The word “fugue” can mean many things, but in psychology, fugue definition refers to a state of temporary amnesia during which the patient forgets everything, including who they are and other identifying characteristics. “Fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight”, and since sufferers of the condition invariably flee their life and eventually “wake up” many miles from their home, it is a fairly apt description of the condition.
Also known as dissociative fugue or psychogenic fugue, a fugue state is one of several dissociative disorders. A fugue can last for a few hours or days, and in some cases, even longer, but eventually the patient recovers their previous memories and reverts back to their previous state. Whilst in a state of fugue, the person will not appear to be ill in any way, although they may become confused or upset about their identity and create a new one to plug the gaps in their memory.
Fugue definition in psychology
In order to be classed as a true fugue, the episode must not be as a result of any kind of medical trauma or pre-existing psychiatric conditions such as dementia or depression. So if you experienced a complete memory blackout after a night on the beer, it cannot be described as an episode of dissociative fugue. The same applies to experimenting with psychotropic drugs—lots of people experience temporary amnesia after taking drugs, but this is not a fugue episode.
DSM-IV fugue definition
The DSM-IV defines an episode of dissociative fugue as:
A sudden trip away from home to a new location, often previously unknown to the person, and once there, the person has no recollection of their past.
Taking on a new identity or being confused about current identity
Exhibiting symptoms of extreme distress or psychological impairment.
Why does dissociative fugue occur?
Cases of dissociative fugue are fairly rare, but episodes of dissociative fugue usually occur in the wake of extreme stress or life trauma and are thought to be a defensive mechanism whereby the person blocks out the trauma as a way of dealing with their situation. Because of this, the number of reported cases of dissociative fugue tends to rise during or after traumatic events—for example, there were several cases following the 9/11 disaster in the United States. However, in other instances, there appears to be no explanation for the onset of a fugue state.
How is dissociative fugue diagnosed?
A diagnosis of dissociative fugue is usually retrospectively made. This might happen if a patient is in a state of confusion after their memories return, or if their current identity has been challenged and they are unable to explain who they are and why they are there. Symptoms of the person’s amnesiac state will be carefully reviewed in order to rule out any underlying personality disorders or medical conditions.
How is dissociative fugue treated?
The main treatment for dissociative fugue is psychotherapy to encourage communication and help the person deal with the traumatic event that triggered the onset of the condition. Cognitive therapy teaches the person to change their thought patterns and find more positive ways of coping with their negative feelings.