A twisted techno-mindframe

By Kevin Leahy

While out at a bar the other night, a friend of mine stopped in the middle of the story he was telling and looked around, eyes wide.

“Whoa,” he said. “I’ve seen this before. Total déjà vu.”

It should be noted my friend had been drinking, and the two of us finding ourselves in a bar happens frequently enough that he can be forgiven for feeling like he was reliving a past moment.

Déjà vu is one of those brain glitches that neuroscience can’t pin down. Research by David Y. Ko, M.D., associate professor of clinical neurology at the University of Southern California, suggests the condition may be linked to temporal lobe epilepsy. Others believe it’s a genuine act of precognition.

No one is sure what triggers it. It seems to be a natural quirk of consciousness, one that has been written about at least as far back as the mid-19th century.

But what about modern brain glitches? Could the very day-to-day experience of modern life be causing unnatural quirks of consciousness?

In the latter half of the 19th century, it is said that individuals suffered from a disorder called “neurasthenia” or nerve exhaustion and hysteria, as a negative response to the invention of gigantic machines that could easily kill you – trains, trolleys, factory machinery.

Today we take those inventions for granted, but many of our great-great grandparents required some major adjustment to their presence.

Perhaps no other invention has fractured the way we experience reality like the motion picture.

Last month, JetBlue Flight 292 made an emergency landing when one of its landing gears became locked in a sideways position, putting the plane at tremendous risk for a crash.

The plane’s cabin was equipped with TV sets, so the passengers could actually watch as experts mulled over their chances for survival. They even watched themselves on television as the plane landed safely.

In a subsequent interview with Newsradio 620 AM, two Milwaukee newsmen interviewed Michael Lecke, one of the passengers on the flight.

“It was so surreal that it almost had a calming effect on me,” Lecke said. “You know, it was like if I was watching it on TV then it wasn’t real.”

Many of my friends had a similar response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11: “It felt like a movie.”

Such a widespread common reaction suggests that film and television have become the dominant lenses through which we view and understand our own lives. But what does it mean when the most tense and traumatic incidents in our culture remind so many of entertainment?

There seems to exist a sharp break with the past in how we react to the world around us.

In his novel, “Bear V. Shark,” Chris Bachelder draws a parallel between two moments: the 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” and the accidental on-air death of professional wrestler Owen Hart in 1999.

Bachelder points out that the general public’s default position was one of credulity in 1938. People actually believed aliens were invading.

But by 1999, the public’s default position was one of incredulity; the audience’s first reaction to Hart’s tragic on-screen death was to disbelieve what they had seen with their own eyes.

It seems many of us have lost something essential and authentic, something we might need to make sense of the world around us.

But maybe that’s not our fault.

The human race has weathered a tremendous revolution in the past 100 years.

We’ve made the transition from living in the natural environment to living in an electronic one.

Is it any wonder such a shift messed with our heads?

The search for an authentic life is not a new one; but with so many seductive fake realities to choose from – movies, the Internet, video games – it is hard to imagine a more difficult environment in which to find one’s true self.

Maybe a solution lies in recognizing we have to compensate for the fact that the tools and toys that populate our lives are going to skew our perceptions of the world from time to time.

My friend might have been experiencing déjà vu, but it’s just as likely he had one Jager Bomb too many.

The difference is all in your head.

Columns reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Northern Star staff.