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  1. #1

    DEJA Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    Deja* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason
    September 14, 2004
    By Benedict Carey, New York Times

    Watching the summer's events unfold - war protests, an Olympics scoring scandal, numerous terror scares - some people may have felt that it was all very familiar, that they had somehow been through this before.

    Yet psychologists say it is usually life's more mundane details - the click of a radiator, the play of the shadows on a tablecloth - that prompt that sudden and sometimes breathtaking sense of familiarity.

    "The way the coffee cups were lined up on the table," said Gretchen Purcell, 24, a business consultant in the Washington area who felt this so strongly during a conference-call meeting last month that it made her laugh out loud. "The whole scene was so familiar I thought I knew what people were going to say before they said it. It was like I was in a movie I'd already seen."

    French for just that ("already seen"), deja vu is the sort of fleeting, intimate experience that reveals itself more readily to novelists than to researchers. As recently as the 1990's, social scientists doing population surveys asked about it in the same breath as they inquired about poltergeists and contact with the dead.

    But new research on memory has opened a promising window on the phenomenon, providing both possible explanations for the sensation and novel ways to create and measure it.

    "It has been either ignored or considered too spooky or flaky for many scientists to touch," said Dr. Alan Brown, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who reviews the history of the field in a new book, The Deja Vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology. "But it is real, and by bringing it into the lab we can at least begin to understand it."

    In surveys, about two-thirds of adults report having had at least one deja vu experience, and the odd sensation seems to occur most often in people with lively, frequently stimulated imaginations. People who travel a lot are more likely to report the experiences than homebodies, for instance, and those with college or advanced degrees report having it more often than others, perhaps because they have encountered its sweet strangeness in the literary accounts of Proust and Tolstoy - or are more likely to rent the movie "Groundhog Day." Rates seem to peak in young adulthood and to fall off gradually through retirement age, when, Dr. Brown suggests, many people live daily routines that really are familiar.

    A century ago, when Freud's theories dominated the field of psychiatry, analysts cast deja vu as evidence of unconscious conflict, the ego defending itself against upsetting erotic urges for a mother figure or other hidden desires. And for decades, doctors have reported that sensations of deja vu occasionally precede the seizures suffered by people with epilepsy. Overactive circuits in the temporal lobe, which can cause seizures, may inappropriately stimulate regions of the brain involved in detecting familiarity, some doctors say.

    But Dr. Brown and others argue that it is not necessary to invoke hidden conflicts or unusual brain conditions to explain many cases of deja vu. Normal, healthy brain function suffices. For one thing, deja vu appears to be more common when people are exhausted or stressed, conditions that are known to cloud short- and long-term memory (and that may also accompany jamais vu, the opposite experience of staring at familiar words or objects and having no recollection of them).

    Debbie O'Leary, 40, a writer in Bloomington, Ind., said that some years ago she felt sensations of deja vu while sick at home, as if her life had become a scratched record, with the same chorus repeating.

    "It was literally like my brain was stuttering, like the same tape kept replaying the same thoughts, the same motions," as if time were stuck, she said. "I think it was the fatigue, the fever."

    Psychologists have long known, too, that people register impressions and images well before they are aware of what they have seen. The brain sends visual signals through at least two circuits, which move from the retina through the brain to the visual cortex via different routes.

    It is an exquisitely tuned system, but common experience suggests many ways its functioning might be thrown off. The classic example, from Dr. Edward Bradford Titchener, a founder of the field, is when a person is about to cross a busy street, glances both ways and then is distracted by a shop window display: "As you cross then, you think, 'Why, I crossed this street just now'; your nervous system has severed two phases of a single experience, and the latter appears as a repetition of the earlier."

    In one of the first experiments to produce this unconscious familiarity, Drs. Larry Jacoby and Kevin Whitehouse, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, had 30 students memorize a list of words as if in preparation for a test. Shortly afterward, the students were asked to sit in front of a computer screen and watch as another series of words appeared, one at a time, and to flag the ones they had seen the first time around. All it took for the researchers to make an unfamiliar word look suddenly familiar was to flash it subliminally on the screen for a few milliseconds. The students' brains registered the word subconsciously, and they were highly likely to say it had been on the first list.

