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While we all experience sensations that something we are currently experiencing appears familiar, these feeling, these "deja vu" moments rarely last long. But what would it be like to be trapped in a chronic cycle of deja vu that never seems to end?
In a case recently published in the Journal of Medical Case Reports, Sheffield Hallam University psychologist Christine Wells and her fellow authors describe a baffling example of chronic deja vu involving a 23-year-old university student. The unnamed British student first began experiencing deja vu in 2007 on starting university.
Though the deja vu sensations only lasted for a few minutes at first, they grew steadily worse for the student, who also suffered from anxiety attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As one example, he described feeling "like I was in a time loop" while on holiday at a destination he had visited in the past His deja vu symptoms became continuous after taking lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) . Havng also developed compulsive hand washing and a fear of germs, the student's frequent mood problems caused him to take a break from his studies.
Though he returned to school shortly afterward, his deja vu became steadily worse and he finally described what he was experiencing to his doctors. Referred to neurologists in 2008, the student had a series of tests which ruled out any medical explanation for what was happening. After being diagnosed with depersonalization, he was prescribed different medications which did nothing to relieve his symptoms.
By the time he returned for more tests in 2010, the student reported that his chronic deja vu was causing him to stop watching television, reading newspapers, or listen to the radio since everyting seemed as if he had experienced it before. "Rather than simply the unsettling feelings of familiarity which are normally associated with déjà vu, our subject complained that it felt like he was actually retrieving previous experiences from memory, not just finding them familiar," said Dr. Wells in an interview with media.
While chronic deja vu is typically linked to brain disorders, particularly linked to problems in the brain's temporal lobe, brain scanning showed no abnormalities in this case. Neuropsychologial testing showed no significant memory problems either. While the student does report high levels of anxiety, there is no way to tell whether this is causing his deja vu or is caused by it.
"Most cases like this occur as a side effect associated with epileptic seizures or dementia." Dr. Wells stated. "However, in this instance it appears as though the episodes of déjà vu could be linked to anxiety causing mistimed neuronal firing in the brain, which causes more déjà vu and in turn brings about more anxiety. If proved, this could be the first-ever recorded instance of psychogenic déjà vu, which is déjà vu triggered by anxiety rather than a neurological condition such as dementia or epilepsy. In relation to our case, distress caused by the déjà vu experience may itself lead to increased levels of déjà vu: similar feedback loops in positive symptoms are reported in other anxiety states e.g. panic attacks. It is plausible on neurobiological grounds that anxiety might lead to the generation of déjà vu."
Though most theories about what causes deja vu focus on the brain and how visual experiences are processed, this case raises new questions about the role that anxiety can play in deja vu sensations. Dr. Wells and her team are continuing their investigation and searching for more evidence. Though this case may be unique, it certainly raises new questions about why deja vu can happen.
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