on 10 September 2010
The experience of "déjà vu" is well known to us all. It seems surprising, therefore, that many scientific pronouncements on the phenomenon lead towards a functional disorder as an answer (p34). Given that so many of us have experienced it, can it really be a symptom of an underlying psychiatric problem, like schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder? Neither can it be merely attributed to amnesia, of which much is written in this book. It is evident that the more sceptical enquiry into the matter has left common sense behind.
No wonder, then, that academic psychologists seem to leave the subject alone - the lack of a credible 'sceptical' solution opens the door for all manner of off-beat ideas, which the authors of the book review comprehensively. There is definitely something important going on here, but déjà vu is a hot potato for many scientists, as the field is "contaminated by paranormal studies" (p46).
To be fair, part of the problem for psychologists wishing to study déjà vu is that it is a rather elusive and unpredictable phenomenon. Experiencers often quickly forget what it was that they have so bizarrely remembered. Like many paranormal phenomena, the timing of an experience cannot be predicted: by the very nature of déjà vu, the pre-cognitive element is appreciated in hindsight. And even if we accept that a prior parallel event has been 'remembered', neuroscientists now question how good long-term memories really are anyway. Like a mental version of Chinese whispers, memories are re-worked each time they are recalled (pp65-6).
Perhaps better hunting-ground is to consider the déjà vu experience as a "state-specific memory". In other words, it's all down to a specific state of consciousness, or even a transient quirk of blood chemistry. Studies on DMT in the body seem to hold some promise (p49).
To investigate the phenomenon, a broad sweep is clearly required. The authors collate a great deal of information on memory, psychology, psychiatry, paranormal activity, witchcraft (?) and dreams. But the material gathered, although interesting, sometimes feels haphazard and de-focussed, as well as mired in the specific jargon used by the writers and researchers sourced. (It's remarkable how so many academics try to project their mastery of a subject by providing definitive classifications - 4 types of this, 21 key elements to that. When brought together in what is essentially a light-hearted compendium, these lists begin to appear merely methodological rather than insightful.)
As if realising the repetitive feel of compiling studies from the available literature, the authors divert into an interview section comparing the responses of a variety of other authors on questions related to the book's study. I'm not sure that this works, but it did provide what I thought was the most original idea in the book - Nick Redfern's theory of Tulpas, based upon the writings of Alexandra David-Neel (pp131-2). Like Nick, I loved her book "Magic and Mystery in Tibet" (Souvenir Press 1967), and it takes pride of place on my bookcase. His theory of how imagined characters take on a life of their own is startling, and offers an unusual explanation for many paranormal phenomena.
Like a bus taking the long route through a town's suburbs, "The Déjà Vu Enigma" does eventually get back to the main road (it's nice to look at the gardens, but the trip takes twice as long as it should). It concludes that dreams can be pre-cognitive and that déjà vu is the realisation of the forgotten dream. There are some remarkable accounts of lucid and even telepathic lucid dreaming to back this up. The concluding theory seems sound to me, although the pre-cognitive psi element to it would obviously not satisfy the denizens of a university Psychology Department.
Indeed, Larry Flaxman describes how the prosaic results of much of his diligent fieldwork into ghosts is making him consider that much of what is being experienced is simply in the mind. He wonders if researchers like himself are often looking in the wrong places for answers (p118, p144). It is ironic, then, that flirting with academic psychology to find the answers to déjà vu simply leads into a more complex maze with higher walls. More likely, and more simply, is a psi-related answer. To the authors' credit, they recognise this and expound a realistic hypothesis, whilst maintaining an open mind on a number of different approaches to the subject.