Deja Vu syndrome

They’ve seen it all before—day after day, unceasingly, and to a degree that has become disabling: An 81-year old man no longer watches television or reads the papers because everything seems like old news to him. A 71-year-old woman stops listening to the radio, bored, because to her everything she hears sounds like a repeat broadcast. Indeed, after the deadly terrorist bombing in Bali on October 12, 2002, she felt as if she already knew the number of people hurt and killed before it was announced. Upon her first meeting with a staff member of a memory clinic, a 66-year-old woman feels as if she has met the man countless times already and kisses him politely on the cheek as if greeting an old friend. She is frequently depressed and confused, unable to shake the recurring feeling of .

These patients, being studied by a group of memory researchers in England, suffer from a form of extreme déjà vu—the feeling of having experienced something before that you actually couldn’t have. But even when déjà vu strikes occasionally, it can be an unsettling experience. But after nearly two centuries of pondering the matter, philosophers, psychologists, self-described experts on the paranormal, and, more recently, brain researchers all remain at a loss to offer a convincing and provable explanation for déjà vu.

Alan Brown, Ph.D., a research psychologist at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, is among those who have not quite solved the mystery of what he calls the “déjà vu illusion.” However, unlike some of his colleagues, he’s not afraid to try. “Most scientists might not touch this because it’s too ambiguous or too strange, ” Brown explains. “And they might worry about their reputation for tackling something that looks too close to voodoo, past life experiences, or demonic possession.” And no surprise: In past surveys by psychologists, Brown laments, déjà vu was mixed with questions about past life experiences, ESP, precognition, and alien abductions. “People keep lumping it in with something that’s paranormal or odd."

Brown and colleague Elizabeth Marsh, Ph.D., a psychologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, have taken a preliminary step toward finally giving déjà vu serious scientific scrutiny. They hope it will finally coax explanations of déjà vu out of the realm of informed speculation. In pilot studies at Duke and SMU, they have induced a kind of false feeling of déjà vu in student volunteers. It may not be exactly like déjà vu, but Brown hopes it will be close enough to rally the interest of more scientists. “What I’d like to do is push people into this and take it in different directions, ” Brown says. “Maybe loosen them up a little bit, make them bolder, more curious, a little more risk-taking."

Hiccups of Perception

Since the 19th century, many have plumbed the nature of déjà vu. In Victorian England, some people were convinced that déjà vu experiences were echoes of memory from past lives. Scholars and academics, too, were intrigued by the phenomenon. In his 2004 book, “The Déjà vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology, ” Brown identified at least 30 plausible explanations for déjà vu. He believes that three categories or types of explanations are suitable for scientific testing: biological dysfunction, implicit familiarity, and divided perception.

The biological dysfunction model looks at déjà vu as a momentary glitch—a “hiccup, ” as Brown puts it—in the brain’s processing of information. Our perceptions of the world—what we see, touch, smell, and feel—at some point are nerve impulses traveling from our sensory organs to the brain. The brain processes the information and ultimately produces a thought or impression.

Take the typical déjà vu experience: You walk into the kitchen of a friend’s new house. You know objectively that you have never been there, but it all seems familiar—the brightly colored Mexican tile floor, he arrangement of bric-a-brac on the counter, the smell of coffee brewing. “That’s weird, ” you say, “I feel like I’ve been here before."

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