Anecdotal evidence suggests that just thinking about déjà vu can make you more prone to it.
Ken was obviously immune to how he was coming across. Undeniably knowledgeable and passionate about IT services, this rookie sales rep simply didn’t have an “off” button, and he was oblivious to the sideways glances that I shared with my two…wait…what?
Maybe you feel like you’ve read this before. Heck, I feel like I wrote this before. And we’re both right. That was the intro to last month’s column.
Sometimes, though, it’s not a repeat; sometimes we do just feel like we’re experiencing something again. It’s that disturbing sense of déjà vu.
My most powerful déjà vu experience occurred at MPI’s 2010 World Education Congress in Vancouver. I was on my way to a session, and—as often happens in this industry—I spotted a familiar face walking toward me. I immediately got that slightly panicky feeling we all get when we recognize someone, make eye contact and smile in recognition without the slightest idea of the person’s name.
But my familiar face did not respond. In fact, she looked confused. She bumped into a colleague and began to chat, all the while, casting a wary look in my direction. She put her black pocketbook down, and the sunlight caught her face casting a shadow on the wall…all of which I felt had happened before. I expected the tap on the shoulder from my colleague Simon, who later told me that I looked like I’d seen a ghost as I babbled incoherently about what was happening.
And then it was over. That familiar face and I met, and deduced that we didn’t know each other. She seemed mildly amused, but to this day, I still wonder whether she thought it was some cheap pick-up line.
The incident did, however, incite my interest in the phenomenon of déjà vu, which science has found surprisingly uninteresting until relatively recently.
If we put aside speculation about past lives and telepathy, an early explanation of déjà vu, mental diplopia, was based on the theory that two sensory signals in the brain (possibly one from each eye or each hemisphere) were received out of synch, so that people have the experience of reliving the same event instantaneously. The logic seems reasonable, but there’s little evidence to support it.
Neuroscience tells us that information from our eyes mixes early in the visual process, even before we have time to perceive the scene we’re seeing. Furthermore, Chris Moulin, a psychologist at the University of Leeds, claims that déjà vu can occur in blind people, too. And mental diplopia was the cause, people who have had their two cortical hemispheres surgically separated (in an attempt to relieve epilepsy) should have permanent déjà vu—and they don’t.
A second explanation is some sort of distortion in time perception. Incoming signals get misinterpreted and labeled with an inaccurate time stamp, making the experience seem old as well as current. Think of the brain’s memory system as a tape recorder, and the recording head and playback head engage at the same time. But, while it’s an interesting theory, it too doesn’t appear to have any anatomical basis.
More recently, however, another theory has begun to gain credibility, based on the possibility that déjà vu feels like reliving a past experience because we actually are. Psychologist Anne Cleary of Colorado State University wanted to explain why we sometimes feel as though something is “on the tip of our tongues,” or why we can recognize a face but not place it. And she started looking for parallels with déjà vu. “One particular theory of déjà vu is that it may be a memory process,” she told New Scientist. “Features of a new situation may be familiar from some prior situation.”
Cleary’s experiments have largely supported this idea; she has been able to induce familiarity for images, celebrity faces or well-known places even when the viewer can’t place the image. But, she acknowledges that this can’t be the whole story. “Déjà vu is unique in that it is not just another instance of familiarity, it actually feels wrong,” she said.
A consensus is difficult to find. Moulin for one is not convinced of the familiarity theory. In research he conducted with Akira O’Connor, déjà vu auras lasted long enough to conduct an experiment during them. They reason that if familiarity is the basis of déjà vu, then distraction should cause it to stop—and it doesn’t.
A source for that eerie feeling may be the huge dichotomy between the experience and logic. The brain is telling us that we’ve experienced something before, and that that is impossible. This juxtaposition itself may be enough to make the experience unnerving.
Scientists will probably conduct a lot more research before they understand what is dream, real, imagined or experienced. But anecdotal evidence suggests that just thinking about déjà vu can make you more prone to it—I’m keen to hear from anyone who gets déjà vu about getting déjà vu.
Maybe you’re wondering why I chose this topic. A few months ago, a friend of mine told me that every time he goes to a meeting, he feels like he has been there before, such is the monotony and replication of the environment, experience and content.
So, I’ll finish with a challenge: Create, innovate and push the design of your next event so that it becomes a déjà vu-free zone. One+
One+ June 2012,