Familiar myths

A number of weeks ago there was a great article in New Scientist (28/3/09 – Helen Phillips) which was basically an analysis of déjà vu from a neurological perspective – the anatomical basis for such phenomenon and how the emotions attached shapes our perception of déjà vu.  It talked about how epileptics often experience déjà vu–like auras before a seizure, how there is a permanent déjà vu state that can affect people with dementia and how  – through observing the before and after effects of removing parts of the brain – there is strong evidence that the regions of the brain associated with déjà vu were most likely the Amygdala (deals with the emotional responses of such sensations) the Hippocampus (area connected to recollection – particularly autobiographical memory) and the Parahippocampus (possibly feelings of familiarity). The article also talked about how researchers had managed to trigger déjà vu through hypnosis and that they have deduced that the processes of familiarity and recall are not associated and germinate in separate circuits of the brain hence the sensation that something that you haven’t experienced can feel and appear familiar. Another neuroscientist (Stefan Kohler) talked about the importance of the emotion around the experience of déjà vu (this is where the Amygdala comes in) He speculates ‘that without the appropriate emotional arousal, perhaps the brain cannot recognise a person or place we have encountered before s truly familiar’ inversely inappropriate emotional arousal may make us believe something is familiar when actually it is not.

All of this led me to wonder about the incidents of déjà vu in my own life. Certainly I have noticed that extreme exhaustion (particularly jet lag) and sometimes that strange lucidity a hangover (especially the morning after) induces has triggered strong feelings of déjà vu. As has certain conversations – I’ll be in the middle of some intense discussion in a social context to be suddenly overwhelmed (even stopped in mid-sentence) by the sensation I have had the same conversation in the same context in the same settings with minutiae – i.e.: the way the light is hitting the face of the person I’m talking to – taking on an vivid and sudden gravidas and familiarity.

The romantic in me would like to imagine this is evidence of past lives, or a life well dreamt (before), but in truth the rationalist in me wins the debate by arguing it is probably a physiological jumping of the circuits and perhaps, more interestingly an evolutionary need to process and find familiar new situations and, even, new debates.

After all most living creatures seek safety and security ergo surely the desire to apply previous experience to vaguely similar circumstances, as a way of understanding must be innate.

I then began to think about American mythologist Joseph Campbell and his book ‘The Hero with a thousand Faces’ and the theory of reducing all the global myths down to a small number of basic storylines (the vampire, the thwarted couple, the hero with tasks to complete, etc) regardless of cultural differences. Could this be the drive for the familiar in us as a species? Fiction engenders emotional reaction in us because the best of it has echoes of the familiar. We want to recognise and empathise and yet be taken out of the ordinary. In this way there is a déjà vu to the experience of reading.