawyer – a 57-year-old husband and father of two, Boy Scout leader and churchgoer – left the garage near his office and disappeared. Six months later he was found living under a new name in a homeless shelter in Chicago, not knowing who he was or where he came from.

Library searches and contact with the Chicago police did not help the man. His true identity was uncovered through an anonymous tip to “America’s Most Wanted.” But when he was contacted by his family, he had no idea who they were.

The fugue state is one of a number of dissociative memory disorders, all of which are characterized by an interruption of, or dissociation from, fundamental aspects of one’s everyday life, such as personal identity and personal history. During the fugue state – which can last several hours or a few months – an individual forgets who they are and takes leave of his or her usual physical surroundings. In a minority of cases, the individual can assume a new identity. Often, the fugue state remains undiagnosed until the individual has emerged from it and can recall their real identity. Upon emerging from the fugue state, the individual is usually surprised to find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.

The prevalence of dissociative fugue is about 1 in 2,000, but the condition is more prevalent in war veterans or those who have experienced natural disasters or similar traumatic events. For example, the lawyer mentioned in the quote above was a veteran of the Vietnam war, and had walked in between the twin towers of the World Trade Center just minutes before the first aircraft struck the north tower on September 11, 2001.

Unlike most forms of amnesia, which are associated with damage to specific parts of the brain (such as the hippocampus), dissociative fugue has no known physical cause. Typically, the memory loss is triggered by a traumatic life event; subsequently, the individual enters the fugue state, during which the retrieval of memories associated with the event is somehow prevented. Thus, the fugue state is psychogenic: psychological factors impinge upon the neurobiological bases of memory retrieval. The memory loss is, however, reversible; once the individual emerges from the fugue state, he or she is once again capable of retrieving the “lost” memories.


7 thoughts on “The dissociative fugue state: Forgetting one’s own identity

  1. A similar kind of amnesia develops with the injectable anesthetic ketamine. There is even an ‘out of body experience’ with this drug. Since no other lipid soluble anesthetics act in a similar way, we may presume that it acts in ‘a specific’ portion of the brain. Thus although, a psychogenic/hysterical hypothesis may be put forward to explain fugue, a morphologic/anatomic entity can not be ruled out.

  2. This is a good area to explore to identify the making of memories and their retrieval. However, this type of forgetting is much more global than the so called ‘recovered memories’ and, probablly, much different in many respects. There is some good research being done now in this area with fMRI. I suspect we will learn much more on the topic in the coming months and years.

  3. This was the basis for the David Lynch film “Lost Highway,” in which Bill Pullman’s character seemingly goes through a dissociative fugue. The difference from reality is that the character is suddenly physically different, too.

  4. my wifes doctor has half diagnosed her with this but she seems only to be going back until she is around seven years of age now i cannot find any cases similar is there any one out there who can help her fugue states only last twenty minutes or so but they are happening more and they are getting longer the only sure fire way of bringing her round is sleep but does any one know of any other conditions other than this that it could be

  5. My husband is right now in the hospital with what was diagnosed as this fugue state. This has happened to him 2 times. The first time which was about 2 – 2/1-2 weeks ago. He came home from work that morning and said that on the way home he suddenly could not remember lots of things. He remembered me, our dogs, how to get home, how to solve work problems (he was working alone), things like that but did not know how he knew how to do all those things. He asked repeatedly what he did for a living, was he good at it, how long had he owned his car and a few other things like that. Within 24 hours he was just fine. Yesterday he came home from work again and it happened again. This time it has lasted about 38 hours. It is worse this time. He did not remember what a dog was, who I was, who he was, working, sneakers and was constantly asking where he was (we were at the hospital), what was a hospital, was there something wrong with him, many many questions like this. He has had no trauma. There has been stress though which is of a positive nature. I am a lay person but I know that sometimes positive things that someone does not know how to handle can cause tremendous stress. The only really negative thing I can think of is that at work some one found a dead fawn under and piece of machinery. The building is open to the outdoors. This was a source of pain for him as he could not get it out of his mind. These are the only things. He did not try to leave home or travel. I am wondering if people suffering from this can respond differently depending upon their basic individual personality. I would like to hear someones response to this. Donna

  6. My wife fell in a crosswalk and bumped her head in September. She can not remember anything, or anyone in her life before this. We have been married 19 yrs and 8 months, we have two teenagers, and she can not remember anything. I am in the Army, and we have traveled the world. Her childhood was not great, but there was no abuse. We have a happy marriage. She has had to re-engauge everything, and everyone in our lives. Friends have had to be re-introduced. Driving, navagation, cooking, etc … all NEW.
    She spent a little time in a State hospital, and they gave her lots of classes. That seemed to help her but only to function IN the home. Everything else is new and exciting.

    I have opened all our photo albums, and talked at length about countless memories of mine for her to learn from. She has family members calling her non-stop. Nothing.

    Her Mom is visiting right now, and while they get along, there is little progress with memory.

    She is Hypo-Thyroid & Bi-Polar. Her Cat Scan was normal. EEG and MRI are done, but now her Neurologist is on vacation.
    Last night, she had a sharp pain in her head, and that lasted a few minutes. Then everything went back to what it was before.

    Her therapist has diagnosed her with “Disassociative Fugue”. While this models her behavior, I dont know if this is correct. Maybe I am in denial.

    I welcome any and all comments:

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