In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, CNN’s Anderson Cooper (played by new cast member Alex Moffat) serves as moderator for a panel of experts reacting to a series of increasingly bonkers breaking news stories concerning President-elect Donald J. Trump. The KKK is planning a parade to celebrate Trump’s win. Trump may force all Muslims to register. Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, has been named Trump’s chief strategist. The news grows increasingly upsetting, but the anchors’ reactions remain the same — eerily so.
“You know what, this is not normal!” says Cecily Strong, as CNN political analyst Gloria Borger. “This is where we in the media have to draw the line,” chimes in Kenan Thompson as political commentator Van Jones. Over and over, again and again, until, suddenly, Cooper stops. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I just had this weird memory like we keep doing the same—” He freezes. Turns out he’s a malfunctioning Westworld host.
It does not exactly need spelling out, but the sketch’s punch line is effective in a weary “it’s funny because it’s true” kind of way. Every day, it seems, Trump does something unbelievable or says something untrue, and every day, political commentators (understandably) flip out. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Watching the news feels like watching a terrifying TV show you’ve seen before but still can’t stop bingeing.
This is, essentially, the story at the center of a fascinating case study published online this month in the journal Cortex: An Australian man becomes convinced that current events are not actually current at all — rather, they’re reruns. He’s seen them all before, in a hospital room in 1994.
The patient: When the four authors of the Cortex paper meet the patient — called by the initials “EN” in the report — it was 2005, and he was 38 years old. In 1994, he’d suffered a severe head injury after falling off a cliff; he spent four months in the hospital, and his life was never quite the same after that. More than a decade on, he wasn’t working, and was still living with his father.
The problem: His father urged him to consult with the medical team after becoming unsettled by comments his son would make when they watched the news or sports together. Once, while watching an international cricket match, EN told his father, “I know who wins this but I won’t tell you, I won’t spoil it for you.”
In interviews, EN’s beliefs became clearer. It wasn’t that he believed he’d seen the day’s news events before because they were happening twice. He agreed that things like the London Underground bombing and the massive Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami only happened once — only in his mind, they happened in 1994, during his four-month hospital stay.
This sounds delusional. He can explain. He created a narrative, which he turned to any time someone questioned his claims that he’d seen the day’s news years before: The hospital he’d stayed at in 1994 was located in Sydney, a city much bigger and fancier than his small, rural town. The news in Sydney, he reasoned, must be years ahead of the news in his little hometown, which was now playing catch up.
He elaborates in a conversation with Martha S. Turner, now a neuroscientist at University College London:
EN: I saw the tsunami and I said “That happened when I was in hospital in Sydney!” And I said — “We’re finally catching up!”
MT: So when did the tsunami actually happen? What year?
EN: Well I reckon I saw it when I was in hospital in 1994.
MT: And they were showing reports of the 1994 tsunami more recently?
EN: Yeah. They were finally showing in the country what I saw in hospital in 1994.
In a later conversation, Turner asks EN if he can think of any news events that happened between 1994 and now.
EN: Not that I can think of off-hand.
MT: Nothing in the news? No world events?
EN: I can’t think of any.
The diagnosis: You have of course heard of déjà vu, the uncanny sense that you are, to return to the parlance of Westworld, stuck in a time loop. It’s the feeling that you’ve had this conversation before; you’ve met this person before. Most of us know it’s just a feeling. We dismiss it, and move along.
EN represents a case of next-level déjà vu, something psychiatrists call déjà vécu. It’s déjà vu that becomes “persistent and convincing,” these study authors write; people with déjà vécu “genuinely believe that they have lived through the current moment at some previous time.” This is déjà vu turned pathological. In previously reported cases, a patient known as “AKP” told his doctor that whenever he went for a walk, he would see the same drivers pass at the same time every day. Another patient, called “MA,” believed she could predict the future, “as she had lived through it all before.” Previous studies on déjà vécu have suggested that the problem may stem from damage to the medial temporal lobe, the area of the brain thought to help us recognize places, people, and things we’ve come across before.
But EN’s story is different from previously reported cases, in that his déjà vécu applied only to current events. He recalled personal events just fine, correctly naming the dates for things like the wedding of a close friend and the birth of a nephew. So this suggests, the study authors venture, that the brain may distinguish between the personal and the non-personal when storing memories. “EN’s episodic memory is damaged,” they write. “But something is protecting his autobiographical episodes from being disrupted, whilst leaving his non-autobiographical episodes vulnerable to déjà vécu.”
What that something is that seems to be protecting those autobiographical memories — they’re not so clear on that yet. Other psychologists who study memory have suggested that strong emotions may help “strengthen and shape” memories; maybe that’s what’s happening for EN, too. “In EN,” the study authors speculate at the very end of their paper, “it may be that autobiographical or personally experienced events are protected by the salience afforded by their emotional and personal associations, leaving only non-autobiographical episodes vulnerable to déjà vécu.”