A British Guy’s Anxiety Maybe Triggered Déjà Vu

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Photo: Meiko Arquillos/Corbis

A 23-year-old college student in the U.K. experienced “debilitating” déjà vu for three years before he finally sought medical help. After interviewing him about his medical and psychiatric history, his doctors believe his symptoms may be the first-ever recorded of “psychogenic” déjà vu — that is, déjà vu triggered by anxiety, and not a neurological condition like dementia or epilepsy. Christine E. Wells, a psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University, describes the case in a recently published issue of the Journal of Medical Case Reports. 

The young man began experiencing déjà vu in 2007, shortly after he returned to college classes following a brief, anxiety-induced break from university. Wells and her team describe one of those experiences in their case report:

For example, while on holiday in a destination that he had previously visited, he reported feeling as though he had become “trapped in a time loop.” He reported finding these experiences very frightening. 

Déjà vu — which Wells defines as a “particularly strong sensation of ‘reliving ’ the moment … rather than simply the unsettling feelings of familiarity” — is not well understood by scientists, but Wells and her team do offer a possible explanation for this unfortunate young man’s case: 

It is plausible on neurobiological grounds that anxiety might lead to the generation of deja vu. The hippocampal formation, a structure of central importance in declarative memory and the ability to engage in recollection, is also implicated in anxiety as part of the septo-hoppocampal system.

The authors note that this doesn’t necessarily prove that there’s a link between clinical anxiety and déjà vu, but it’s an intriguing first piece of evidence, albeit one that requires further study. Either way, it’s a fascinating case, though the thought that those who stress the most about the past may be doomed to repeat it is a cruel one.