“Right now I’m having déjà vu and amnesia at the same time – I think I’ve forgotten this before.”
Steven Wright, American stand-up comedian.
This column intends to examine topics that fascinate and inform. We’ll discuss those things that make you think – “Wow, I have had that experience myself” or “You know, I have always wondered about that.”
This week’s column will focus on a strange experience that an estimated 66 percent of us are familiar with – Déjà vu. This term is French for “having already experienced the present situation.”
In déjà vu, we feel that we are having a strangely familiar experience when, in fact, we know that it is not possible. For some, the experience is disturbing, while others find it fascinating.
We’ll begin with an example of déjà vu that I had one sunny day several decades ago. I was confident that this was the first time in my life I had passed through a small town in rural Colorado.
As the town came into view, it looked remarkably familiar. That could be chalked up to the fact that many small to midsize towns have much the same types of structures and general design.
In nearly any town, you can expect to find schools, churches, car lots, restaurants and a courthouse, usually located in the very heart of town.
That is, many towns look similar in their overall appearance.
In larger cities, the skylines often look much the same. It may take a few moments to determine if a given skyline photo is that of Boston or Chicago.
But, this time, it was different.
There was an emotional component to the experience. I felt that I had actually been there before. A personal connection to my past, perhaps.
Over a period lasting no more than 30 seconds, I felt a strong sense of familiarity with the town. I slowly drove by a small diner on my left; the pie display cases on each end of the counter and the calendars on the back wall seemed strangely recognizable.
And the courthouse lawn with its unusual topiary seemed to bring forward a sense of having previously appreciated its beauty, a memory maybe.
And then I came upon a small municipal park just beyond the courthouse.
Several boxcars and a caboose sat on a side rail with Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad emblazoned on the side. The immediate impact was nostalgia, yet I knew that I had never been there before.
It was an eerie sensation, as though I could anticipate what I would see next. But, of course, that was beyond my capabilities. Or, so I am told.
I have not had such an experience in many years now. This is consistent with research showing that episodes of déjà vu diminish with age. This sensation also happens more often with people who watch movies or travel frequently.
Take what you will from that observation.
Is déjà vu a paranormal experience?
When the Colorado story was shared with friends, it would often elicit a variety of paranormal explanations.
Some suggested, “Maybe, you had lived in that town in a previous life?” Others speculated, “Perhaps, it is a form of precognition in which you were getting a glimpse into your immediate future.”
Now, I am not quick to dismiss these types of solutions to the mystery of déjà vu. In fact, the next topic that we will be tackling in this column is a little-known fact about a brain function called presentiment.
Research into this mind-boggling curiosity demonstrates a physiological response to some stimuli before conscious awareness – a form of precognition.
Those of us who believe that some things will always remain unknowable must exercise caution in ascribing the paranormal to those things that are obviously a normal function of our brain.
Otherwise, we may lose sight of that line between reality and fantasy.
After all, the great puzzles of life, love and death are intellectual candy for many of us. We love the ghost that hides just within the periphery of our vision.
What does science say about déjà vu?
There are some 40 different scientific explanations for déjà vu.
So as not to bore you with redundancy or exceed this column’s allotted space in The Pocahontas Times, we will focus on a few well-studied cases – theories that are most widely accepted by the scientific community and are generally replicable.
For some time, it has been known that déjà vu experiences are common in certain pathological states. For instance, many of those who suffer from epilepsy also experience déjà vu, particularly preceding a seizure.
Likewise, certain medications can stimulate the phenomenon. This is particularly so when two specific medications are taken together.
A patient taking amantadine and phenylpropanolamine, both flu medications, reported intense and recurring déjà vu experiences. Further studies found the same side effects in other patients taking the same medications.
Studies of non-pathological cases of déjà vu create a long list of theories as to causal factors.
Probably the most accepted explanation for déjà vu has to do with how our brain processes sensory information. Our temporal lobes are associated with language, emotions and some aspects of visual perception.
The temporal lobes receive information twice. Initially, directly to the lobes, a second, but identical piece of information is indirectly processed by the right hemisphere before reaching the temporal lobes.
Even a delay of milliseconds may cause us to experience a sense that we are repeating something familiar.
Additionally, electrical stimulation of the temporal areas achieves similar results. To me, this is further evidence of the theory’s viability.
Another possible cause of déjà vu may lie in how memories are reconstructed. It would be logical to assume that a memory is stored in one convenient location in the brain – like a document on our hard drive.
Yet, when we intentionally pull forth a memory, or one elicited by sight, smell or sounds, that memory is reconstructed from several sources.
These sources may, over time, become faulty. They may contain exaggerations, omissions and distortions that vary significantly from the original memory.
When memory is reconstructed from a previous reconstruction containing errors, we can get a vague feeling of familiarity. We experience that strange feeling of déjà vu.
Whatever the cause of déjà vu, it is a human experience that most of us are familiar with or aware of.
When it happens, it serves as a moment to reflect on the great mysteries of our brain. And for some, on those dimensions that may exist beyond our cerebral matter.
There is an opposite to deja vu called jamais vu, meaning “never seen.” In this situation, the experiencer recognizes familiar things only vaguely. Everything encountered seems much like a new experience.
Related to amnesia, jamais vu leaves one knowing that the current situation has been encountered previously, perhaps many times over, yet it is eerily unfamiliar.
It is like losing the ability to recognize one’s self.
This is how American novelist Sarah Dessen describes her experience with jamais vu: “Like a word on a page that you’ve printed and read a million times, that suddenly looks strange or wrong, foreign. And you feel scared for a second, like you’ve lost something, even if you’re not sure what it is.”
Here’s wishing you a very Merry Christmas. And if you experience that joyous day over and over in a déjà vu fashion – all the better.