Friday, August 16, 2013

didn't you just ask me that?

We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time - of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances - of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remember it!

That’s Dickens in David Copperfield. He’s talking about what we call déjà vu.

Déjà vu gets namechecked twice in Groundhog Day. When, Phil asks Mrs. Lancaster if she ever has déjà vu, she mistakes the term for some sort of food—you know, a good fun jibe at those hicks in Punxsutawney. When Rita asks Phil if he ever has déjà vu, he replies with the classic, “Didn’t you just ask me that?”

From the French for “already seen,” we usually throw out the term déjà vu for any situation that seems a little too familiar, like it’s already happened before but we can’t consciously remember it. Like we’ve read someone’s blog entry already but it isn’t exactly the same, but it feels the same. For Phil Connors, it’s a little more literal. Claire Flaherty-Craig, a consulting and treating neurophsychologist at Hershey Medical Center describes the actual condition as a “disconnect between objective unfamiliarity and a subject sense of familiarity.” That is a sciency way of saying, we feel familiar with something with which we are not. Seems a little too basic and I feel like I’ve heard that description before.

Anyway, the term déjà vu was coined in 1876…

(That’s only a decade—someone needs to read his own blog so he doesn’t look like he can’t do math—separate from the origins of Groundhog Day. Coincidence? Sure, coincidence is a separate topic from déjà vu. But, since you’re here, is it important that the woman Phil sees outside the bed and breakfast on his first repetition turns out to be his piano teacher later? Her character’s name, by the way, is Mary. Is that important? I mean, that she shares a name with the mother of Jesus and Phil’s position in his swan dive suicide is a little crucifixion—that’s got to mean something.)

Anyway, the term déjà vu was coined in 1876 by Émile Boirac. And a lot of silly people took it as evidence of past lives or clairvoyance. For Phil Connors, it’s just memory of a day that arguably never happened (unless you believe in those alternate universes; then it’s more some psychic crossover phenomena. Over at tv tropes, someone made the argument that maybe the other characters also have some “phantom memories” of the repeated days. This would explain why Rita has no apparent problem with Phil telling her that he loves her on that last night. I think I agree that there is something odd about Rita just accepting it when Phil says, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now, because I love you.” When he told her he loved her back on Day 10, that was after they’d spent a good portion of the day together, had been out on a date and she was back in his room at the bed and breakfast…

(Maybe it isn’t that she didn’t believe him. But, given the circumstance, having been talked into going into his room, she was a little more defensive. And, out in the freezing cold, having invested her $339.88, Rita was just a little more suggestible and vulnerable. Or maybe she was experiencing a little déjà vu, feeling some of those phantom memories. Or, as a producer, she can tell real sincerity from Phil’s usual false sincerity. Because producers are magical beings that can do that sort of thing.

The original script ends with the realization that Rita is repeating February 3. She’s “a hundred years” into her repetition and she doesn’t seem so enamored of Phil anymore. In her voiceover, she says, “I don’t know why I waste my time. Maybe I like getting romanced at seven [sic] in the morning, even by Phil Connors.”

(Note: in that original script, the alarm shot would have been 6:29 to 6:30, not 5:59 to 6:00.)
But, the film ends on a more upbeat, romantic comedy note. It doesn’t matter if it makes total logical sense, because it feels right.)

This “phantom memories” theory would also explain a bit why Larry is acceptant of Phil asking him if he’s got kids, or how Larry (who might be more of a smartass cynic than Phil was) is “touched” by Phil’s final speech—or maybe it’s just awesome enough to touch everybody. And, it would explain why the townspeople all love Phil so much in the end. It isn’t just that he helped the that particular day but deep down inside they can sense that he’s helped them before. Déjà vu all over again.

What is déjà vu, though? It might be emotional triggers firing because a situation is similar to one we’ve experienced before. It might be a short circuit in the way the brain works, sending an experience into memory storage before it sends it into our present consciousness. I’m no neuroscientist. I’m not even sure how much sense either of those make medically.

Déjà vu could also apparently come from temporal lobe seizures. The aforementioned Dr Flaherty-Craig mentions a study in which those with epilepsy and specifically temporal lobe seizures were more likely to experience déjà vu. Julia Johnson, writing in “Déjà vu and the Brain, Consciousness and Self,” suggests a possible explanation for déjà vu:

One possibility is simply the occasional mismatch made by the brain in its continuous attempt to create whole sensical pictures out of very small pieces of information. Looking at memory as a hologram, only bits of sensory information are needed for the brain to reconstruct entire three-dimensional images. When the brain receives a small sensory input (a sight, a smell, a sound) that is strikingly similar to such a detail experienced in the past, the entire memory image is brought forward.

The idea of memory as a hologram is interesting.

(So is the word sensical.)

One has to wonder how many dimensions Phil Connor’s hologram has; certainly more than just three. He sees things from every angle, even angles we haven’t thought of. Maybe he is a god. Johnson also explains something like that short circuit I described above:

Another explanation for déjà vu is that there is a slight malfunctioning between the long and short-term memory circuits of the brain. Somehow, specific information shortcuts its way from short to long-term memory storage, bypassing the usual mechanisms used for storage transfer. The details concerning this shortcut are not yet well understood. When this new, recent piece of information is drawn upon, the person thinks that the piece is coming from long-term storage and so must have come from the distant past.

Imagine that first repetition and you are Phil Connors. Maybe you’ve thought about it before, maybe only yesterday. But, think about it again. How do you explain what’s going on? How do you remain sane in such an insane situation? Now, 20 years past Groundhog Day, we would probably conclude, after a good bit of panic, that we’re stuck in a timeloop, like Owen did in that recent episode of Childrens Hospital. But, Phil Connors didn’t have Groundhog Day as a frame of reference. How sad is that for him?

Now, there would probably be some more panic on the next repetition. You’d probably assume you’re losing your mind. The first time, that’s innocent déjà vu. The second—that’s insanity. Maybe on the third, you start to think this is actually happening.

Today’s reason for repeating a day forever: to start a band called déjà vu, and we only play one song, a prog rock 24 hour extended version of “I Got You Babe.”

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