Fugue State: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Andrea McKay

Andrea teaches high school AP Psychology and Online Economics and has a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

In this article, you will learn about a rare and unusual disorder known as the fugue. Read on to discover symptoms, possible causes, and treatments for sufferers of a fugue state.

Fugue State Defined

Imagine waking up in a new town with no memory of your identity or former life. It may sound like a script for a Hollywood movie or a soap opera, but people in a fugue state experience this level of amnesia related to their identity for weeks or months.

Few psychological disorders leave as many questions as does a fugue. Fugue is considered a dissociative disorder where one separates from previous memories, suddenly finding themselves with no recollection of previous experiences, feelings, or people in their lives. People suffering from fugue do not remember their own identities or any details of the lives they've lived.

Dissociation occurs when one splits their consciousness, simultaneously having some thoughts or actions occur with others. A common example of dissociation happens when you are driving a car and miss your turn while you are daydreaming. The daydream has split your conscious awareness from the task of driving. The realization that you just missed your turn typically brings you back to paying attention to driving. In this manner, dissociation may not be so rare, but the dissociation does not last long.

Individuals suffering from a fugue state lose their memory and identity for a period of time.

Symptoms of a Fugue State

A fugue state takes dissociation to an extreme level, where one unconsciously separates from all of their memories and experiences. In some cases, a person might leave from work on a normal day but never return home. Instead, the individual continues driving aimlessly and without purpose. Eventually he will run out of gas and start walking without direction, ending up in an unfamiliar town far away from home. If asked, he will have no idea who he is or what he is doing in this new town. Sometimes the person with fugue will create a new identity to make up for his memory loss. He could exist in this way for several days to several months before the fugue dissipates and he regains his memory and returns home.

Symptoms of a fugue state include:

  • Unplanned travel away from home for which one is unprepared
  • Inability to remember past events and experiences
  • Depersonalization, or the feeling of being outside of one's body
  • Inability to remember identity and details from one's life for days to several months

Causes of Dissociative Fugue

There is no easily explained cause of a fugue state, but people who suffer from the disorder typically have had some sort of serious trauma or stress in their lives. War veterans or people who have suffered terrible abuse may be more likely to have these symptoms, as well as individuals who have survived disaster scenarios. Some psychologists believe that sufferers of a fugue may have unresolved conflict in their lives, which could add to the likelihood of abnormal dissociation. It is possible that drug abuse could contribute to the development of a fugue state.

Unresolved conflict, stress, or trauma might contribute to a fugue state.

Real Cases of Dissociative Fugue

While it may sound like the next Bourne Identity movie, real cases of fugue speak of the seriousness of the illness. In 2008, Spanish teacher Hannah Upp went for a run in New York and was found nearly three weeks later in New York Harbor. Video footage of Upp in the city revealed that she went into computer stores and checked her email during her fugue state, but seeing her name on the screen added to her confusion. It is believed that logging on to a computer was automatically and unconsciously performed through muscle memory. There is also footage of Upp showering in local sports clubs. Once rescued from the harbor, Ms. Upp had no memory of her life over those three weeks of her disappearance.

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