    "The punch line," Dr. Jacoby said, "was that when we slowed it down so that they were actually aware of and could read the flashed word," the rate of inaccurately identified words plunged.

    Word games fall well short of full-blown deja vu. But the point, psychologists who study memory say, is that people take in a rich banquet of information without noticing it, or noticing and simply forgetting where it came from. It is entirely possible to read an Anne Rice novel and years later, after having forgotten the book, find that a first visit to New Orleans seems like a glimpse into a former life. Or to see one of the bar scenes from the movie "L.A. Confidential" and later walk into the Formosa Cafe for the first time and catch your breath.

    The familiarity can come from a variety of sources, some real and some not, said Dr. Kathleen McDermott, a colleague of Dr. Jacoby's at Washington University who studies memory.

    "It's well known that even if you imagine something now that may not have happened in the past, it can create a feeling of familiarity if it does happen later on," she said, adding, "You don't need objective outside information to create these situations; you can do so internally, on your own."

    Dr. Brown and Dr. Elizabeth Marsh, a psychologist at Duke University, are taking this principle a step further, trying to produce in the laboratory a feeling that is closer to the kind of unexplained familiarity people know in life - that of arriving in a place for the first time and finding it surreally familiar.

    In a continuing series of experiments, they have college students examine a sheaf of photographs, one at a time, trying to locate a small black or white cross. The pictures include distinctive scenes of the Duke campus, like the chapel, and of red-brick buildings at Southern Methodist, along with dozens of landscapes and other shots. A week later, the students return to examine the campus photos again, along with a different set of backgrounds not seen in the first experiment, and they are asked to say whether they have ever been to the places shown.

    The expectation is that while the students focus on the crosses, the initial run through the photographs will imprint on their memories unconsciously, leaving impressions that later seem familiar. And so far, in the first preliminary run of 81 students, the predictions have held up. Duke students who had never been to Dallas said they believed they had been to the campus in the photos taken at Southern Methodist; many Southern Methodist students said they thought they had been to the campus in the photos taken at Duke, when they had not.

    "The effect is not dramatic, but it is significant, and reliable," Dr. Marsh said, "and you have to keep in mind that the students see the pictures for only a second or so."

    The researchers are now repeating the experiment, with a three--week lag between when the students first see the photographs and when they see them again.This and other work on memory's tricks does not rule out more literary or romantic explanations of deja vu, Dr. Brown said.

    "The most likely thing we'll find is that deja vu occurs for a variety of reasons, perhaps different in each person, or in different situations," he said. "We are just getting started, to work toward an understanding gradually."

    Several people in e-mail contact with Dr. Brown say they experience deja vu frequently, many times in a year. One of them, Suketu Naik, 26, a graduate student in Utah, has kept a diary of the sensations.

    In one entry, Mr. Naik writes of attending a birthday party for a friend at a restaurant: "Everything, the conversation, the position of people, position of tables, plates were extraordinarily 'in place.' Most remarkable of all events. Very intense. Lasted for a long time. Which is odd - usually intensity and time are reciprocal. I could predict every single future event in this time period to utmost precision. Felt extraordinarily weird after this one. I sat there for the next minute to come back to reality."

    But the evolving understanding of memory suggests he never really left.
    Last edited by Halo; September 7th, 2006 at 01:50 PM. Reason: Odd Characters

  2. #2

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    That's very interesting, David. I've often wondered about that because I will go for weeks being inundated with deja vu. I've even had deja vu about the exact same scenario over a period of time. I'm curious how you would explain those times when you know what someone is about to say.

