Miles shares his story of being stuck in an unending deja vu loop that took over his life for months.
Dr. Akira O'Connor is a neuroscientist and one of the worlds leading deja vu researchers.
Part 1: Miles and Dr. O’Connor
Amna: This is Amna Hyder and you are listening to tethered minds. In this weeks episode we will be making sense of the elusive phenomenon you may or may not have experienced, deja vu. Maybe you were able to put a word to it, or maybe it was just an odd feeling that you couldn’t really put your finger on. We’re going to explore how deja Vu can shed light on the mysterious ways our memory works and what those malfunctions can teach us about who we are. For most of us Deja vu is a fun curious experience, but for Miles, deja vu was far from that.
Miles: So I was at a party with some friends, and I decided hey you know what I'm gonna I'm gonna smoke some weed and I took three rips from a bong, not a whole lot and I sat down on a couch… and the best way I can describe it is like TV static came over my head and it was like the most intense deja vu that I could ever describe just came over me. It was like I was living in an infinite loop and it's all going to come back to this exact moment in time and that's going to happen again and again and again for all eternity, and this panic set in on me and I started to freak out and so I started to try to like break out of the loop I start to be like OK what would be something that I would do that's like unexpected. So I would try to like flip my hand really fast, but wait a second I remember doing this with uh last time I was in this loop, and then I remembered remembering remembering, and this lasted for about an entire hour and it was the worst experience of my life.
Amna: Miles was 24 years old when this happened
Miles: And so after that night I calmed down after about an hour but there was a weird thing that happened afterwards now I had chronic deja vu. And it wasn't like this unending earth shattering lack of free will infinite loop TV static deja vu it was this just the regular deja-vu that you experienced day-to-day I would go out to town I would go out to a restaurant I would see a sign boom deja-vu I would have a conversation with somebody I'd be telling a joke I'm having the same conversation that I had and it was happening every single day no matter what I was doing and I know I have never done this before but I'm getting that sensation.
Amna: How often is this happening to you?
Miles: I was experiencing this like several times a day, and so I'm trying to figure out what's going on here so I’ll get online I start Googling stuff. And I start finding out that deja vu could be a symptom of neurological issues so I went to this like some walking clinics I went in there I was like yeah I think I'm having some neurological issues and they're like OK well what's your symptoms I was like deja vu and they looked at me and they're like get out of here and they they sent me home with like some anxiety medicine. It's happening at this point on and off for hours at a time every day.
Amna: After a few months of this chronic deja vu, Miles felt like he was getting better.
Miles: I was like okay, things are starting to get better. Im starting to get my life back together, everything is starting to go good again. And then in the middle of the night, I had that weird thing where TV static starts at the back of my head, free will goes away, and its like the horror of realizing that everything is just an infinite loop, nothing is real, im going to live die and everything repeats itself. And then the chronic deja vu comes back in full force. And I was like, what was that, I havent touched any substances.
Amna: This cycle of chronic deja vu for days or weeks followed by these severe TV static episodes went on for months. During this time, Miles had seen a therapist and multiple doctors, but he had no answers.
Miles: I'm having like like earth shattering experiences like every couple of months like this is bad I need help and so finally I I get in contact with like an actual neurologist he is scheduling me out like two months out and everything I'm just like… great. My friendships are getting strained, my family relations are getting strained, I'm not even sure if I'm gonna be able to hold my job at this point because it's all I can think about. My life is basically falling apart.
Amna: We’ll be back with Mile’s story in a bit. Deja vu is french for already seen
Dr. O’Connor: it's the feeling of finding something familiar but knowing that that familiarity is is wrong or misplaced or not quite right and so one of the really important aspects of the experience is that it draws attention to this feeling that you have that you know to be incorrect
Amna: And unlike what Miles struggled with, for MOST people deja vu is a fleeting exciting experience
Dr. O’Connor: yeah it's it's a pretty pretty healthy if not fascinating cognitive experience.
Amna: We’re talking to Akira O’Connor. He is a renowned researcher that makes a living from the difficult task of studying déjà vu.
