Dreaming, in déjà vu: A personal essay

Person thinking about dreaming about someone
Ashley Zhang/Staff

I don’t know why déjà vu fascinates me. Maybe it’s the French name, or the romanticized notion of re-falling in love with someone every day like Lucy in “50 First Dates.” For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (a fact you should absolutely change), it’s about a guy who falls in love with a girl — shocking, I know. It’s a classic love story, except for the fact that she has short-term memory loss and forgets who he is every single day. The hilarious result: He repeatedly woos her, 50 times in a row, as though it’s their first time meeting. Though hardly as traumatizing as short-term memory loss, déjà vu is weird. You’re sure you’ve experienced something — an event, a feeling, a situation — before, but in reality, you haven’t. Or have you?

What’s even more intriguing than just regular déjà vu are those moments when you get the sense of familiarity, but not in reference to an experience you’ve had. Instead, you think to yourself, “I’ve dreamed this.” In those moments, it might feel as though you’re joining your physical experience with one that exists only in your own imagination.

It’s a classic love story, except for the fact that she has short-term memory loss and forgets who he is every single day.

Why is it that something in the real world can so quickly take me back to a place I only visit in REM? There, I’m likely making clay animals with my first-grade teacher and that random guy from my finance class whom I’ve never talked to. There, I’m upset because this girl I haven’t thought about or heard from since second grade stole my fluffiest slippers and buried them behind California Memorial Stadium. There, I’m angry or upset or happy — but am I really?

I feel like so often I’ll be stuck in place, questioning the validity of my dream and therefore my reality. Did that actually happen in real life? Or did I just dream it? Or did I even dream it at all? That’s how I felt when I went on a run up toward the UC Botanical Garden, and right as I was passing behind Memorial Stadium, I had this sense that I had lost something there — and that’s when I thought of the slippers.

Apparently, I’m not the first person to have questioned this phenomenon, seeing as just a quick internet search introduced me to the concept of déjà rêvé. This fancy French term, which means “already dreamed,” refers to déjà vu specifically about dreams.

Basically, it explains the prophetic feeling you get when it feels like your dream foreshadowed reality. Having experienced the phenomenon myself, it’s really no wonder that certain pre-Freudian schools of thought saw dreams as being symbolic of the future. The crazy thing is, getting déjà rêvé doesn’t even assure that you even had the dream you think you did. You could have not dreamed it at all!

Did that actually happen in real life? Or did I just dream it? Or did I even dream it at all?

While déjà rêvé is extremely normal, apparently, it also has the ability to provide scientists with more insights about how the brain works. A new study suggests that it is caused by electrical brain stimulation, especially in the medial temporal lobes. This brain stimulation is important for scientists to study, as it may provide more insights into the “neural substrates of dreams.”

Fact and academia aside, the complexities of both déjà vu and déjà rêvé are no strangers to serving as inspiration for artistic projects. There is something about the paradox of this unfamiliar familiarity that grabs people’s attention and lends itself easily to describe love — both in good and bad terms.

While some songs describe déjà vu/rêvé in the context of reconnecting with past loves, others describe it as a call to finally move on from a negative relationship. Still others still use it to describe new love that is so comfortable it feels familiar. With lyrics such as, “Feel like I’m home in a place I used to know. Déjà vu — could you be the dream that I once knew,” or “You can come over and we can have déjà vu,” by Dionne Warwick and Mike Posner, respectively, in songs both titled “Déjà Vu” in tribute to the inexplicable feeling, it is no surprise that we often romanticize the concept. Nelly and ABBA, two of the greats, allude to déjà rêvé in their hit songs, “Just a Dream” and “I Have A Dream,” as they explain the effect of dreamed-of events in everyday lives.

There is something about the paradox of this unfamiliar familiarity that grabs people’s attention and lends itself easily to describe love — both in good and bad terms.

The other day, while I was on my 50th first date with Netflix, I discovered a new show called “Russian Doll.” The cover shows a red-headed woman surrounded by her own doppelgangers, all looking in different directions. Within the storyline, she relives the same day over and over again à la “Groundhog Day,” “Before I Fall,” “Happy Death Day 2 U,” “12 Dates of Christmas” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” The repeated use of the trope almost becomes more trite than the trope itself: unending, predictable, but oh-so-fun. It certainly makes for good entertainment and has a way of keeping you up at night.

Like I said, I don’t quite know why déjà vu interests me so much. The intellectual part of me wants to think it’s because of the interesting science that lies behind it. The realistic part of me confesses that I secretly hope that one day someone will love me enough to make me fall in love with them 50 times, again and again. There is something fated about the effect of having already seen what you’re about to experience — we get a do-over, even if it’s just all in our heads.

Contact Frida Schaefer Bastian at [email protected]