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Brain Cogn. 2008 Nov;68(2):144-7. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2008.03.007. Epub 2008 Apr 28.

The persistence of erroneous familiarity in an epileptic male: challenging perceptual theories of déjà vu activation.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA.


We report the case of a 39-year-old, temporal lobe epileptic male, MH. Prior to complex partial seizure, experienced up to three times a day, MH often experiences an aura experienced as a persistent sensation of déjà vu. Data-driven theories of déjà vu formation suggest that partial familiarity for the perceived stimulus is responsible for the sensation. Consequently, diverting attention away from this stimulus should cause the sensation to dissipate. MH, whose sensations of déjà vu persist long enough for him to shift his perceptual focus a number of times during the experience, spontaneously reports that these shifts make no difference to the sensation experienced. This novel observation challenges data-driven theories of déjà vu formation which have been used to explain the occurrence of déjà vu in those with temporal lobe epilepsy and the general population. Clearly, in epilepsy, erratic neuronal firing is the likely contributor, and in this paper we postulate that such brain firing causes higher-order erroneous 'cognitive feelings'. We tentatively extend this account to the general population. Rather than being a reaction to familiar elements in perceptual stimuli, déjà vu is likely to be the result of a cognitive feeling borne of the erroneous activation of neural familiarity circuits such as the parahippocampal gyrus, persisting as long as this activation persists.

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