Dissociative Fugue: Definition, Causes and Treatment

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  • 0:06 Dissociative Fugue
  • 1:14 Diagnosis
  • 3:56 Causes and Treatment
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

In some rare cases, people forget who they are, move across the country, and assume a completely new life. What could cause something like that to happen? In this lesson, we'll look at dissociative fugue, including diagnosis, causes, and treatments.

Dissociative Fugue

Many people know Agatha Christie as one of the most famous mystery writers in history. But what some people don't know is that in 1926 she had her own real-life mystery. Her husband Archie was having an affair, and Agatha was upset and stressed out. And then one day, when Archie was out meeting his lover, Agatha disappeared. It was 11 days before the police identified Agatha as a woman staying in a spa under an assumed name.

But here's the real mystery: Agatha Christie couldn't remember who she was! When she saw Archie again, she thought he was her brother. She had no memory of being Agatha Christie, famed mystery writer. It was as if she had actually changed identities. Agatha Christie might have been suffering from dissociative fugue, a rare psychological disorder that involves forgetting who you are, assuming a new identity, and traveling away from home. Let's look closer at dissociative fugue, including diagnosis, causes, and treatment.


In order to diagnose patients, psychologists turn to a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, or DSM for short. In this book, psychological disorders, like dissociative fugue, are described in detail, and each disorder is given a checklist of criteria for diagnosing it.

The DSM is on its fifth edition; however, the fourth edition is more commonly used. Let's look at the diagnostic criteria for dissociative fugue from the DSM-IV and compare that to Agatha Christie's symptoms.

1. Sudden travel with the inability to recall one's past.

Dissociative fugue patients often end up in new towns, sometimes even new states, and they can't remember who they are or their life before the fugue began. Agatha Christie ended up in a spa in Yorkshire, on the other side of England from her home in Berkshire. Not only that, but she checked in under a different name and didn't remember that she was Agatha Christie. Since she traveled away and didn't remember who she was, she meets this criterion.

2. Confusion about one's identity.

People with dissociative fugue often end up assuming a new identity and live out a new life. For example, Agatha Christie told everyone at the spa that she was a grieving mother from South Africa. She was obviously confused about her identity, so we can check this one off.

3. Cannot be explained by another condition.

Sometimes, people experience symptoms similar to those in dissociative fugue, but they are really suffering from another psychological disorder. Drug and alcohol abuse and other medical conditions can also cause symptoms like those of dissociative fugue.

But there's no evidence that Agatha Christie was suffering from any other psychological or physical disorders, or that she had been drinking or doing drugs before she disappeared. She meets this criterion.

4. Causes distress or impairment.

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