Recognition, déjà vu and Jungian exile


Just beginning to do some initial research on epilepsy for a story, and one of the first things that struck me was the description of the aura, the early phase of a seizure. Not all epileptics experience auras — the numbers that I’ve seen range from 70-80% — and the symptoms appear to vary widely; but one common aura characteristic I’ve come across has been the experience of déjà vu.

Most first-hand accounts I’ve read describe it as being accompanied by a mounting sense of dread, often with nausea. I’d expect that the nausea would actually be co-symptomatic, but it’s often described as proceeding directly from the déjà vu experience itself, as if the sensation is so overpowering that it literally makes the person feel sick. The phrase impending doom shows up more than once.

(Not every account I’ve read is so harrowing. But the “normal” experience of déjà vu is already unsettling, so it makes sense that dread would be a major component of the experience. Especially if you end up associating the experience with the onset of a seizure.)

All of which led me to various articles about déjà vu itself, separate from the epileptic variety. This article in Science Daily discusses some recent research (yes, there is real research being done on déjà vu). The main point I took from the article is that there’s been a shift away from the idea that the experience represents a neurological malfunction — basically, that the brain is processing new information incorrectly as “memory.” Instead, the research suggests that it might really be a function of how memory is stored in the first place.

According to the article, there are two kinds of “recognition memory” that allow us to connect new experiences with old ones. “Recollection-based recognition” is when we explicitly connect something new with the previous experience — we remember the source. With “familiarity-based recognition,” we don’t recall the source. Instead it’s something less obvious, more fragmented, that connects new experience to old. A shape, a pattern, a relationship.

Anyway, déjà vu may (goes the theory) just be an example of familiarity-based recognition. We sense that something is familiar because some aspect or fragment of it really is familiar. That fragment could be anything — visual pattern, sound, smell, arrangement of words — and if it overlaps closely enough, then we engage our familiarity-based recognition.

Why is it so unsettling, then? Maybe it’s a kind of neurological synecdoche — we (or our brains) take the part for the whole, and our neurological response to the fragment is more or less equivalent to our neurological response to the entire experience. We believe we’ve encountered this before because our brain is convincing us that we have, and that includes the distinctive emotional response that comes with recognition.

So there’s that weird, enigmatic combination: recognition and strangeness, familiarity and foreignness. Isn’t there something very Jungian about those juxtapositions, like the surfacing of some collective unconsciousness? Déjà vu does seem very much like a surfacing. I don’t think it really is the surfacing of a collective unconsciousness, whatever that might mean. But it’s as good a description as any for the subjective experience itself.

(And for me, it explains why I’d feel a little sad when the experience ends, as if I’ve had something in my grasp and let it slip away. Some buried, exiled truth.)

All that led me back to Pynchon, and a quote from Lot 49.  I looked up the passage, which turns out to be strangely relevant:

She tested it, shivering: I am meant to remember. Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence. But then she wondered if the gemlike “clues” were only some kind of compensation. To make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night.

And maybe that’s all déjà vu is, too: compensation for the disinherited.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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