Call for papers:
Déjà vu and other dissociative states in memory 

A special issue of Memory
Submission deadline: 31st July 2017
Guest Editors (email links):  Chris Moulin, Akira O’Connor and Christine Wells

In recent years, déjà vu has become of great interest in cognition, where it is mostly seen as a memory illusion.  It can be described as having two critical components: an intense feeling of familiarity and a certainty that the current moment is novel.  As such, déjà vu could be described as a dissociative experience, resulting from a metacognitive evaluation (the certainty) of a lower-level memory process (familiarity).  There are currently a number of proposals of how déjà vu arises which receive empirical support from paradigms which attempt to reproduce déjà vu in laboratory settings.  Further information about déjà vu comes from neuropsychological populations and the use of neuroscientific methods, where again the focus is on memory, and in particular the involvement of temporal lobe structures.  In this Special Issue, we will draw together the state of the art in déjà vu research, and develop and evaluate the idea that déjà vu can be seen as a momentary memory dysfunction.  We are seeking empirical papers and brief theoretical statements which consider the nature of déjà vu and how it may be induced experimentally, as well as studies of déjà vu in pathological groups, and studies investigating the neural basis of déjà vu.  We are also interested in associated dissociative phenomena, such as jamais vu, presque vu, prescience and other metacognitive illusions, where their relation to contemporary memory theory (and déjà vu) are clear.

We will consider all types of empirical article, including short reports and neuropsychological cases.  Theoretical statements and reviews should make a genuine novel contribution to the literature.  First drafts should be submitted by the end of July 2017 through the Memory portal, https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/pmem, please select special issue ‘Deja vu’. All submissions will undergo normal full peer review, maintaining the same high editorial standards as for regular submissions to Memory.

If you are considering submitting an article please contact one of the editorial team stating the title of you intended submission.

A happy consequence of the media exposure I have received is that all sorts of people contact me when they have questions about déjà vu. Often, people want to find out about personal experiences they or those they know have had, but every now and again, school students will contact me for help with their projects.

One student who contacted me earlier this year was Cyril Vivek Subramanian, from Sydney. Cyril Vivek was researching a video to enter for the University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize, and I had a couple of conversations with him and his mother via email and Skype to help him with this. He was keen to do a lot of background research himself, and I found myself thankful for being able to refer him to the Frontiers for Young Minds article I’d previously written with Julia Teale.

The video didn’t end up being shortlisted, but I was thoroughly impressed with it, and delighted to be able to share it here. It is always great to be able to guide and work with young people, and a privilege to see students like Cyril Vivek excited about science and able to communicate it so well. Bravo!

At the International Conference on Memory last month, I presented some new work from my lab, a 21 participant, fMRI-scanned, memory experiment. We imaged people’s brains as they underwent a procedure that generates sensations likened to déjà vu (based on Josie Urquhart’s procedure, published in 2014, that you can find here). What makes this work particularly exciting is that, to our knowledge, this is the first time people undergoing an experimental analogue of déjà vu have been imaged. It lead to some pretty neat results.

Memory conflict-related brain regions that track deja vu reports
Memory conflict-related brain regions that track deja vu reports

The findings were picked up by New Scientist and are summarised in the piece below:
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2101089-mystery-of-deja-vu-explained-its-how-we-check-our-memories/

Embedded within that article is the following video, which distills the essence of what we’re excited about – brain regions associated with memory conflict, rather than false memory, appear to be driving the déjà vu experience. This is consistent with our idea of deja vu as the conscious awareness of a discrepancy in memory signals being corrected. This in turn sheds some light on why déjà vu occurrence appears to decline with age despite the fact that memory errors tend to increase with age. If it’s not an error, but the prevention of an error, this makes a lot more sense.

