On the curious phenomenon of seeing foreign doppelgängers of people you know

By Benjamin D. Herman   June 3, 2017 | 09:00 am PT
Homesickness, the subconscious or simply alternate universes that cross the space-time continuum. You decide!

Illustration by Colin Coyle


For roughly all of 2014, I was seeing my friends in America every day.

At least, at first glance.

I’d be walking or driving along in HCMC, minding my own business, and I’d see — just for an instant — a close friend, with no reason to be on my street halfway around the world. It’s the strangest of double takes: at second glance, you KNOW they’re native, and yet… there’s still something about them. They look like your friend, but…Vietnamese. Clearly Vietnamese!

This carried on for about a year, and then petered out. I’ve always been fascinated by it, though, because I regularly hear similar stories from other expats.

Why does this happen?

I have a few thoughts about this, but nothing concrete. Let’s go explore the human mind!

Theory #TheObvious: The homesickness rollercoaster

My neighborhood at the time was bustling. There were people everywhere. It was a parade of faces. Faces are fairly predictable —one mouth, two ears, two eyes, a nose, all roughly in the same place. Babies instinctively recognize them, and we were all babies once. We even react more favorably to people whose faces please us subconsciously. Symmetrical faces are like catnip to people!

This was an exciting but stressful period in my life. I was transitioning away from my support system at home and building something new here in HCMC, and it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I was thinking about my friends and family all the time. Is it possible that I would see the faces of my loved ones in physically similar people? Possible. Probable, even.

This is a fine theory. But it’s not so intriguing. What if there’s something deeper going on?

For some professional insight, I contacted Dennis Baker, a licensed psychologist in Bellingham, Washington.

The Subconscious: Strangers in a stranger land

None of us exist in a vacuum (literally or figuratively). There’s constant low-level communication between people as we fit ourselves into society and live together. It can even be difficult to define ourselves in the absence of an opposing 'other'.

But think about this: have you ever reached for your phone, only to have the person you were going to call/text get to you first? Or awakened in the morning with the impetus to email an old friend, only to find an email from that person in your inbox? I have.

I think ‘coincidence’ is a word we use in the same way that we use "magic" to describe technology we don’t understand (thank you, Mr. Arthur C. Clarke).

Mr. Baker describes this phenomenon through a different prism: “Our brains are amazing, but they're also lazy Any time they can cut a corner without getting us killed or maimed, they save valuable resources. That said, they put a lot of effort into processing visual stimuli. We can all imagine a tiny person in our head watching our field of vision projected on a movie screen, but it's way more complicated than that.”

If anyone would know about perception, it’s a psychologist. The brain is still a mysterious thing, and we don’t understand it half as well as we thought. Recent studies have upended literally five decades of how we understood memory formation on a basic level, so maybe we can admit that we don’t know much about this structure (the human brain) that some (other human brains) have deemed the most complicated structure in the known universe (because of course we did)!

...Onward down the rabbit hole!


Let’s get (meta)physical!

Can two minds become quantumly entangled? Why not?

Trust me, I’m a writer on the internet!

But really, if you spend years with a person intimately, or experience intense experiences together, it’s not unreasonable to believe that these strong emotions might actually have some kind of impact in real life, objectively minor as they may manifest themselves. Twins report phenomena like this regularly, for instance.

Maybe when I’m thinking about you, and the chords played on my mind’s piano are the same as the ones we shared, and if you’re open and receptive, you’ll have the briefest of echos of me in your mind. That’s an engaging thought (literally and figuratively).

What’s a doppelgänger, anyway?

Most writings on doppelgängers refer to when a person sees a copy of themselves in an unusual place, outside of themselves. These stories are anecdotal, for obvious reasons, but there have also been documented cases where mind and body have been temporarily separated due to brain tumors, leading to the “illusion” of switching a mind between two ‘bodies’, each visible to the other. RAD, in other words!

Importantly, who are we to invalidate that view? Perception is the way we filter and interpret what our senses tell us to create a meaningful picture of the world, after all. For goodness sake, we can’t even agree on color theory!

Many writers say that when you see a doppelgänger (of yourself, they implicitly suggest), you are actually seeing a glimpse of an alternate reality — and maybe the shadow is also seeing you. One theory proposes that there are exponentially-multiplying timelines that branch from each decision we make in our lives. A staggering thought, honestly. I mean, some days I can’t even decide between coffee or juice in the morning.

But you say, hold up! You’re not seeing yourself! You’re seeing your friends in the faces of native people!

True! (But if I did see myself, I’d definitely say hi and check if this is indeed the Darkest Timeline - hey, maybe Hillary won over there!)

But maybe we are seeing other timelines. Maybe, instead of our personal doppelgangers, these are timelines where my friends traveled to Asia, and I did not - maybe we’re connecting with the wrong versions of our friends by dint of our geographical proximity, regardless of space-time.

In Vietnamese, I know of only one way to resolve this particular philosophical hole I’ve painted myself into: Ai ma biet?? Who knows??

Well that was a fun, loopy trip through the multi-verse, but let’s get back to our (very subjective, very sweaty and presumably shared) reality!

Mr. Baker brings us back to reality with a good example of how our brains interpret visual stimuli.

“Nearly every aspect of what we see is handled by a different structure: what color is it? Is it far away? Is it moving? Not only that, but on the cellular level, we have some neurons that only respond to vertical lines, others that only respond to curved lines, and others that respond to lines at 30 degrees. And the whole time the image is being processed, updates are being sent to other parts of the brain. Your amygdala doesn't care if it is a tiger, if it kind of looks like a tiger, you'd better be ready to run. Oh, wait, we just got another update, it's not a tiger, go about your business.”

As fun as this doppelganger query was to follow into the cosmic unknown, I think there’s actually a much more plausible explanation for seeing people where they’re not, although it’s a bit embarrassing for me to admit — it shows my ethnocentric roots, just when I thought I’d dyed them Vietnamese.

My biggest clue came after the double takes stopped. What made them stop?

First, I was much, much more comfortable in Vietnam. Lots of the initial strangeness had mutated into the mundane, the everyday.

Second, this was a period where I was meeting a lot more Vietnamese adults. I began to see deeper than the surface, and (this is weird and embarrassing to say, but I can’t think of a better way) maybe this humanized them more thoroughly in my mind.

In the end, I believe that these "visions" of doppelgängers were simply my learning to recognize people’s individual humanity in a culture different from what I knew. Embarrassing, I know. After all, I come from a culture (America) that (sometimes) prides itself on its (apparently conditional) inclusivity! I wasn’t prepared for that.

Dennis agrees with this part, especially given the context I found myself in — far from home and in an alien culture, faulty facial recognition follows directly from his examples of stimuli above. “In the same way,” he says, following his tiger analogy, “when a facial recognition circuit gets enough information to make an educated guess, it does so, especially if it's mixed in with wishful thinking and unfamiliar surroundings.”

Boring? Maybe more boring than alternate realities, but again, our brains just might be the Great Final Frontier of exploration.

Eventually, I came to connect with Vietnamese adults in a way that I previously hadn’t been able to, from my stumbling through Vietnamese language to simply knowing more about all aspects of life here.

Of course these Vietnamese I project onto were always humans, but it took me leaning into the culture to connect with people here, and I am definitely better for it.

So, farewell, my doppelgänger sightings — until the next country!

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