[Paleopsych] CHE: The Tease of Memory
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The Tease of Memory
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.7.24
Psychologists are dusting off 19th-century explanations of déjà vu.
Have we been here before?
By DAVID GLENN
In the summer of 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne visited a decaying English
manor house known as Stanton Harcourt, not far from Oxford. He was
struck by the vast kitchen, which occupied the bottom of a 70-foot
tower. "Here, no doubt, they were accustomed to roast oxen whole, with
as little fuss and ado as a modern cook would roast a fowl," he wrote
in an 1863 travelogue, Our Old Home.
Hawthorne wrote that as he stood in that kitchen, he was seized by an
uncanny feeling: "I was haunted and perplexed by an idea that
somewhere or other I had seen just this strange spectacle before. The
height, the blackness, the dismal void, before my eyes, seemed as
familiar as the decorous neatness of my grandmother's kitchen." He was
certain that he had never actually seen this room or anything like it.
And yet for a moment he was caught in what he described as "that odd
state of mind wherein we fitfully and teasingly remember some previous
scene or incident, of which the one now passing appears to be but the
echo and reduplication."
When Hawthorne wrote that passage there was no common term for such an
experience. But by the end of the 19th century, after discarding
"false recognition," "paramnesia," and "promnesia," scholars had
settled on a French candidate: "déjà vu," or "already seen."
The fleeting melancholy and euphoria associated with déjà vu have
attracted the interest of poets, novelists, and occultists of many
stripes. St. Augustine, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, and Tolstoy all
wrote detailed accounts of such experiences. (We will politely leave
aside a certain woozy song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.)
Most academic psychologists, however, have ignored the topic since
around 1890, when there was a brief flurry of interest. The phenomenon
seems at once too rare and too ephemeral to capture in a laboratory.
And even if it were as common as sneezing, déjà vu would still be
difficult to study because it produces no measurable external
behaviors. Researchers must trust their subjects' personal
descriptions of what is going on inside their minds, and few people
are as eloquent as Hawthorne. Psychology has generally filed déjà vu
away in a drawer marked "Interesting but Insoluble."
During the past two decades, however, a few hardy souls have reopened
the scientific study of déjà vu. They hope to nail down a persuasive
explanation of the phenomenon, as well as shed light on some
fundamental elements of memory and cognition. In the new book The Déjà
Vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology (Psychology Press), Alan
S. Brown, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University,
surveys the fledgling subfield. "What we can try to do is zero in on
it from a variety of different angles," he says. "It won't be
something like, 'Boom! The explanation is there.' But we can get
gradual clarity through some hard work."
Fatigue and Freud
In their brief late-19th-century flirtation with déjà vu, academic
psychologists developed remarkably sophisticated hypotheses, some of
which survive today. An article in a German psychology journal in 1878
suggested that déjà vu happens when the processes of "sensation" and
"perception," which normally occur simultaneously, somehow move out of
sync. Fatigue, it said, may be a cause.
Eleven years later, William H. Burnham, a psychologist at Clark
University, in Worcester, Mass., offered the opposite suggestion: that
déjà vu occurs when the nervous system is unusually well rested. "When
we see a strange object," he wrote, "its unfamiliar aspect is largely
due to the difficulty we find in apperceiving its characteristics. ...
[But] when the brain centers are over-rested, the apperception of a
strange scene may be so easy that the aspect of the scene will be
That idea may sound peculiar: Could our minds really be thrown out of
kilter by unusually speedy and well-greased visual signals? But a
large body of modern research strongly suggests that brains do use
speed as a tool to assess whether an image or situation is familiar or
not. If we can process an image fluently and quickly, our brains
unconsciously interpret that as a cue that we have seen it before.
Both the "fatigue" and the "well rested" theories of déjà vu remain on
the table today.
In 1896 Arthur Allin, a professor of psychology at the University of
Colorado at Boulder, wrote a long essay that covered many potential
explanations. Among other possibilities, he suggested that déjà vu
situations feel familiar because they remind us of elements of
forgotten dreams; that our emotional reactions to a new image can
conjure a false feeling of familiarity; and that déjà vu is generated
when our attention is very briefly interrupted during our introduction
to a new image.
Such inquiries nearly ground to a halt in the early-20th century, in
part because of the shadow of Freud. A new generation of scholars
arose for whom déjà vu was unmistakable evidence of the ego's struggle
to defend itself against id and superego. In 1945 the British
psychologist Oliver L. Zangwill wrote a 15-page essay explaining that
Hawthorne's episode at Stanton Harcourt stemmed from an unresolved
erotic yearning for his mother. (This despite Hawthorne's own
plausible conclusion that his déjà vu was sparked by a dimly
remembered Alexander Pope poem about the building.) As late as 1975
the prominent psychologist Bernard L. Pacella proposed that déjà vu
occurs when the ego goes into a regressive panic, "scanning the phases
of life in a descent historically to the composite
primal-preobject-early libidinal object-representations of mother."
4 Modern Approaches
Most of today's déjà vu scholars have chucked
primal-preobject-libidinal representations in favor of brain scans and
neuroimaging. Taking advantage of a recent explosion of experimental
research on memory errors, Mr. Brown and a few like-minded colleagues
have dusted off the theories of déjà vu proposed during the late
Victorian era. At last, he hopes, such hypotheses can be subject to
rigorous experimental tests. He warns, however, not to expect quick
results: "A lot of science is geared at, How can I get tenure? How can
I crank out a study in a year? The luxury of being able to attack
difficult problems is often more risky. There's a little more
investment of your personal resources, a little bit of gambling."
