[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?


    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.
    Speak, Memory
    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?"
    he asks.)
    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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