A déjà vu experience is one in which a new situation feels so familiar that you think you have been there before. In reality, though, your brain is making a cognitive error triggered by some aspects of the current situation that really are familiar to you, but then fails to complete the fact-checking that would confirm the uniqueness of the moment.
What happened to me this week was the opposite of a déjà vu. Let me explain.
We booked our flight to Seattle two weeks ago after learning that the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team would be playing there in the NCAA Regional Finals this past weekend. I was looking forward to it not only to see the game, but also for the chance to explore Seattle, a place I had never visited.
In fact, I didn’t recall ever being in the state of Washington until my sister reminded me that even though our niece lived in Portland, her wedding was held on the Washington side of the nearby Columbia River. So I had been to Washington but not Seattle.
We flew out last Friday and attended the semi-final game on Saturday. Much to my disappointment—and to the shock and horror of UConn fans everywhere—we lost. I was so devastated that I wanted to change our flight and go home the next day. Sally’s good sense prevailed, though, and we decided to enjoy the rest of our time exploring Seattle.
The next day (Sunday), we booked a 3-hour coach tour of the city. It turned out that we were the only people aboard, so it turned into a private tour just for us. Our guide Brian was wonderful and we had a blast.
At this point, I had had Seattle on my mind for more than a week and we were into our second day of actually being there, including nearly 3 hours learning about the city and its history in great detail.
Towards the end of the tour, Brian took us to an overlook that provided a fantastic panoramic view of downtown. He apologized for our not being able to see Mt. Rainier because of the low cloud cover that day. Bummer.
But as we got back on the coach, I started thinking about Mt. Rainier. I had the feeling that I had seen it before. Slowly, two different images formed in my head: one of Mt. Rainier as it would look from an airplane and one from the top of a building. Were they memories from a tv show or movie I had seen? Or were they real memories of being there?
A few moments later it came to me: I had been to Seattle in the spring of 2001!
The memory was only 22 years old, but it must have been pretty deeply sequestered inside my head, though, to resist being recalled until triggered by the words ‘Mount Rainier.’
Here’s what I remember:
It was during my internship year for my Ph.D. in clinical psychology and I was living in Lexington, North Carolina, while working at the VA Hospital in nearby Salisbury. I had finished my academic work at UConn around 8 months earlier.
My advisor at UConn wrote to me about the upcoming annual conference of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis outside of Seattle and suggested I present a paper there about an experiment I had completed before leaving UConn. I agreed.
Although I have no memory of the details, it was likely that I wanted to minimize the time spent away from my internship and so I probably booked a flight from Charlotte to Seattle on a Friday and the return trip on Sunday after delivering my paper on Saturday. That sounds like something I would do.
I recall feeling very uncomfortable about the entire undertaking. For starters, several members of my old research team were there, but not having attended weekly meetings for nearly a year, I no longer felt connected to them. To make matters worse, the paper I was presenting was very esoteric and tangential to the major threads of hypnosis research and, to my mind, wouldn’t be all that interesting to those in attendance.
The location on the outskirts of Seattle was far enough away from downtown that getting into the city and sightseeing within my limited available time would have been challenging. Consequently, I stayed in the hotel the entire time I was there. The one thing I did do, though, was to take the elevator to the top floor so I could get a good view of Mt. Rainier.
Evidently, seeing the mountain was the most memorable thing that happened to me on that trip. And as the weekend itself wasn’t a very pleasant experience, I’m sure I didn’t spend much time talking or thinking about it during the ensuing two decades, thus minimizing the strength of its memory.
I’m pretty sure, though, that 20 years from now I’ll remember this past weekend’s journey much more vividly. Even though the team’s loss was heartbreaking, the sightseeing and exploration of a place I actually had not been to before was exciting and memorable…as was the discovery of just how fickle some of my memories really are!