Dr. O’Connor: Researching anything that happens infrequently is difficult right because you either have to be watching and waiting for people to have it in your lab ready to pounce when it happens, or you have to find ways of of kind of reliably generating it in your lab so that you can bring people in and and just do your work with those people and kind of I guess safe in the knowledge that you're able to generate the experience kind of reliably with them.
Amna: and while people have tried that, theres a whole bunch of issues with generating deja vu in a. But theres another way to understand whats going on, and that is to find someone stuck in a deja vu loop like Miles.
Dr. O’Connor: People who experience deja vu as part of this kind of persistent phenomenon where they can't do anything without experiencing this this kind of annoying feeling of having done it before when you know you haven't. Well that's a totally different class of experiences
Amna: And while Dr. O’Connor would have loved to study him, Miles couldnt even get anyone to listen, not therapists, physicians or even the people close to him. That is, until his appointment with a neurologist came around.
Miles: and I went in there and I was hoping to finally get some answers finally somebody sat down, he was actually willing to listen to me, and I explained to him everything that had happened. He didn't say a word while I was explaining everything and after I got done explaining everything he looked me in the eyes and he was like “you know what I have experienced some deja-vu myself in the past, and the solution for me was to get a good night's rest”.
Amna: omg im so sorry people didnt take you seriously
Miles: It's it's so like irritating and dehumanizing when like people just don't listen to your like symptoms and your medical problems and like I know it's like not just for me but for other people for one I was just like yeah OK. At this point I was starting to get it into my head that there was nothing wrong with me. When every single doctor tells me there's nothing wrong with me, I start to doubt myself.
But then right before the end of the meeting he was like “ya got insurance well if it'll put your mind at ease we'll go ahead and we'll put you on the EEG machine and will scan your brain and we'll let you know that there's nothing wrong with you”.
Amna: Which sounded amazing
Miles: so a week later he put the little diodes on my skull and they sent me in a little room. And for like 30 minutes I just laid down on a little bench and this is one of the mornings where I wasn't experiencing chronic deja vu I was actually really pissed off 'cause I was like if there was ever a time I wanted to experience deja vu, it was in that room while the tests were going on. The test was over I got up and I just felt so stupid, so silly, and I I got up and I left.
Amna: They had a routine follow up appointment to discuss his test
Miles: and I just sat in that waiting room I was literally on my phone 'cause I was just like uh-huh yeah whatever, like they're gonna tell me there's nothing wrong with me, I'm gonna go back to the office and try and figure out how to maintain my job, how to make it something of my life with this new condition that nobody believes that I have. So the nurse comes in and she was like OK so I've got list of medications here and blah blah blah blah blah she starts rattling them off, and I'm little bit confused, I'm like do you have the right room. But she's rattling them off he's like this one does this this one does that I'm like “stop stop stop, what is this for?” And shes like “honey you you have seizures and you have them really really bad. On your test for that half hour you had six seizures on that table” I'm like wait what which is very bizarre because I don't exhibit any other symptoms I don't have like the muscle spasms I don't have difficulty speaking or any of that I just have this one symptom and it's just intense deja-vu
Amna: Like Miles, Im also familiar with Deja vu. I used to frequently get bouts of something I called “the weird feeling” to my parents since I was 6-7 years old, as early as I could remember if I’m being honest. I didn’t have the words to describe it when I was young, but the best way I could describe them was this weird out of body experience that simultaneously felt like an intense deja vu, coupled with this ecstatic fear. Kind of like I was on a roller coaster I’d been on before with a real sense of rising in my stomach. It would last a few seconds, but I knew it was odd. Fast forward around 20 years. I was pregnant with my first child and while sleeping my husband said he heard me yell out the most horrifying primal scream followed by a thud as I fell to the floor, blood foaming out of my mouth and shaking uncontrollably. That was my first grand mal seizure. A few months later, after having my baby, the same thing happened. Another bloody mess, this time I had also peed in my pants. And according to Dr. O’Connor of people who experience persistent deja vu discover that there is something going neurological going on.