[17/08/2016 UPDATE]:

A few other news organisations have since reported the story:

BBC World Service Newshour (interview, audio below)


Absolute Radio
 (interview, audio below: 42.55 – 48.02)


IFLScience
 (text, rejigged NS article)

New York Magazine (text, neat explanation of the paradigm)

[18/08/2016 UPDATE]:

Digital Trends (text, one of the only online news organisations to speak to me in person)

Daily Mail (text, unnecessarily scary headline, lots of lovely comments :/ )

Gizmodo (text, more hyperbole)

[19/08/2016 UPDATE]:

Medical Daily (text)

New.com.au (text, emphasises importance of peer review to come)

Is it possible to reliably generate déjà vu in participants? Is it possible to get participants to reliably report déjà vu? These very similar questions are not necessarily as closely linked as we might think.

A paper I wrote with Radka Jersakova (@RadkaJersakova) and Chris Moulin (@chrsmln), recently published in PLOS ONE, reports a series of experiments in which we tried to stop people reporting déjà vu. Why? Because even in simple memory experiments that shouldn’t generate the sensation, upwards of 50% of participants will agree to having experienced déjà vu when asked about it. On the one hand, it’s a pretty strange set of experiments in which we are chasing non-significant results. On the other, it’s really important for the field of subjective experience research. If we can’t reliably assess the absence of an experience, how can we trust reports of its presence (OR if your null hypothesis isn’t a true null, don’t bother with an alternative hypothesis)?

Chris Moulin has published a much more detailed blog post about the paper that’s well worth a read. And of course, there’s the PLOS ONE paper itself.

PlosOne Deja vu Paper

Come to St Andrews and figure out why déjà vu experiences decrease with age, with me and Ines Jentzsch.

FindAPhD Advertisement (full text below)

Please email (aro2@st-andrews.ac.uk) or tweet (@akiraoc) me if you’d like to speak more about this project.  If you’d like to speak to anyone about doing a PhD with me, please get in touch with Mags Pitt (3rd yr PhD), Bjorn Persson (3rd yr PhD) or Ravi Mill (completed PhD) via the People section of the blog.

CNS Poster
Ravi Mill presenting simultaneous EEG fMRI data at CNS 2014

Project Description

BBSRC Theme: Word class underpinning Bioscience

Adaptive cognition involves both the completion of a set of mental operations and the awareness that these operations have been completed so that the next stage of cognition can be engaged. During successful memory decision-making these two steps, memory retrieval and retrieval awareness, go hand in hand. However, they can occasionally fragment, leading to a set of experiences termed introspective memory phenomena (IMPs; e.g. déjà vu and jamais vu). During déjà vu positive retrieval awareness arises in the absence of true retrieval, yielding the overall sensation of inappropriate familiarity (O’Connor & Moulin, 2010). Jamais vu is the opposite–negative retrieval awareness in the presence of true retrieval. IMPs signal conflict within the cognitive system, and thus may play a crucial role in error correction (we do not act on IMPs in the way that we do act on false memories). However, beyond some curious demographic associations (they occur more in those who are well-travelled and well-educated), IMP occurrence is not known to be associated with any existing cognitive or psychological traits.

IMPs are not experienced uniformly across the population but peak in those in their mid-20s, before declining with age thereafter. They are also thought to be driven by dopaminergic over-activity such that some pharmacological and recreational drugs (e.g. dopaminergic flu medications) have been reported as causing persistent déjà vu (Taiminen & Jääskeläinen, 2001). Interestingly, these characteristics mirror what is known about neurophysiological markers of inhibitory control and response monitoring more generally (e.g. Strozyk & Jentzsch, 2012), which show the same lifespan trajectory with an age-related decrease in the dopaminergic functions mediated by the frontal cortex. These links suggest that IMP occurrence may be underpinned by basic neurocognitive characteristics integral to healthy cognition. Thus, the importance of IMPs may not lie in the fragmentation of the memory decision-making system, but in the capacity for our response monitoring systems to detect it and stop us making decisions based on faulty information.

