By Sarah Knapton
A student was forced to drop out of university after a bizarre case of chronic déjà vu left him unable to lead a normal life.
The 23-year-old even stopped watching TV, listening to the radio, or reading newspapers or magazines because he believed he had seen it all before.
He told doctors that he was “trapped in a time loop” and said he felt as if he was reliving the past moment by moment.
Details of the case have been revealed in a report published by the Journal of Medical Case Reports.
Doctors are baffled because the man does not suffer from any of the neurological conditions usually seen in people who normally suffer frequently from déjà vu – which is French for “already seen”.
It is thought that panic attacks may have triggered the phenomenon. The condition may also have been exacerbated by LSD.
Report author Dr Christine Wells, a psychology expert from Sheffield Hallam University, said it could be the first case of a person experiencing persistent déjà vu stemming from anxiety.
Although most people experience occasional feelings of déjà vu, more frequent and intense forms are usually only seen in people who have seizures in the temporal lobe, a condition called temporal lobe epilepsy.
However brain scans showed no sign of seizures or neurological conditons. The man also underwent a series of psychological tests to check his memory which failed to show any major issues either.
The student, who has not been named, first complained of symptoms of déjà vu early 2007, shortly after starting university.
He had a history of feeling anxious, particularly a fear of germs, which led him to wash his hands very frequently and to shower two to three times per day.
But his anxiety worsened when he began university. Anxiety and low mood led him to take a break from his studies, and he then began experiencing déjà vu.
The early episodes sometimes lasted only for minutes, but other attacks could be extremely prolonged, the case study reveals.
For example, while on holiday in a destination that he had previously visited he reported feeling as though he had become ‘trapped in a time loop’.
He reported finding these experiences very frightening. He returned to university in 2007 and he described the déjà vu episodes as becoming more intense.
In 2008, he was referred to specialists for neurological examination. Tests for epilepsy were normal and he was treated with a range of medications.
He was assessed again in 2010, by which time his persistent déjà vu caused him to avoid watching television and listening to the radio, as well as reading papers and magazines, as he felt he had already “encountered the content before”.
“Rather than simply the unsettling feelings of familiarity which are normally associated with déjà vu, our subject complained that it felt like he was actually retrieving previous experiences from memory, not just finding them familiar,” said Dr Wells.
“Most cases like this occur as a side effect associated with epileptic seizures or dementia.
“However, in this instance it appears as though the episodes of déjà vu could be linked to anxiety causing mistimed neuronal firing in the brain, which causes more déjà vu and in turn brings about more anxiety.
“If proved, this could be the first-ever recorded instance of psychogenic déjà vu, which is déjà vu triggered by anxiety rather than a neurological condition such as dementia or epilepsy.
“In relation to our case, distress caused by the déjà vu experience may itself lead to increased levels of déjà vu: similar feedback loops in positive symptoms are reported in other anxiety states e.g. panic attacks.
“It is plausible on neurobiological grounds that anxiety might lead to the generation of déjà vu.”
Academics from the UK, France and Canada were called in for the study which was led and published by Dr Wells.
Nobody knows for certain exactly how or why déjà vu happens, but it is thought to be a phenomenon that arises from activity within the temporal lobe.
There is a theory that mistimed firing of neurons cause a temporary glitch in the processing of incoming information within the brain.
Dr Wells is looking to undertake more research to discover a possible link between clinical anxiety and episodes of déjà vu.
She added “The case on its own cannot prove that there’s a link between anxiety and déjà vu, but our findings raise the question and it should be studied further.”