The Story Of A Man Who Lived In A Permanent Déjà Vu

The case of Louis: trapped in time because of a rare psychological disorder.

It has happened to all of us at some point in our lives: having the feeling that we have already seen, heard or done something that is happening. In exactly the same way, and in the same place. All traced, as if the past and the present had been unfolded into two exact replicas. It is a phenomenon known as Déjà Vu and it is very normal for it to occur, because it is part of the normal functioning of  our brain. However, in some very rare cases, Déjà Vu could shape a little-known mental disorder.

This is what happened to a French army officer at the end of the 19th century : he believed that he was living in a series of replicas of the past, as if everyone was trying to recreate situations already lived.

Louis’ pathological Déjà Vu case: trapped in time

This case was documented in 1896 by a psychiatrist named Francois-Léon Arnaud, and has recently been translated and published in the scientific journal Cortex by a team led by psychologist Julie Bertrand. It is also one of the first scientific articles in which the term Déjà Vu is used to refer to this type of phenomenon.

Living in the past … literally

The text translated by Bertrand and his team describes some of the situations experienced by a young army officer who, after serving in Vietnam, was sent home after beginning to develop a series of symptoms. Louis, because this was the name of the military man, constantly confused the past with the present. He believed that he was experiencing exact replicas of what had happened months or years ago.

He is having begun to suffer intermittent fever probably caused by malaria, to found in Louis unjustified exhaustion, insomnia and digestive problems, and amnesia retrograde and anterograde, so despite remember most of the important information related to his life and his identity, he had a hard time remembering what had happened just a few minutes ago. This caused that, many times, he was repeating the same question over and over again, even if it had been answered just before.

And of course Louis began to suffer from the so-called pathological Déjà Vu shortly after, in 1893. Although Louis had assured that as a child he experienced Déjà Vus very frequently, at that time not only did he experience them all the time, but he also did not believe that they were illusions. He was convinced that the repetition of past experiences was absolutely real.

Everything is repeating

Among the anecdotes that serve to illustrate the case of pathological Déjà Vu documented by Arnaud is the time in which he claimed to have previously read several newspaper articles, even claiming that he himself was the author of some of them.

Although at the beginning the Déjà Vu pathological Louis was only related to the feeling of having read what he was reading, p oco then extended to more areas of his life and became more frequent.

At his brother’s wedding, for example, he claimed aloud that he perfectly remembered attending this same ceremony a year ago, with the same guests, in the same place, and with all the details placed identically. He also pointed out that he did not understand why they were repeating the wedding again.

As the symptoms worsened and the pathological Déjà Vu spread its influence throughout all areas of Louis’s life, a tendency towards paranoid thoughts and persecution mania also appeared. He believed that his parents were giving him drugs to make him forget about his plans to marry the woman he liked and that he would react violently to normal, everyday actions.

Louis was around 35 years old when he entered the Maison de Santé in the French municipality of Vanves. There, in 1894, he met Arnaud.

Louis and Arnaud meet

When Louis first saw Arnaud, this is what happened:

At first, Louis behaved in the way that people who come into contact for the first time with an unknown person in a normal situation behave. Right after, Louis’s expression became much more friendly and familiar.

I recognize you, doctor. It is you who greeted me a year ago at the same time and in the same room. You asked me the same questions you ask me now, and I gave you the same answers. He does very well when it comes to being surprised, but he can stop now.

Louis believed he had already been to the Vanves Sanitarium. He had recognized the land on which it is located, its facilities, and at that time also the people who worked on it. Despite Arnaud’s denying that all of this had happened in the past, he didn’t seem to convince Louis. Soon after, a similar conversation took place when the patient met another doctor.

Scenes like this would define the type of mental disorder for which Louis entered the institution.

Are you sure it’s a pathological Déjà Vu?

Although the symptoms that Louis experienced are closely related to the way classic Déjà Vu is expressed, Julie Bertrand proposes the explanation that, in fact, what was happening to this patient was not Déjà Vu, at least technically. It would rather be an unconscious mechanism by which the memory gaps produced by amnesia are filled.

This would explain why Louis was not able to distinguish between the real past and the “artificial” past created by these situations. What he lived was, rather, a reduplicative paramnesia, an illusion in which common sense fades. One more example of the extent to which changes in our nervous system can change us even in those mental faculties that we take for granted.

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