We propose a systematic programme of research to establish the role of error-monitoring in the generation of IMPs. Using i) retrospective questioning to verify the recent occurrence of IMPs and ii) established procedures for their laboratory generation, we will explore individual differences in IMP experience and neurophysiological markers of response monitoring. These experiments will be a) developed in young adults and extended to b) primary school children (age 8-11; the age at which IMPs are first reported by children) and c) older adults (age 55 and older). We will also conduct opportunistic case-studies on d) patients who present themselves to Dr O’Connor over the course of the PhD (UK-based patients typically get in touch at a rate of 1-2/year). This systematic programme will allow us to establish any potential links between basic neurocognitive characteristics and the tendency to experience dissociative memory sensations which are not known to have any other psychological correlates.

This project will benefit from the joint multi-disciplinary expertise of Dr O’Connor, an internationally recognized expert in the area of metacognition and introspective memory phenomena and Dr Jentzsch, a biophysicist and electrophysiologist by training, who specialized in studying the neural underpinnings dopaminergic functions such as action and conflict control. Together, we will provide the prospective student conceptual knowledge of metacognitive models of memory and changes to these functions with healthy ageing integrating behavioural methods and physiological measures of brain function in humans. The student will learn about experimental design, programming (Matlab), data collection and behavioural analysis techniques such as signal detection theory. In addition, the student will learn how to design, conduct and analyse electrophysiological experiments using EEG. Acquisition of generic skills such as team-working, time-management and communication skills amongst many others will also be an important part of the students training.

Funding Notes

This project is eligible for the EASTBIO Doctoral Training Partnership: View Website

This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body.

Apply by 5.00pm on the 14th December 2015 following the instructions on how to apply at: View Website

Informal enquiries to the primary supervisor are very strongly encouraged.

References

O’Connor, A.R. & Moulin, C.J.A. (2010). Recognition without identification, erroneous familiarity, and déjà vu. Current Psychiatry Reports, 12(3), 165-173.

Strozyk, J.V. & Jentzsch, I. (2012). Weaker error signals do not reduce the effectiveness of post-error adjustments: Comparing error processing in young and middle-aged adults. Brain Research, 460, 41-49

Taiminen, T. & Jääskeläinen, S.K. (2001). Intense and recurrent déjà vu experiences related to amantadine and phenylpropanolamine in a healthy male. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, 8, 460-462.

déjà vu
déjà vu (Photo credit: steve loya)

In what feels like a former life, I did a fair amount of research on déjà vu. In fact, it’s the domain in which I cut my psychological teeth,  learned about the importance of good experiment design, and was eventually awarded a PhD.

One of the sadnesses of déjà vu research is that, although the sensation is so utterly intriguing, it is very difficult to experimentally generate (though see Anne Cleary’s work, particularly this paper). This has led people interested in déjà vu to try coming at it from a few different angles, including hypnosis,  caloric stimulation* and, of course, drugs, drugs and more drugs. But, given its infrequent occurrence and its fairly memorable nature (a blessing and a curse, see below), the most consistently successful approach to studying the experience has been to use questionnaires.

Christine Wells, a collaborator and friend of mine at the University of Leeds is currently looking for people to complete her online questionnaire on anxiety, dissociative experiences and déjà vu.  One of the nice departures from the standard questionnaire format, afforded by its online administration, is that you fill in Part 1 at your leisure, and the much shorter Part 2 as soon as possible after your next déjà vu experience. This is  a really neat feature of the research, as it goes some way towards minimising the clichés that may be swamping our memories of déjà vu experiences, when assessed weeks and months after we have had them.

If you would like to take part in the research and are aged 18 or over, the following links may be of use:

Part 1: Anxiety, dissociative experiences and déjà vu questionnaire (takes approx. 20 mins):
www.psyc.leeds.ac.uk/q/anxietydejavu

Part 2: Follow-up questionnaire for after your next déjà vu experience (takes approx. 5 mins):
www.psyc.leeds.ac.uk/q/anxietydejavu2

Sure, filling in the questionnaires won’t leave you feeling anything like this guy, but that’s probably a good thing ( I wouldn’t wish an experience I could liken to the movie Hellraiser on anyone!).  What it will do, is contribute to scientific understanding by telling us a little bit more about how people evaluate their déjà vu experiences.

* that’s ‘squirting water in someone’s ear’ to the layman