Dr. O’Connor: OK so deja vu has been investigated for hundreds of years so people have written about the experience in religious texts. But it wasn't until the uh the 19th century that it was identified as a kind of cognitive experience worthy of study and that was by a French physiologist who had a patient present, patient Louise, who remembered everything he was experiencing, as as though it was a memory, even though it was happening to him live. Now really interestingly that experience of deja vu that and and this is reported by a French physiologist which is why we get that the French name for it deja vu, already seen, that experience of deja vu is actually a clinical experience of deja vu so it's we we kind of take the name for the everyday experience from the clinical manifestation of it rather than the other way round.
Amna: Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between the normal deja vu most people experience with this clinical version of it?
Dr. O’Connor: So I think the interesting part of that experience lies perhaps in one of the ways it does crossover with the kind of healthy deja vu experience, the everyday deja vu experience in that a lot of people will experience a sense of anxiety or a sense of dread as they are experiencing deja vu even if it's it's a fleeting experience and experience that happens once every 4-5 months, whatever. So what might be happening in people that are experiencing deja vu very very frequently would be that that experience of anxiety and dread is is kind of occurring and then it's not being allowed to dissipate, because the deja vu isn't dissipating so you're just getting this this feeling of anxiety that builds up and up. And of course if you're experiencing this strange cognitive phenomenon and you can't seem to escape it that anxiety isn't just a weird irrational experience but but it actually becomes quite rational
Amna: And theres a biological reason that this anxiety could be part of deja vu.
Dr. O’Connor: We know that some of the the origins of of the deja vu experience lie in in the temporal lobes within your your brain.
Amna: The temporal lobe is a large section of your brain that sits behind your ears and is responsible for memory, language and a whole bunch of other things.
Dr. O’Connor: Now the temporal lobes are quite close to the amygdala which is associated with all sorts of emotional feelings including anxiety so it may very well be that what's happening is you're getting this activation in temporal lobes causing deja vu through that spreads ever so slightly to the amygdala causing anxiety, and you get this kind of co-occurrence of these two things based on how closely they are kind of aligned within the kind of tissues of your brain.
Amna: Its basically a spillover effect from the memory retrieval part of your brain to the anxiety producing part of your brain which is right next to it. So Moving on - I want to talk a bit about your leading theory of what causes deja vu, which is that its a memory error
Dr. O’Connor: Yeah so it is it's exactly that it's it's a and erroneous feeling of familiarity that then gets shut down by what we know to be true about the rest of our experience of the world
Amna: And Dr. O’Connor thinks that the fact that its a memory error points to one area of the brain as a culprit for deja vu.
Dr. O’Connor: OK so the temporal lobe is super important for any physiologically based memory researcher out there. So what the structure you hear most about when you're when you're doing and say your your undergraduate psychology modules and you take a module on memory is the hippocampus
Amna: You can think of the hippocampus as a small structure deep inside your temporal lobes that is responsible for laying down and retrieving all your memories.
Dr. O’Connor: Now what's interesting is that around the hippocampus, which is kind of nestled away in the middle of the temporal lobe, a lot of other brain structures that are associated with aspects of memory that aren't necessarily the laying down and the retrieving of memory but that may well be associated with signaling that for example a memory is being retrieved so these these feelings of familiarity and of recollection and so those kind of bits of the the temporal cortex that are not quite central to the hippocampus, but nestled in around it it's it's those feelings I think that what what we experience when when we experience deja vu.
Amna: Basically, its possible that theres some other brain structure in the temporal lobe thats responsible for giving us that feeling of familiarity we experience with all our memories. Its hard to imagine a memory without a feeling of familiarity And if something feels familiar without a memory - well thats deja vu. Another reason this temporal lobe hypothesis makes sense is because a lot of the people who get this deja vu with seizures have whats called temporal lobe seizures. AKA this familiarity producing part of their brains start going haywire.
Dr. O’Connor: and what I think might be happening in people who are experiencing deja vu as a result of temporal lobe epilepsy is that y ou have this this focus that starts in the temporal lobe, it might start very near the centre that signals familiarity that leads to familiarity in the feeling of deja vu becoming part of the pre seizure aura that is the the set of sensations that happen before the seizure develops into a full blown seizure that that kind of I guess takes over large portions of the brain.
Amna: Lots of people who have temporal lobe epilepsy say that they know a seizure is coming when they start experiencing deja vu.
