Deja Who?
February 12, 2007 2:02 PM   Subscribe

What do you call co-opting other people's memories, accounts, and stories for your own memories in a deja vu-like moment?

I've sometimes experienced a brief mental phenomenon that is somewhat like deja vu, but slightly different. Deja vu is interpreting current events happening around you as if they had previously existed in your memory. This phenomenon is more like synthesizing accounts of other people's events or manufactured memories passing themselves off as your own memories. In checking other threads for a similar question, I also came across the term "jamais vu," which is kind of the opposite of deja vu in that you do not have memories that you should (of a familiar place, etc.). These concepts are close to what I'm describing, but not quite exact. What will happen is I'll get a brief and vivid "memory" (often quite detailed) of some situation that I'll know I have never been in. Often it will take me a second or two to realize "wait, that never happened to me." This is often triggered by listening to other people's stories. I guess you could just call it imagination (i.e. inserting myself into a situation as to better understand the story), but it is set apart by both the vividness of the memory and the extent to which my brain is temporarily tricked into thinking that I actually had this experience. Has anybody else experienced this? Is there a name for it? Why does it happen some times and not others?

Deja vu, memory, etc. discussed previously on AskMe: here, here, here, here, and here.
posted by SBMike to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard this refered to as "false memory."
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:45 PM on February 12, 2007


And I often have trouble with this about my childhood because it was a long time ago, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the past, and when I do get together with old friends, we can't always remember anymore who actually did what, and which stories were embellished.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:48 PM on February 12, 2007

IRFH, I think "false memory" is close, but not exactly what I'm describing. False memory seems to be persistent, in that the person actually believes (and continues to believe) that some event happened to them. What I'm describing is brief and quickly corrected by a different part of my brain that keeps track of actual memories (at least to the somewhat limited extent that a normal functioning brain can record memories). Perhaps false memories are just examples of this which the brain can't rule out as a possibility. It's certainly possible that many of my memories are false without realizing it.
posted by SBMike at 3:02 PM on February 12, 2007

Perhaps false memories are just examples of this which the brain can't rule out as a possibility.

This feels right, because I've had it go both ways for me, so I know exactly what you're talking about. But I'm not an expert. I do know someone with a lot of cognitive background, though. I'll point her to this thread, and see if she has any insights.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:07 PM on February 12, 2007

I have heard something like this described as "presque vu" (almost seen).
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:20 PM on February 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Just as a data point, there was a story on This American Life (I think) where a woman had a story about seeing Jackie Onassis in New York, and her husband heard the story so many times that he remembered being there with her even though he wasn't. He could even picture what Jackie O was wearing, and it was totally different from what his wife remembered her wearing. Sorry I can't find a link! Maybe this will spark someone else's memory.
posted by MsMolly at 3:22 PM on February 12, 2007

How about "borrowed memory"? I don't think there's a standard term, but that would get the idea across efficiently.
posted by languagehat at 3:26 PM on February 12, 2007

jamais vécu – never lived (through the experience).
posted by zadcat at 3:49 PM on February 12, 2007

I think zadcat's getting closer. Doing a bit of creative googling found me this page, which lists a lot more of these types of mental hiccups. The differences are subtle, but I think the closest thing to what I'm describing would be:

"déjà éprouvé [Fr. “already tested”] : a feeling that one has previously engaged in or experienced something when one has not"


"déjà vécu [Fr. “already lived”] . a feeling that a new experience has been encountered before, in a previous existence."

Thanks for guiding me in the right direction. Of course, this prompts another question: why do the French have so many damn-useful and descriptive words for all kinds of everything?
posted by SBMike at 4:15 PM on February 12, 2007

deja tu. A feeling of being you.
posted by bingo at 4:22 PM on February 12, 2007

Actually, I guess it would be deja vous.
posted by bingo at 4:23 PM on February 12, 2007

Déjà who?

Robn, from hyper-textual ontology had this to add:

"I'm not sure how much insight I actually have, but I think I can explain it in a very boring and unromantic way.

I've often asked my students to imagine themselves sitting in a class they had the previous day - to just picture where they sat, what they did, etc., and then prompted them to notice if they were seeing themselves from the 3rd person or not. 9 times out of 10, they've viewed themselves from an angle which is actually impossible, from a view outside of themselves, and yet it feels like a real memory of the moment. It's because what we do know about memory is that it is absolutely not encoded like a movie, but rather constructed each time we remember something (making false memories a very real problem in courtrooms.) Since we construct our memories every time we recall them, we're likely to change them each time and, in fact, it seems fairly reasonable that if we've encoded someone else's memory in a way that we can easily relate to - in a situation which we can picture our selves - it seems pretty straightforward to imagine that our memory-constructing mechanism could call up other information accidentally.

Very mundane and boring, but from what I've learned about memory in neuroscience, really pretty understandable - we shouldn't be surprised by this.

I could be *entirely* wrong, too. But I've experienced this phenomenon, and while it's pretty disturbing, I don't think it's too weird neuroscientifically." [Link]
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:41 PM on February 12, 2007

The This American life episode MsMolly describes is called Reruns. The husband and wife part is Act 2, and it's pretty cool to hear how completely the husband "remembers" seeing Jackie O even though he was not there. It was replayed a couple months ago; but it's originally from 2002. It sounds a good deal like what the poster is describing, but doesn't give it a name, sorry.
posted by donnagirl at 5:27 PM on February 12, 2007

Thanks for guiding me in the right direction.

I don't understand how those French phrases are "the right direction." They have nothing to do with appropriating other people's memories. I assure you there is no preexisting phrase for what you're trying to describe, and I'm not sure why it seems important to you to try to make one fit. You're talking about a relatively rare phenomenon that doesn't get described enough to have a ready-made word or phrase; it seems to me you're better off creating one that makes it obvious what you're talking about.
posted by languagehat at 6:05 PM on February 12, 2007

I support "false memory," but also want to throw the term "implanted memory" out there. Also, you may want to read up on the Bugs Bunny Disneyland experiment and cryptomnesia if you're looking to understand how weird memory can be.
posted by revgeorge at 6:14 AM on February 13, 2007

« Older waiting to hear, aarrgghh   |   boston custom embroidery Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.