Ruined By Science : Déjà Vu

Do you sometimes find it a little unfair that science has a more reasonable explanation for something than the one that feels more interesting?  That’s how I feel about déjà vu.

That is the feeling that you’ve experienced that exact moment before.  It translates from the French literally meaning “already seen”.  It can be triggered by nothing in particular; the last time for happened walking out the office and seeing a sign hanging on the gents’ toilet door.  Sometimes the feeling gets stronger, providing a sense of influence that this isn’t just an echo of the past but could be a doorway in to the future.

The latter bit is sometimes how it feels to me because, for whatever reason, I begin to associate (at what I perceive to be a subconscious level) that feeling of repetition with something I know won’t happen.  I’m weird, I know.  But if I carry on with the toilet door example, it would be like me walking out the office, thinking I’d done it and seen the toilet door before in exactly the same way and then feeling like Freddy Mercury is about to walk round the corner and spontaneously break in to a rendition of Gangnam Style.  In Flemish.

I quite like the theory of déjà vu as genuine experiences of time travel.  Sadly (for me at least), science has a better more reasonable theories.  The first is a mix up between sensory input and memory output.  A related theory is malfunctioning between the long- and short-term memory circuits in the brain meaning that something happening as close to the present as you can get feels like it’s in the past.

I’ll borrow this bit from The Neuroscience of Déjà Vu given that I won’t be able to rewrite it correctly:

Over the years, researchers have pinpointed disturbances of the medial temporal lobe as the culprit behind déjà vu. Studies of epileptic patients investigated via intracerebral electrodes demonstrate that stimulation of the rhinal cortex (such as the entorhinal and perirhinal cortices—structures involved in episodic memory and sensory processing) can actually induce a déjà vu episode.

A study published in the March issue of Clinical Neurophysiology analyzed the patterns of electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the rhinal cortices, hippocampus (involved in memory formation), and amygdala (involved in emotion) in epileptic patients for whom déjà vu could be induced by electrical stimulation.

The researchers (from France!—who better?) found that synchronized neural firing between the rhinal cortices and the hippocampus or amygdala were increased in stimulations that induced déjà vu. This suggests that some sort of coincident occurrence in medial temporal lobe structures may “trigger” activation of the recollection system.

Sure, it’s a good theory.  But is it anywhere near as cool as the idea that you have a far more tangible influence on the future in the here and now?  Of course, that’s what you do have at every moment of every day, but not in the sense that thinking about it will make it happen in a kind of quantum merging of two separate timelines.

Science can be a bit of a spoilsport sometimes.

Lost inside out
I’ve been down this road before
I’m breathing in and out of my mouth

It tastes like something else
I’ve waited for all my life
I’m done waiting, nowI’m raising my head, I’m taking a new look around
What now seems lost and fading
Surely can be foundStay another minute there
Wait it out
I am finding out just how good it feels
To be so real in this carnival
Of hopes and dreams coming true (coming true)
All you do in this life
Echos in eternity

I’m raising my head, I’m taking a new look around

Raising my head and taking a new look around
What now seems lost and fading
Someday will be found

Found by Honor By August


This post is a bit of a tribute to a friend of mine who died today after his second battle with cancer.  He was an amazing scientist, but sometimes he was so good that he found something more fascinating when his contemporaries couldn’t find an explanation, rather than those of us taking our enjoyment from being being able to find an answer.

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