Dr. O’Connor: any of us who've lit fireworks have have have lit the touchpaper or lit the fuse and that fuse has fizzled out and and I think that's I mean that's what should happen right if we don't have if in in people I guess who who don't have epilepsy there's going to be all sorts of focal points that just don't amount to much and I think the thing about any kind of epilepsy including temporal lobe epilepsy is that the problem is that those kind of errored misfiring's those fuses go on to start much bigger cascades of reactions in the rest of the brain
Amna: What Dr. O’Connor thinks, is that people without seizures, can still occasionally get a random twitch or misfiring, in the part of their temporal lobes that signals familiarity.
Dr. O’Connor: Now, taking a step back from that also you could ask well what's causing those twitches, and this is this is like any any kind of error within your brain that that preliminary error is almost like a twitch you get in your eye when you're tired and we know actually deja vu to to happen more when we are tired. And why should a neuron in the brain be any different from an uh a neuron in in your face or in your arm or or anywhere else in your body. They make more errors they run into more problems when we're deprived of sleep and when we're dealing with all sorts of other kind of perturbations to kind of a healthy homeostatic system
Amna: The only catch here is that deja vu mainly happens when you are younger and less and less often as you age
Dr. O’Connor: well if it if it's happening more when we're younger compared to when we're older then it's it's probably not a major memory error because we tend to experience more major memory errors when we're older. Lapses forgetting those tho se kinds of things happen more as we age.
Amna: But deja vu isnt just a feeling of familiarity, its an odd feeling of familiarty that you know is not true
Dr. O’Connor: So what is going on with deja vu well it might be that it's one of these kind of excitatory misfires in your brain your brain signals familiarity when, it shouldn't it gets overexcited familiarity, but what's really important is your frfact checking regions of your brain they catch that, and they say hang on a minute this isn't quite consistent with what I know to be true about the rest of my life so instead of viewing the overall experience as an error you could view it as as a really successful error monitoring and error checking process.
Amna: In other words, older people might not catch that error in familiarity and just write off deja vu as something they have genuinely experienced before
Dr. O’Connor: The predisposition is to just go with the familiarity as opposed to someone young who will reject it as a curiosity. A lot of the reports that you get from people with deja vu associated with dementia are that they turn off the television when they experienced deja vu they they complain to the BBC that the BBC is always showing repeats even if it's in the original program they were watching
Part 2: Dr. O’Connor and understanding dissociative states
Amna: Dr. O’Connor has also looked into another idea. You see our brains are split into two hemispheres, our left and our rightand of our eyes send information to opposite sides of the brain. That visual information is processed independently in each hemisphere before it comes together for you to perceive a complete image of something. Normally your left and right eye are in complete sync. But In the popular book catch 22, the author suggested that during deja vu they might be temporarily out of sync. That recognition then, would actually be because a part of your brain really has seen something before you are consciously aware of it and is telling you, hey slow poke, we’ve already seen this.
Dr. O’Connor: I read that book when I was a PhD student I thought well surely there's ways of testing that. We could we could speak to someone for example who who who doesn't have visual input, who doesn't have a the opportunity for the signals from the eyes to go wrong and we could speak to them about déjà vu.
Amna: And so that was exactly what Dr. O’Connor did. They spoke to a 25 year old man, lets call him Michael, who had been totally blind since birth. If Deja vu, “already seen” really was because of a delay in visual experience, would someone with no visual sense still experience it?
Dr. O’Connor: and we found that yeah they still experience déjà vu, and so it's not that kind of optical delay explanation.
Amna: Couldnt it be a mistiming in other senses like auditory or tactile?
Dr. O’Connor: Yeah I mean that's that's where the argument goes from there right so it could be that you have you have delays that are associated with each of the sensors or it could be that this is happening in a kind of higher order place within our cognitions
Amna: Michael, who didnt have his sense of sight, described one of his deja vu experiences as a vivid combination of multiple senses. He said: “Hearing and touch and smell often seem to intermingle in the déjà vu experiences. It’s almost like photographic memory, without sight obviously. It may be more accurate to say multi-dimensional memory, as if I was encountering a mini-recording in my head, but trying to think “Where have I come across that before?””
