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Déjà vu? Why we love repetition

All of life can be reduced to loops of repetition. Behavioural grooves that we return to, again and again. Our jobs are loops, our social lives are loops, and the music we like and the games we play all seem to revolve around repetition. We tell the same stories over and over again. Even history seems to endlessly loop back around. Repetition is everywhere.

This need for routine and familiarity is deep-rooted in the recesses of the human brain. So why is repetition so important to us? In what ways – good and bad – does it affect us? In I Think I’ve Been Here Before, writer Ross Sutherland explores the joy – and discomfort – that comes from repetition.

From a very young age, repetition helps us learn

“We learn through repetition,” says Catherine Loveday, Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Westminster. “That’s how we fix anything in our minds. Whether it’s a repeated thought; whether it’s repeated action; whether it’s practising playing football or learning to drive a car.” And at no point in our lives are we more malleable, more able to make those connections and build those networks than in infancy. That’s why young children are more prone to repetition – they are at a stage of their life where they are learning. “From an evolutionary point of view, it’s a very natural thing for infants to want to repeat things over and over and over again,” says Catherine.

It’s natural for infants to want to repeat things over and over and over again.

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Repetition can feel comfortable

We’re creatures of habit. Repetition feels safe. Having the comfort of knowing what’s coming next, and a familiar, regimented routine, can be really helpful and works for many people: “It’s comfortable. They know what to expect. They’re not having to deal with lots of new situations and lots of new challenges,” says Professor Loveday. “By definition, stress is a response to challenge.” The fewer new things we’re facing every day, the less challenged we’re going to feel. Through routine we can reduce the size of the world to something manageable.

But some repetition is frowned upon

Repeating oneself is seen as embarrassing and flawed – we call out the robotic, repetitive language of diplomats, politicians and liars. We all know that our MPs need to prepare responses before speaking to the press, but if it's apparent that they’re just reading from a script – over and over – then they lose all their humanity. We attack them for being frauds. Comedian Glenn Moore explains how if a stand-up tries to repeat a spontaneous joke that worked beautifully the night before, “the audience can usually just tell when it’s not real” and it will fall flat. Repetition can expose us as inauthentic.

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Repetition can also be destructive

Amongst the loops and repetitions in our lives there are patterns of behaviour that are compulsive and self-destructive. In these instances, repetition becomes a cage. Addicts will repeat the same action again and again, even if the substance they are hooked on no longer makes them feel good. Because if something made us feel good once, then we have the tendency to do it over and over – long after it stops working. Repetition can make us feel trapped. We might want to break free but the momentum of the loop is just too great.

In the film Groundhog Day, the same day occurs over and over again. Repetition can make us feel trapped. We might want to break free but the momentum of the loop is just too great.

Repetition breeds false memories

So many of us define ourselves through stories from our past. But actually, this element of our identity is incredibly fragile. Our memories feel real, but they are often distorted. A repeated echo of an echo of an echo.

Barbara Tversky, Professor Emerita of Psychology at Stanford University, says after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, people would tell their own stories of the event – and you would see them getting embellished, getting better, and adopting elements from other people’s experiences. “We listen to stories or read them, we often form very vivid images – just as vivid as things that happen to us – and later we can confuse them,” says Professor Tversky. We can manifest entirely false memories, simply through the process of repetition.

We crave repetition in music

We like hearing something that we’ve heard before. Simple, repeated sequences of beats in electronic music will make a crowd go wild.

We like hearing something that we’ve heard before. Techno DJ and music producer “Hodge” explains how simple, repeated sequences of beats in electronic music will make a crowd go wild. “And minimalism is effective, not just with techno,” says Hodge. Composer Philip Glass uses the same principles: “Just going round and round with these amazing piano riffs and motifs.” The more we hear them, the more we like them. Glass and Steve Reich are “masters of repetition,” he says. In films too we love to hear the same riff coming back at dramatic moments. The shark theme in Jaws was made up of just two different notes, repeated over and over.

We even look for repetition when it’s not there

Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve heard it all before? The feeling that you’ve lived through the present situation already? This is the strange phenomenon that we call déjà vu – a French term which literally means “already seen.” It’s the eerie impression of familiarity or recollection which at the same time we know can’t be true.

We don’t really know why we experience déjà vu. One theory is that there’s a split-second delay as our brain transfers information from one side to the other. It’s our brain struggling to process multiple pieces of information, unable to align them correctly. Whatever the cause, the result is a sense that we’re reliving a memory, that isn’t a memory at all.

Repetition is calming

When writer Ross Sutherland was a child he suffered from asthma. He was told that if he was ever struck down by an asthma attack, without his inhaler to hand, to repeat a mantra: “It is passing, it is passing, it is passing.” It’s a mantra invented by psychologist Émile Coué at the turn of the last century, to help those suffering from anxiety. “Ça passe”, in the original French. Once inside the repetitive rhythm of the mantra, Ross would slowly feel the muscles in his chest relaxing.

With Coué’s phrase you get the comfort of repetition – of feeling the safety of a loop – whilst also feeling a sense of constant forward motion. The psychologist is reminding us that time is a river that flows onwards and a cycle of repetition is never static. No matter how much we in indulge in repetition – even in this life of repetitive jobs and TV reruns – we just can’t help but move forwards.

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