In Mr. Brown's account, scientific theories of déjà vu fall into four
broad families. The first are theories of "dual processing." The late
neuropsychiatrist Pierre Gloor conducted experiments in the 1990s
strongly suggesting that memory involves distinct systems of
"retrieval" and "familiarity." In a 1997 paper, he speculated that
déjà vu occurs at rare moments when our familiarity system is
activated but our retrieval system is not. Other scholars argue that
the retrieval system is not shut off entirely but simply fires out of
sync, evoking the fatigue theory of a century earlier.
In the second category are more purely neurological explanations. One
such theory holds that déjà vu experiences are caused by small, brief
seizures, akin to those caused by epilepsy. That idea is buttressed by
the fact that people with epilepsy often report having déjà vu just
before going into full-blown seizures. Researchers have also found
that déjà vu can be elicited by electrically stimulating certain
regions of the brain. In a 2002 paper, the Austrian physician Josef
Spatt, who works with epilepsy patients, argued that déjà vu is caused
by brief, inappropriate firing in the parahippocampal cortex, which is
known to be associated with the ability to detect familiarity.
Mr. Brown's third category consists of memory theories. These propose
that déjà vu is triggered by something we have actually seen or
imagined before, either in waking life, in literature or film, or in a
dream. Some of these theories hold that a single element, perhaps
familiar from some other context, is enough to spark a déjà vu
experience. (Suppose, for example, that the chairs in Stanton
Harcourt's kitchen were identical in color and shape to Hawthorne's
decorously neat grandmother's, but that he didn't recognize them in
this new context.) At the other end of the scale are gestalt theories,
which suggest that we sometimes falsely recognize a general visual or
audio pattern. (Suppose that the Stanton Harcourt kitchen looked
similar, in broad visual outline, to a long-forgotten church that
Hawthorne had once attended.)
In the final box are "double perception" theories of déjà vu, which
descend from Allin's 1896 suggestion that a brief interruption in our
normal process of perception might make something appear falsely
familiar. In 1989, in one of the first laboratory studies that tried
to induce something like déjà vu, the cognitive psychologists Larry L.
Jacoby and Kevin Whitehouse, of Washington University in St. Louis,
showed their subjects a long list of words on a screen. The subjects
then returned a day or a week later and were shown another long list
of words, half of which had also been on the first list. They were
asked to identify which words they had seen during the first round.
The experimenters found that if they flashed a word at extremely
quick, subliminal speeds (20 milliseconds) shortly before its
"official" appearance on the screen during the second round, their
subjects were very likely to incorrectly say that it had appeared on
the first list. Those results lent at least indirect support to the
notion that if we attend to something half-consciously and then give
it our full attention, it can appear falsely familiar.
The study is one of many that demonstrate the potential pitfalls of
everyday memory and cognition, says Mr. Jacoby. "At our core, I think
all of us are naïve realists. We believe the world is as it presents
itself," he says. "All of these experiments are a little unsettling if
you're a naïve realist." He hopes that this line of research will
point toward new ways to repair the mental abilities of elderly people
with impaired memories. "If we highlight the distinction between
memory as expressed in performance and memory as we subjectively
experience it," he says, we might be able to train elderly people to
avoid common errors.
Having published his survey of the déjà vu world, Southern Methodist's
Mr. Brown is embarking on a research program of his own. Together with
Elizabeth J. Marsh, an assist-ant professor of psychology at Duke
University, he is developing an experiment that may extend the
findings of Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Whitehouse. In the new studies,
subjects are asked to quickly locate a small red cross that is
superimposed on photographs of various campus landscapes. The
researchers' expectation is that the subjects will concentrate on the
crosses and not pay much attention to the backgrounds. A week later,
when the subjects return, they are shown the campus photographs again
-- along with many photographs not used in the first round -- and are
asked, "Have you seen this place before?" and "Have you been to this
place before?" (After all the slides have been shown, the participants
are asked about which campuses they have actually visited.) Mr. Brown
and Ms. Marsh wonder if the experiment will produce incorrect "yes"
answers -- or even déjà vu experiences -- when the subjects look at
the images they have half-consciously seen the week before.
Ms. Marsh, who specializes in more-orthodox studies of memory, had no
particular interest in déjà vu before last year, when she was asked to
review Mr. Brown's book manuscript. "I came at this as a student of
basic memory and memory errors," she says. "But I became fascinated by
what Alan had to say about the déjà vu literature. He described all of
these funky little findings -- that people who travel frequently, for
example, are more likely to experience déjà vu."
Further down the road, Mr. Brown would like to see studies that shed
light on some of those odd findings. Why does déjà vu become less
common as people grow older? Why do political liberals report more
frequent déjà vu experiences than conservatives do? And why do the
majority of déjà vu experiences seem to occur when people are in
mundane settings? (Arthur T. Funkhouser, a Jungian analyst in
Switzerland who is considering writing a book about the phenomenon,
believes that it offers a window into the self -- but concedes that
the raw material of déjà vu experiences are often oddly dull. "Why
does the unconscious pick such banal elements for us to think about?"
Mr. Brown would also like to work with people with epilepsy, and with
people who have the rare condition of suffering déjà vu pretty much
every day. "I'm in contact with someone by e-mail who has almost
constant déjà vu," he says. "Someone like that would be very fruitful
to work with in the lab."
But he does not expect to see any clear conceptual or experimental
breakthroughs anytime soon. It is possible, he says, that what we call
déjà vu is actually five or six phenomena, with separate causes. "This
will be very slow progress toward a very abstract phenomenon," he
says. "It's kind of like space exploration. You're not sure exactly
what you'll find."
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