Dr. O’Connor: So really interestingly one of the one of the experiences that the patient that the person we spoke to who was blind described was the experience of deja vu as he was doing his buttons up so it was a kind of sensory but tactile sensory experience and what I suspect is happening is that we're just overlaying these feelings of familiarity onto whatever sensory experience we're having when we have that erroneous familiarity experience.
Amna: These are just some neuroscience explanations, but Ive also heard all sorts of other ideas. For example could be a glitch in the matrix, a sign of reincarnation, a premonition. Do people get upset when you tell tell them this amazing, metaphysical thing they’ve experienced is just a brain error?
Dr. O’Connor: Absolutely, so I get a lot of emails from people telling me that what I think about deja vu or or what I've decided based on my research isn't true, because their experience tells them that for example they have lived a previous life, or where they view that they have some idea of some clairvoyance. It's a really compelling feeling and I totally get it because those deja vu's I have where I feel like I can predict what's going to happen it's on the verge of of of my kind of conscious awareness and I never quite get to it in time. Those feelings are so compelling and to be honest that's one of the reasons why I was drawn to studying this experience in the first place.
Amna: This is a feeling that has made it into all sorts of movies and books in different ways.
In the movie the matrix when Neo feels hes reliving a scene of a cat passing by,he considers this as a sign that there is a glitch in the matrix. In fight club the character edward nortons deja vu seems to because of his unstable mental condition (fight club: 1h:49m and 1h:55m). The only thing is that all examples and histories of deja vu I’ve run into seem to be western. And my quest to understand why led me down a really interesting path. So lets backtrack for some context. One of the things I want to do throughout this podcast is to shed light on the non-European perspectives and histories of things. We’re often already familiar with western ideas and a fresh take can often lead to some pretty great insights. So I started talking to people about whether or not they had a translation of deja vu in another language or how the feeling was interpreted. I asked friends of friends, I posted everywhere I could, I got on calls with elders from different countries and ultimately asked hundreds of people. And no-one had anything for me, it seemed like the french word deja vu from the 19th century was the only word people knew. The closest translations I could find seemed to focus on different aspects of the experience entirely, whether that was religious, metaphysical, or even in one case an auditory echo. But the craziest part of this expedition was that I did find some people who had never heard the term deja vu at all. So I described the feeling as best I could and asked them - have you ever experienced this before? And they ALL said they dont think they have - or what they had experienced aligned more with the words for it that exist in their language, which were often spiritual in nature. Now I could have been asking questions the wrong way, or maybe I asked the wrong people, so I asked Dr. O’Connor his thoughts.
Dr. O’Connor: Well this this is really fascinating line of inquiry because I have always always been based in my studies and my research in a western English speaking context and aside from the fact that we use a French word for deja vu everything else seems to be pretty uniform in how people talk about this experience.
Amna: So what would be your explanation? do you think our culture shapes the way we actually perceive déjà vu?
Dr. O’Connor: It might be that as soon as you you kind of ascribe these characteristics to this this fragment of a feeling you start noticing more and more about it in ways that you don't necessarily if that language is is more geared towards describing it as another sort of experience for example as a religious experience, it might just fall into that suite of experiences that that you have.
Amna: And it could be that putting a word to something primes the way you think about it and the associations you make it.
Dr. O’Connor: We know that people don't tend to start reporting deja vu experiences until they're at least about five years old now does that mean they're not experiencing deja vu up to that point or does that mean that at five if they they they finally have the the kind of language and perhaps even the the kind of cultural tools to start thinking and talking about this. And I just found it so interesting that the these these experiences are now so common that or or so kind of part of our kind of cultural vernacular that they've made it into some of the most popular films of the past 20 years.
Amna: I want to be careful about this, because this whole language shapes thought idea has been used to make some pretty racist conclusions in the past so we’ll dig deeper into that in another episode. Regardless of how you interpret your deja vu experience, it can teach us a lot about how our brains work.
