Thursday, February 02, 2006

Science studies déjà vu (Did I post this before?)


Note to self: calm down. To readers: Sorry about that last rant. Those moods come over me. I won't let it happen again for a while.

Let's return to another recurrent subject of this blog, psychical research.

Déjà vu is the feeling that what you are currently experiencing already happened before. Not routine things, mind you, like passing the same buildings during your commute or arguing with your spouse, but presumably unique events, or at least ones that you have no reason to think you actually lived previously. A poll conducted in 1986 by the National Opinion Research Council of the University of Chicago found that 67 percent of Americans reported having instances of déjà vu.

Descriptions of the phenomenon often claim that people with spells of déjà vu not only feel like "this has already happened," but that they also know what will happen next (and, reportedly, sometimes what is foreseen is true). The latter part of the description, though, is mistaken. Perceiving the future is called precognition in parapsychology.

I have never knowingly experienced precognition, but there were two periods in my life -- one lasting about a week (about 25 years ago), the other (fairly recently) for perhaps three days -- when I had constant déjà vu flashes. They were quite strong, especially in the first bout. Hardly an hour went by when I failed to encounter an experience -- a remark made by someone, a car passing by, the decor of a restaurant, etc., etc. -- that seemed to stir up a memory of that same exact thing.

Most of the events that gave rise to the déjà vu feeling were not notably unusual, and I could have undergone something quite similar in the past. But we all do hundreds of things every day that are like things we've done before, and they don't trigger an instantaneous "memory" of the past or sense that we are repeating what is happening now.

The Telegraph of London tells us:
Psychologists from Leeds University are being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and will attempt to recreate déjà vu in laboratory conditions. ...

Dr Chris Moulin, who is leading the research, first encountered chronic cases of déjà vu five years ago.

He had a "peculiar referral" from a man who told him there was no point visiting his clinic because he had already been there, although this was impossible.

The man was so convinced he had met Dr Moulin before that he gave details of appointments, even though they had never met.

He believed he could hear the same bird singing in the same tree every time he went out and his déjà vu had developed to the extent that he stopped watching television, even news programmes, thinking they were repeats.
Dr. Moulin clearly does not see anything paranormal about déjà vu. Like most psychologists, he is a philosphical materialist, and believes that all mental experience can be reduced to physiological events in the brain and nervous system.
"So far we've completed the natural history side of this condition.

"We've found ways of testing for it and the right clinical questions to ask. The next step is obviously to find ways to reduce the problem."

Dr Moulin wants to develop a worldwide network of patients.

"Sufferers need the reassurance that they're not alone, and we need them to help us learn more about who has it, what causes it, and why."
There is no question that physical stimulation of various structures of the brain can cause mental experiences, and that injury to parts of the brain also affects consciousness. To psychical researchers, though, there is an alternative to the common theory that the brain produces consciousness; the alternative is that consciousness exists outside the brain -- outside the body -- and the brain acts as a receiver that mediates between consciousness and the nervous system.

An analogy would be a radio receiver. If you played a radio for a person from a remote tribe who had never encountered one before, it would be obvious to him that the radio was creating the sound from it. The analogy works on several levels. If you adjust the tone controls, the sound that appears to emanate from the receiver changes. If the receiver is damaged, the sound may not come out at all. Nevertheless, as we know, the radio receiver merely transforms electromagnetic waves into audible sound waves; it isn't their source.

Moreover, you can tune the receiver to different frequencies and hear different programs. Many parapsychologists (not to mention spiritual teachers) think you can "tune" your brain to receive various "frequencies" -- some of them with qualities very different from everyday, normal consciousness. What you get then are things like telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance ... and precognition.

Being able to see events before they happen defies common sense, of course. Of all the phenomena studied by psychical research, it seems the most ridiculous for any rational person to believe in. I myself find life after death far easier to accept than precognition.

But damn it, if you study the evidence with an open mind, you are likely to conclude that precognition is a fact. Some scientific studies are listed here (it's a PDF that requires Adobe Acrobat to open). There have been many other studies as well, including books such as this.

If such extraordinary states of consciousness and other paranormal phenomena exist, how come science -- which can look at stars so far away their light has been traveling for billions of years to reach us, and can tell us all about our neurons -- hasn't confirmed and explained the paranormal? The short answer is, what science chooses to study and what it ignores determine the world picture it gives us. You can't discover or explain what you think is too ridiculous to study, and that's the attitude of orthodox science to the paranormal.

For well over a hundred years, though, a few highly qualified scientific researchers have thought it worthwhile to study "impossible" paranormal phenomena. Many have been involved with the Society for Psychical Research. Two very distinguished scientists active in the field are Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake.

So, how does déjà vu fit in? Maybe it is, as psychologists like Dr. Moulin assume, it is just a case of "crossed wires" in the brain. I can't prove otherwise. Intuitively -- and my own experiences have no doubt colored this view -- I think that déjà vu arises when the barrier that usually separates our higher consciousness, which can travel freely over space and time, and our normal consciousness temporarily slips for a bit. We then seem to be recalling something that happened before because we did exprience it already: while our minds were roving while we slept, or for all I know, while we were just going about our ordinary business.

Very strange, yes. Almost as strange as consciousness itself.


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Rick Darby said...

Thanks, Sophie. I take it Most Haunted is a TV show in the UK. Sounds very interesting. We have some programs like that in the United States, which unfortunately tend to suffer from very hokey production.

I'm a member of the Society for Psychical Research, have attended several of their annual meetings in England and am in touch with several of them. A friend of mine in the SPR passed over several years ago and is now giving very strong evidence of his survival. His widow tells me a TV documentary is being made about the communications.

Quite a few years ago I stayed in the Mermaid Inn but had no ghostly visitors. It's an amazing place anyway -- I slept in an actual Elizabethan era four-poster bed.

Here and here are a couple of earlier posts you may find interesting.