Explainer: What is Deja Vu? (The Conversation)

Came across an article in The Conversation explaining the phenomenon of deja vu in scientific terms. The concept of the ‘double’ , a significant trope in Gothic literature, shares common ground the concept with deja vu – deja vu comes from French for ‘already seen’. I’m reminded of an anecdote I read years ago about the poet Goethe and how he met his doppelgänger while crossing a road:

As I rode along the footpath to Drusenheim, I was seized by the strangest premonition, namely, I saw myself, not with the eyes of the body, but those of the spirit, coming toward myself on horseback on the same path, and, to be sure, in clothing I had never worn: it was bluish gray with some gold trimming. As soon as I shook myself awake the figure vanished. Yet it is curious the eight years later I found myself on the same path, coming to visit Frederica once more and dressed in the same clothes I had dreamed about, which I was wearing not by choice but by coincidence. (Goethe, Poetry and Truth, Book Eleven, Part III)

“Looking handsome, son!”
“Same to you, bro!

Science so far is unable to provide a clear explanation as to the prevalence of this phenomenon. We are only just beginning to understand how the human brain works, and perhaps in time to come science will be able to shed more light on this phenomena. As far as the literary Gothic is concerned, the double continues to be a pervasive trope that can be traced in many works. Freud’s theory of the uncanny is a staple of Gothic criticism, and in that essay, deja vu is synonymous with the uncanny (unheimlich) effect. An interesting study is Linda Dryden’s monograph The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles , which devotes itself to an exploration of this concept in the works of Stevenson, Wilde and H.G Wells. In fact, the convention of the double is one that, I would suggest, has almost saturated the genre. And yet, like Romero’s zombies, the trope keeps recurring, again and again throughout fiction and even the genre of film. Perhaps there is something that is intrinsically fascinating about seeing mirrors of ourselves. Perhaps this stems from, as Freud would suggest, a narcissistic preoccupation that stems from repression.

EDIT: On a related note, I just came across a link to an invention that epitomises the term ‘unheimlich’. Check out this link  to have a look at the ‘most horrifying robot baby you will ever meet‘.


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'horror': Middle English: via Old French from Latin horror, from horrere ‘tremble, shudder’.

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