I’ve spent the past week on a road trip across America, and, during it, experienced perhaps my most intense case of déjà vu ever. Rolling into Memphis for the first time in my life, I walked into the lobby of the hotel at which I’d reserved a room for the night and immediately felt, in every fiber of my being, that I’d walked into that lobby before. But I then realized exactly why: it followed the same floor plan, to the last detail — the same front desk, the same business center computers, the same café with the same chalkboard asking me to “Try Our Classic Oatmeal” — of the one I’d visited the previous day in Oklahoma City.
Should we chalk this up to generic American placemaking at its most efficient, or can we find a more interesting psychological phenomenon at work? Michio Kaku, though best known for his work with physics, has some ideas of his own about what we experience when we experience déjà vu. “There is a theory,” says Kaku in the Big Think video above,”that déjà vu simply elicits fragments of memories that we have stored in our brain, memories that can be elicited by moving into an environment that resembles something that we’ve already experienced.”
But wait! “Is it ever possible on any scale,” he then tantalizingly asks, “to perhaps flip between different universes?” And does déjà vu tell us anything about our position in those universes, giving us signs of the others even as we reside in just one? Kaku quotes an analogy first made by physicist Steven Weinberg which frames the notion of a “multiverse” in terms of our vibrating atoms and the frequency of a radio’s signal: “If you’re inside your living room listening to BBC radio, that radio is tuned to one frequency. But in your living room there are all frequencies: radio Cuba, radio Moscow, the Top 40 rock stations. All these radio frequencies are vibrating inside your living room, but your radio is only tuned to one frequency.” And sometimes, for whatever reason, we hear two signals on our radio at once.
Given that, then, maybe we feel déjà vu when the atoms of which we consist “no longer vibrate in unison with these other universes,” when “we have decoupled from them, we have decohered from them.” It may relieve you to know there won’t be an exam on all this. While Kaku ultimately grants that “déjà vu is probably simply a fragment of our brain eliciting memories and fragments of previous situations,” you may get a kick out of putting his multiverse idea in context with some more traditional explanations, such as the ones written about in venues no less dependable than Scientific American and Smithsonian. But in any case, I beg you, Marriott Courtyard hotels: change up your designs once in a while.
Colin Marshall writes elsewhere on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.