Saturday, November 17, 2018

Been There, Done That - or Not

by D. E. Carson (writer), , June 09, 2007

You’re walking down the corridor in a building you needed your car’s GPS to find in a city you’ve never visited in your life and suddenly, it happens: you think to yourself, “I’ve been here before.”

Déjà vu – that wonderful sensation that everything around you is right where it’s supposed to be and you know it is because you swear you’ve been there before. It’s a phenomenon that has plagued man since he started thinking and yet it is as big a mystery as how did the stone heads get on Easter Island? Even comedian George Carlin has given us his own spin on the phenomenon, calling it “vuja de”: the feeling that somehow none of this has ever happened before. Now it seems that scientists have located the origin of that wacky, mixed up sensation.

According to MIT neuroscientist Susumu Tonegawa, located in the center of the brain is a wishbone-shaped tissue called the hippocampus where memories are recalled. Within that center is an area called the dentate gyrus, which is responsible for generating the episodic memories that allow us to differentiate between similar situations. Research on mice whose dentate gyrus have been underdeveloped have a hard time distinguishing between similar, but notable different situations. Tonegawa believes that when neurons in the dentate gyrus misfire, the subject experiences what we know as déjà vu.

Psychologists have struggled to research the causes of déjà vu because it is so fleeting, many times lasting little more than a minute or two. Attempts have been made to recreate déjà vu using hypnosis, but the most desirable conditions would be to have someone experience déjà vu while receiving a brain scan mapping activity.

In some cases, however, déjà vu isn’t a once in a while occurrence. Chris Moulin director of the memory clinic University of Leeds in the UK has been studying a condition where déjà vu is chronic – even to the point that one patient referred to him balked at visiting Moulin’s clinic because the patient was certain he had already been there when there existed irrefutable proof that he had not. When once asked by his wife what would happen next on a TV show he claimed he had seen before he responded, “How should I know, I have a memory problem?”

Since Moulin’s initial encounter with the man suffering chronic déjà vu, he and his staff have located many more patients with the same condition and know what to look for. The condition can cause depression and has been diagnosed as a state of delusion. Moulin and his associates offer an alternative theory – that it is dysfunction of memory. In some cases of brain damage and in Alzheimer’s patients, déjà vu can also become chronic. Once it was thought déjà vu was the result of visual images from one eye arriving in the optic center of the brain a microsecond before the image from the other eye. This theory was seriously damaged when a blind man reported that he has experienced déjà vu based only on the sounds, smells and activities around him at the moment.

With its mysterious attributes as plentiful as the concept of an afterlife, déjà vu continues to puzzle psychologists and elude extensive study. Unlocking its mystery gives psychologists something constructive to do and you something to think about when you’re walking down the corridor in a building you needed your car’s GPS to find in a city you’ve never visited in your life…

Information synthesized from multiple articles on

About the Writer

D. E. Carson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on Been There, Done That - or Not

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