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. From the French for “already seen,” we usually throw out the term for any situation that seems a little too familiar, like it’s already happened before but we can’t consciously remember it. 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.”
The term was coined in 1876…
(That’s only a year or two separate from the origins of Groundhog Day. Coincidence? But, I guess coincidence is a separate topic from déjà vu. Like, 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? Is it important that Phil just happens to run into Nancy Taylor the very day after he gets information on her… or would he have just spent the entire day looking for her if he hadn’t seen her right there by the gazebo?)
Anyway, the term was coined in 1876 by Émile Boirac. Some people took it as evidence of past lives or clairvoyance. For Phil Connors, it’s just memory of a day that arguably never happened. 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…
Hm, 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.
(It occurs to me now to bring up the ending to the original script, in which we learn that Rita is repeating February 3. She’s “a hundred years” into her repetition and she doesn’t seem so enamored of Phil anymore. But, the film ends on a more upbeat, romantic comedy, note.)
This “phantom memories” theory would also explain a bit why the townspeople all love Phil so much. 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? Could it be emotional triggers firing because a situation is similar to one we’ve experienced before? Is it—and I like this one, though I can’t find any scientist who’s proven it—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 that makes medically.
Déjà vu could also 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. One has to wonder how many dimensions Phil Connor’s hologram has; certainly more than just three. 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.
Memory’s a trick subject.
Imagine that first repetition and you are Phil Connors. How do you explain what’s going on? 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 for him.
Now, there would probably be some more panic on the next repetition. You might 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 punk cover of “I Got You Babe,” over and over for every one of our concerts.