  3. #3

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    Quote Originally Posted by Ash
    I'm curious how you would explain those times when you know what someone is about to say.
    I too find deja vu experiences fascinating when they occur. I suspect that the theory outlined in the New York Times article would explain this via momentary distraction, similarity of the deja vu event to other events in memory, familiarity with the type of situation or that specific situation or that specific person, or maybe one signal hitting the cortex a fraction of a second behind another signal that should have arrived first:

    Psychologists have long known, too, that people register impressions and images well before they are aware of what they have seen. The brain sends visual signals through at least two circuits, which move from the retina through the brain to the visual cortex via different routes. It is an exquisitely tuned system, but common experience suggests many ways its functioning might be thrown off. The classic example, from Dr. Edward Bradford Titchener, a founder of the field, is when a person is about to cross a busy street, glances both ways and then is distracted by a shop window display: "As you cross then, you think, 'Why, I crossed this street just now'; your nervous system has severed two phases of a single experience, and the latter appears as a repetition of the earlier."
    the point, psychologists who study memory say, is that people take in a rich banquet of information without noticing it, or noticing and simply forgetting where it came from. It is entirely possible to read an Anne Rice novel and years later, after having forgotten the book, find that a first visit to New Orleans seems like a glimpse into a former life. Or to see one of the bar scenes from the movie "L.A. Confidential" and later walk into the Formosa Cafe for the first time and catch your breath.

    The familiarity can come from a variety of sources, some real and some not, said Dr. Kathleen McDermott, a colleague of Dr. Jacoby's at Washington University who studies memory.

    "It's well known that even if you imagine something now that may not have happened in the past, it can create a feeling of familiarity if it does happen later on," she said, adding, "You don't need objective outside information to create these situations; you can do so internally, on your own."

  4. #4

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    It's definitely a new take on the issue. I wonder if we'll ever know the answer to the question of why it happens and why some people are affected more than others. Intriguing!

  5. #5

    Deja Vu!

    I was looking for something else and spotted this item, do i detect another thread........ Coincidence? is it just chance?..... I'll come back to that one later.

    I have recently been under some stress at work relating to a pending pay rise and suffered at the hands of "Work politics".

    One day I experienced deja vu, a weird feeling came over me that what i was doing was familiar. I had a very strong feeling that it was a sign or even a warning of an impending calamity!

    Nothing has happened, obviously, but it did make me wonder of the possible cause/s. One suggestion i would like to submit for discussion is that if a person is under stress or anxiety then they may become pre-occupied with thoughts either relating to the perceived problem or related to how they feel about themselves or their environment.
    If they become too overun and preoccupied then they may dream about it in some way and those dreams may be quite vivid, but not necessarily remembered. What is normally common place could take on a new meaning?

    I walk through my workshop every day and i suspect that i may have trivial dreams about just doing that when i'm asleep, so what if i have dreamt about work one night while i'm in a heightened awareness state(Stressed?) and an image or even a smell triggers a memory from the dream the night before. The sensation of having the recollection could make me uneasy or happy depending on what frame of mind i was in.

    Any comments?

  6. #6

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    I think I understand where you're going with that. I've had experiences where I get deja vu from a specific situation. The whole; location, people around me, particular events. Not everyday occurences like sitting at my cubicle at work. I have my own theory but this is not the place for it.

  7. #7

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    Hello Ash,
    Ok we are all now very curious!!!!! LOL
    Whats your theory, and more intriuging than that, whys isn't a site dedicated to Psychology and human behaviour the place to discuss it???

    Unless of course you may be refering to the less "scientific" explanations?

    It's funny that you have voluntered that little snippet. I know a bloke at work who hates to mention any "alternative" subjects when i'm around because i always try and banter his theories down, so to speak.

    I'll come up with some logical and a more scientific argument that seems to knock the wind out of his sails, all in good fun you understand....

    Take care mate, i'll respond to the introduction posts over the weekend.

  8. #8

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    Less scientific is correct. LOL

  9. #9

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    Yes, :D, my explanation is not very scientific either.
    Because I believe we are eternal beings in a body.
    The body is necessary to live in space/time - but the deepest part of us (spirit), is eternal, and time is happening all at once, (for the part of us in eternity) therefore deja vu can happen when our rationalistic inhibitions are lowered...
    yes, maybe with stress etc as has been said already....

    Ha ha ha now you all know I'm nuts! :D

  10. #10

    Déj* Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason

    Quote Originally Posted by sammy
    Ha ha ha now you all know I'm nuts! :D
    I don't think you are. Science can't explain everything. That or science can't explain everything just yet. Just cause there is no immediate explanation, that does not mean the hypothesis is invalid. ;-)

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