It’s summer, you’re on the beach with your family, discussing a recent event while playing a game of cards. Suddenly you think that you have already experienced this; it was a déjà vu. Can you imagine what it would be like to experience this feeling all the time? This is what happens to people with Louis Bar Syndrome. A condition named by the first documented case.
But what exactly is déjà vu? Where does the name come from? How and why does it occur? Is it morbid?
What exactly is déjà vu?
The term comes from French and means “ already seen ”. In humans it describes paramnesia, a memory illusion. It is an experience that you think you’ve had before, even though you haven’t. As a result, a person experiences a certain sense of familiarity with situations, events, or occurrences that are actually new, rather than common feelings such as “strangeness” or “alienation”.
This term was first used in 1876 by the French philosopher Émile Boirac. He wrote to Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger in response to a reader of the magazine who claimed to remember facts as if they were from a previous life. Boirac replied that he too had the same experience: J’ai déjà vu ce que je vois (“I have already seen what I see”).
Psychologist Edward B. Titchener explained that the cause of déjà-vu would be a brief vision of an object or situation before the brain has “built” conscious awareness of the experience. It would be a kind of “ partial perception ” expressed as a false sense of familiarity. But it wasn’t until 1896 that the French psychiatrist Francois-Léon Arnaud coined the term déjà-vu. Arnaud presented the case of his patient Louis to the Medical-Psychological Society.
The Louis Bar Syndrome
Louis was a 34-year-old army officer who was no longer on duty after serving in Vietnam. He had some strange symptoms. Among other things, he constantly confused the present with the past and had had a constant feeling of déjà vu for several years.
Louis went to the Vanves Health House, where Dr. Francois-Léon Arnaud worked. Not surprisingly, he said that he recognized everything he had actually seen for the first time when he arrived. He also described remembering how he felt the last time he was there. Even when he met the doctor, Louis believed he was just pretending he didn’t know him yet.
Arnaud said that despite the evidence that he had not been there yet, Louis firmly maintained that he lived “two parallel lives” as he experienced everything twice.
From non-pathological déjà-vu to Louis Bar Syndrome
Déjà vu is a normal experience. In fact, around two thirds of the population have seen it before. Chronic déjà vu, however, is not normal; it often has to do with neurological damage. In fact, Louis’ symptoms appeared to be due to some type of illness contracted in Vietnam that was affecting his nervous system.
Arnaud brings us closer to a simple but effective way to distinguish when déjà-vu is normal and when it is pathological. Healthy people experience it as something rare and temporary, with the awareness that the feeling of having seen or experienced something before is nothing more than an illusion. Déjà-vu is pathological if the conviction persists that such an experience has actually taken place before.
Analyzing Louis’s case today, perhaps the most appropriate diagnosis was not déjà vu. Because this term refers to a relatively normal experience. Perhaps his symptoms suggested some sort of reduplicative paramnesia or collective confabulation. This consists of a collection of lived memories that are used to cover memory lapses caused by amnesia.
An unclear phenomenon
For both types of phenomena, both collective confabulation and déjà-vu, there are indications in different areas of the brain. The collective collusion appears to be in the medial temporal and frontal lobes. However, other studies show that it resides in the insula, an area of the brain that has to do with sensitivity and emotions.
More neuroimaging studies are needed to prove this. It should also be possible to provoke déjà vu in the laboratory. It sounds complicated, yes, but at the rate at which science is advancing, the final answer might be closer than expected. Until then, may all memories of those with Louis Bar Syndrome be happy moments.