Gill and I spent a day at Anglesey Abbey last week which, as you’ll know if you’ve found me on Facebook, isn’t in Anglesey and is no longer an Abbey. (That’s not the Déjà Vu bit by the way, it’s coming along later). It was a nice day out.
I now find myself mentally apologising to my deceased English teacher who held the view that use of the word nice constituted such a pinnacle of linguistic laziness that all prose containing the word was automatically red-lined in full, no matter what other redeeming qualities it may have had. I still try to avoid nice to this day out of schoolboy respect to the man. He had bona-fide credentials for a 15-year-old O-level student. Not for his English teaching ability, I hasten to add but because he played Franz, the Witch-finder General, in the Hammer House of Horror film Twins of Evil. It doesn’t get much better than that for an adolescent lad: vampires, sleaze and semi-naked twin sisters.
But I digress.
In this instance however, nice was probably the right adjective. A good day out? Good enough. A glad-we-went-but-probably-not-going-back-in-a-hurry sort of a day. You know, nice.
So we sat in the cafe after we’d wandered around the gardens and debated whether the suspended willow-woven anemones in the woods were better, though less permanent, sculptures than the graffiti adorned lions guarding the entrance to the yew hedge enclosing a copy of one of Bernini’s many David’s. Is it just me, or does this particular David have a look of grim determination that closely resembles a man about break wind in the defence of his nation? If you visit, let me know.
There was plenty of chatter in the cafe in a variety of languages, confirming Anglesey Abbey’s status as a National Trust multicultural attraction. People of all ages were having a good old natter over their cups of tea and clotted cream scones. Suddenly, as clearly as if the background hubbub had been sliced apart with a razor, someone said ‘Sheffield’.
Not a particularly eventful thing to say you might think and I’m sure you’d be right. I only noticed it because I was born and bred in Sheffield and my mother and brother still live there. It’s one of those words that I’m be tuned into. Like when you hear someone say your name in a pub and you know your immediate future holds yet another conversation with that bloke who insist on believing you love talking about websites and networking coffee meetings. I need to be less polite.
I don’t want you thinking that I’m particularly obsessed with the word Sheffield or even the place itself, as I haven’t lived there for many years. There are indeed several other words which could have set me off down this apparently blind and time-distorted alley. It just happens that this was the time, the place and the word which that fired my blogging imagination.
What got me really thinking though, is that I’m convinced I heard the whole word. From start to finish. In its entirety. Yet how could I possibly have known that that person was going to say Sheffield until after it had been said? She could have been going to say anything at all and there are several words I can think of that begin with Sh… But I was apparently tuned in and listening from the moment the word began.
The point is, I suppose, that the word can’t have existed as a recognisable entity until after it had been uttered. So I must have heard it first, then recognised it and then tuned into it. Nothing else makes sense. Nevertheless, I am absolutely positive that I heard the word as it was in the act of being spoken. Or did I?
Is this the source of that elusive Déjà Vu?
Philosophically speaking, I think this is where one of Benjamin Libet’s famous half-seconds might be kicking in. The more I think about this, the more I reckon Mr Libet has a lot to answer for with his time-delay theory of cognition.
Do you recall those late night radio talk shows in the 70’s and 80’s when they encouraged people to phone up and have a rant about nothing in particular? When the anti-swearing bleep machine came into its own? They even brought in a time delay so that a man (or woman) with a good knowledge of blaspheming and swift digital responses had their finger poised over the bleep machine button to edit out inappropriate language. It became a matter of pride to see who could outsmart the time delay and the bleep machine operator and slide a profanity into the show.
Well, according to Ben, this is how your conscious mind works. Not the bleep machine, the time delay. Although, now that I’ve written it, I think the bleep machine has a part to play as well. What you perceive as everyday reality actually happened half a second ago. Now, despite appearances to the contrary, is not ‘Now’. It is, in fact, ‘Then’. Every single thing you recognise, see, hear, smell, taste or touch actually happened before you notice it. Your whole world is half a second out of date.
Sounds bonkers? I know. Until you think it through. It just isn’t possible to know what a word is going to be until it is said. I mean words heard at random, out of context, from a conversation you weren’t listening to. Hearing something where anticipation cannot be part of the mix. Obviously some words can be easily predicted. You know. Like “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him….well”.
Actually, it isn’t ‘well’, it’s ‘Horatio’. Look it up, if you don’t believe me. But you get my drift. With Libet’s delay, this all makes sense, (other than misquoting Shakespeare, that is). Effectively, you have the mental equivalent of global CIA surveillance going on, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Your brain is a fully functioning, highly complex pattern recognition machine, running multiple algorithms that computer science can only dream of, at speeds that are unimaginable. All day, every day, your unconscious takes in everything that goes on around you and runs simulations based on patterns of events that have already happened to you and extrapolates them into multiple futures and makes pre-programmed decisions to guide to the most beneficial version those futures that it can identify. Most of your decisions are made without the you that you think of as you even knowing.
Depending on what is going on around you, your conscious mind, the part of you that you recognise as you, is allowed to be aware of some 7 or so pieces of information at a time. Which of these items are the ones which arrive at the forefront of your mind will depend on a combination of your current surroundings and the most likely multiple futures that your unconscious comes up with. The less threatening the environment, the more you can consciously direct your own thoughts.
However, faced with real or perceived threats, your unconscious takes over and runs programmes which are designed to keep you safe, based on previously run simulations and patterns of experience. They are so important that they don’t allow for your conscious mind to intervene. Thinks about it on an evolutionary level. By the time you’ve consciously considered the current threat level of the sabre tooth tiger, you’re already lunch. Your unconscious had you legging it in the nearest available non-leo direction one critical moment earlier. People who were good at this survived. Those who listened to their conscious thoughts to work out the most appropriate solution may have been intellectually superior but still ended up as prehistoric Kit-e-Kat.
But what has this got to do with Déjà Vu, you’ve already asked. (See, I am prescient). If the Libet Delay is designed to keep you safe whilst your conscious mind deliberates on higher matters then maybe, on occasion, by the time you have become consciously aware of an event, word or sight that you’re especially tuned into, (like my word Sheffield), your unconscious mind auto-recognises it’s importance and has already begun to store the event in your short-term memory. As you concentrate, you become vaguely aware of echoes of that same event from your memory. Voilà. Déjà Vu.
This concentration could create a loop like your own internal Sky+ box. You’re no longer watching life live, as it were. You’re watching a re-run that your unconscious is storing only moments before you experience it. And because you’re concentrating so hard on the Déjà vu experience, your unconscious keeps storing it. However, your unconscious isn’t stupid. It soon spots what’s going on, realises that someone saying Sheffield isn’t life threatening unless you’re in Chesterfield on a Saturday night and it breaks the magic. Déjà Vu over.
So, when you get Déjà Vu it really is something that has happened before. It’s just that it happened only half a second ago. Good old Benjamin.
Or actually bad old Benjamin. If he hadn’t invented the Libet half-second Delay, then we wouldn’t run all those out of date auto-programmes to keep us safe. We’d have the opportunity to update our Spider Phobia, Anxiety Attacks and Fear of Public Speaking before the unconscious took over with an auto-programme that throws you into a reality tunnel and flatly refuses to let any outside information interfere until you’re safe again. Remember the bleep machine? Unfortunately, ‘safe’ for your unconscious equals ‘still alive’. It bleeps out anything that doesn’t fit because changing something that has kept you safe and alive so far would be daft. It doesn’t really care what degree of social suicide you commit on the way.
Then again, good old Benjamin. Reality tunnels can be broken into. You can update your auto-algorithms. All you need is someone to guide you.
I know just the person.