Oct 24, 2009

Refill, Purse, Pen

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Jim Notto recalled a particularly gripping conversation with his good friend (let's called Bill , not a real name) some 20 or so years ago. During their conversation they entertained the idea that déjà vu may be the brain committing an event to memory before it registers the visual and auditory perception of the event. Bill was known for reporting aloud the sensation of déjà vu rather routinely and dramatically. In fact it was positively annoying at times since it usually signaled a sudden and meaningless change in the topic of conversation as Bill would need to explore and share as many facets of the experience as he could.

Jim had an experience of déjà vu a short time earlier during which he was certain he could recall what was about to happen, and when he told Bill about it he insisted he was sure he could do the same thing. "When I have déjà vu" Bill said, "and something happens, I knew it was going to happen." They arranged to get together over coffee to talk more about it. Having a few days to think things over Jim slowly realized this should be a fairly common experience. If we have a profound feeling of familiarity with an event that is just now occurring, then the same phenomenon should convince us that we knew what would happen next, just a split-second before it really happened.

The night they met up for coffee the restaurant was unusually busy, and they could tell right away that they were short on staff. They were seated quickly enough, and immediately fell into the chosen conversation. At Bill's request Jim recounted his déjà vu experience once more, but added his thoughts about how this could be a common experience. Bill agreed, but Jim could sense the skepticism in his voice.

"Bill" Jim said, "you have déjà vu more often than anyone I know. Do you ever notice it usually happens when your mind is overwhelmed, when you're tired or there is a lot of activity happening around you?" He confirmed this, and they spent the next hour discussing how they might explain the experience.

Jim don't recall if Bill or him hit upon it first, but they both got excited as they began speculating that memory and perception may be controlled by different parts of the brain and that these two things may be registering at abnormal rates in order to create the sensation of déjà vu.

They were so engrossed in conversation that Jim hadn't even realized they had been talking for an hour without anyone taking our order. "Hod on" Bill interrupted. "I'm having déjà vu right now, and I need to use the restroom; but first let me ask you something."

"Sure" Jim said.

"What if someone having déjà vu could remember what comes next long enough before it happened that they could tell someone else? Then it couldn't be just an unsynchronized brain, could it?"

Jim shook his head.

"Tell the waitress that I want coffee." Bill stood up and turned to walk toward the restrooms. "Refill, purse, pen."

"What?" Jim asked.

Bill repeated himself as he walked away. "Refill, purse, pen."

Jim didn't even have time to wonder what Bill meant. As the server approached their table a man called to her for a refill of his coffee. As she turned her head to acknowledge him a woman at the table next to Jim twisted in her chair, knocking her purse to the ground. The server tripped over it, landing into Jim's table.

"Are you all right?" Jim asked.

"Nothing broken" she responded as she righted herself to take Jim's order. Then, holding up an ink stained hand she added "except my pen".