Dr. O’Connor: we're used to thinking about our conscious experience as being this almost like the flow of a river. One thing naturally flows to another, and you can't tell one part of the river from another. But what deja vu tells us is that actually there's this this river of consciousness is made-up of these different components and as soon as you start experiencing them out of order you stop having this kind of unitary conscious experience and you start realizing that that actually my experience of the world world is is is a kind of accident of of how things normally work.
Amna: Theres also a few other states like deja vu where your ordinary experience of the world breaks down.
Dr. O’Connor: yeah so so deja vu already seen there's a related experience, called jamais vu, never seen which is where people experience a lack of familiarity even when they know they should experience familiarity
Amna: Whats extremely interesting is that, temporal lobe seizures can also trigger jamais vu, Even though jamais vu is pretty much the exact opposite of déjà vu
Dr. O’Connor: A lot of the time when I describe jamais vu to people it doesn't necessarily resonate with them until I ask them to think about what happens when they write a word over and over this this kind of I don't know if you're ever naughty at school you might have been asked to to write lines and and if you were particularly kind of concerned with efficiency you might have written your lines down the page rather than across you know just focus on one word do all “the”s to start with and then then do all of the next word and so on and what people often report when they're when they're writing a word over and over it's that that word starts to break apart it starts to to not flow as a word
Amna: Dr. O’Connor’s colleague did an experiment where they asked people to do exactly this, write the word “door” 30 times in 60 seconds. By the end 68% of the started to doubt that “door” was even a real word. If you want to pause the podcast you can try writing or saying the word tethered over and over and see if it loses its meaning. And then theres the related experience, presque vu, “almost seen”, which can also teach us a bit about deja vu.
Dr. O’Connor: OK so so presque vu is OK so I've described it as this kind of false feeling of insight but for again kind of touch point for people who might be struggling to imagine what that feels like. If you've ever had a dream where when you wake up and you feel like this this makes sense of everything. It's what I need to do at work in order to be better at work or it's what I need to do in order to solve this situation that is happening in my life. And then you have your breakfast and you you you meet your work colleague or or you try to talk about this with someone in your family and what made sense before just feels like a collection of random thoughts now that that feeling is most like presque vu. I think it's the least common of all of these experiences.
Amna: Dr. O’Connor only has one experience of Presque vu that he remembers.
Dr. O’Connor: It was a super weird experience where I was I was going up uh an escalator on the London Underground and I just thought oh this is it this is life life is just going up and down escalators and it made it made so much sense to me until I tried to text my friend that I just solved everything with with with this analogy and then the all the meaning kind of just broke apart and felt super weird
Amna: I love that, thats like half my thoughts. Meaningless things that feel so profound. What about deja vu? Any experiences of that you remember?
Dr. O’Connor: I had an experience of deja vu when I was actually when I was studying it for the first time. I was running my first experiment on it and I remember being in my student house and looking up through the skylight, and seeing a bird just fly over the skylight, it was very similar to the the kind of matrix experience when neo sees the cat, but I I saw a bird fly past the skylight and I just remember thinking not just that bird but this whole situation feels totally familiar but I know it isn't because I'm studying this experience, and it can't be familiar today and so it was kind of quite a meta experience.
Amna: It must feel that much more special as a deja vu researcher.
Dr. O’Connor: Yeah absolutely and and that's also coincided with me experiencing it less as I've aged Joseph palisade and catch 22 I really do try and nourish those experiences because I I know that each one might be my last.
Amna: I hope for everyone listening that you nourish your next deja vu too. Theres so many different aspects of the experience you can isolate and pay attention to, whether its the feeling of anxiety that accompanies it, what the familiarity really feels like, which of your senses get involved, how long does it last? and so on.
Dr. O’Connor: think deja vu is a lovely kind of example of of stuff being on the way to breaking and in doing so kind of revealing its inner workings this idea that your memory and the familiarity that you have they usually go hand in hand and they usually part of this kind of unitary experience that feels so coherent you can't ever imagine having a memory without also having a feeling of familiarity
Amna: As rare and odd an experience like deja vu can be, it h as a lot to teach us about our very consciousness. And whats more, the words we use to describe the feeling can shape how we understand it. In a future episode we will be talking to a couple cultural linguists to explore that idea a bit more. Thats all for today with Tethered minds, and we’ll see you next episode.
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