“Déjà Vu, Again and Again”
by Evan Ratliff
The New York Times Magazine, July 2, 2006
[Ratliff notes that the information in this pitch letter has not been verified, and some information changed substantially in the reporting of the story.]
The persistence of memory
Most of us have, at some point, experienced the psychological phenomenon known as déjà vu: the sensation of familiarity with a situation, the feeling that you’ve been through a precise sequence of events before. Often you might feel not only that the situation at hand is familiar, but also that some insight into the impending future lies on the edge of your conscious mind, just out of your grasp. The experience can be intensely odd and highly unsettling; it happens at seemingly random times and often comes and goes suddenly.
Now imagine that feeling repeated constantly, daily, in such a way that every place, every conversation, every newspaper felt as if you had already experienced them, to the extent that doing so again seemed pointless. A young neuroscientist at the University of Leeds named Chris Moulin has discovered that some people suffer from just such a condition, something he calls “persistent déjà vu”—the constant feeling of having lived through experiences before. Moulin and his lab are in the midst of the world’s first study of chronic déjà vu sufferers, using specialized methodology and gathering patients from around the world. With this research, he thinks he may not only catalogue the condition, but also solve the century-old scientific mystery of déjà vu, one with implications for our understanding of memory itself.
Déjà vu is a common psychological event; some 60 to 70 percent of people report having experienced it at some point in their lives. It has appeared frequently in literature, in the work of Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust, and Hardy. One neuroscientist, writing recently on the history of the phenomenon, attributed the most evocative description to Joseph Heller, in Catch 22. “For a few precarious seconds,” Heller wrote, “the chaplain tingled with a weird, occult sensation of having experienced the identical situation before in some prior time or existence. He endeavored to trap and nourish the
impression in order to predict, and perhaps even control, what incident would occur next, but the afflatus melted away, as he had known beforehand it would.”
Extremely difficult to study experimentally, déjà vu has prompted no end of speculative theories about its sources and implications. Freud postulated that it was caused by the similarity of a present situation to a suppressed fantasy. Others have suggested that déjà vu serves as a defense mechanism, “a psychic means of reassurance in situations of adversity: You went through all this before and came out well.” Still other psychologists have theorized that it is a waking form of dreaming, or a “residue” of previous dreams. In just the mid-1990s, scientists began to make a distinction between déjà vu—“an erroneous sense of familiarity”—and déjà vecu, the feeling of having actually “lived through” the current event. Neuroscientists, meanwhile, have put forth all manner of physiological explanations to explain the two phenomena, but none have ever been proven in the lab.
Using a specialized questionnaires and lab techniques designed around his persistent déjà vu patients, Moulin believes he can identify, categorize, and measure the phenomenon in ways never previously attempted. He believes, in short, that a circuit in the temporal lobe is misfiring, causing present situations to be simultaneously recorded and recalled from memory. So far Moulin and his grad students have developed a system for inducing déjà vu via hypnosis, and have generated a small number of case studies involving persistent déjà vu. (Outside of Moulin’s patients, only two or three other documented instances of persistent déjà vu exist in the history of scientific literature.) Their stories make for fascinating reading. Consider this case, from a paper in Neuropsychologia that Moulin co-authored last year:
AKP, an 80-year-old man presented to his family doctor with memory problems, and complaining of frequent sensations of what his wife described as déjà vu (actually, déjà vecu). When it was suggested that AKP attend a memory clinic for memory assessment, he told his doctor that he had already been (which was not in fact possible)…AKP’s wife thought that the sensation of déjà vecu was practically constant, and intensified when he encountered novel stimuli. The sensation of déjà vecu was so strong that it influenced AKP’s daily activities. He refused to read the newspaper or watch television because he said he had seen it before. However, AKP remained insightful about his difficulties: when he said he had seen a programme before and his wife asked him what happened next, he replied, “How should I know, I have a memory problem!” The sensation of déjà vecu was extremely prominent when he went for a walk—AKP complained that it was the same bird in the same tree signing the same song, for instance. He also read car number plates and stated that the drivers must have very regular habits always passing by at the exact same time every day. When shopping, AKP would say that it was unnecessary to purchase certain items, because he had bought the item the day before.
I’ve spoken to Moulin and he’s open to my visiting the lab in Leeds at any time—they are planning to present a paper on their current research at the end of March— although meeting the patients themselves is still to be negotiated. Even barring that (and the possibility that I can find and interview persistent déjà vu suffers through other
means) his extensive case histories and audio recordings would allow me to use the stories of one or more patients as an entry point into the history of déjà vu and Moulin’s efforts to establish it experimentally. A feature piece built around his work will offer new insights into an age-old scientific curiosity, and address our understanding of memory using a phenomenon that readers will readily relate to their own experiences.
Note: The New York Times newspaper side did a story a few years ago based on a book about déjà vu by Southern Methodist University researcher Alan Brown. His, however, was largely a round up of prevailing theories, and Moulin assured me that his own outlook differs significantly. Brown, of course, will make a great source for the piece, which would be entirely different due to the inclusion of the idea of persistent déjà vu (which Brown was not aware of).