Spirituality & The Brain (Home Page)
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Here and Now, There and Then.
The experience of Deja Vu in clinical and spiritual terms.
Deja Vu refers to those odd and usually rare moments when the present feels like the past. Its a hard experience to interpret. Some people search their memories for dreams that might have been like the present. Others think that the experience is what happens when things from past lives emerge in this one. Both notions are impossible to prove, disprove, or (until recently), investigate. The belief that its about past lives is a matter of faith. The idea that it has to do with dreams is less a matter of faith – only a few people claim to recall past lives, but almost everybody remembers some of their dreams. Some recall a lot of them. The theory of reincarnation that is most consistent with modern brain science (Algorithmic Reincarnation) predicts that no memories are passed from one life to the next. What is transferred is a set of signals that reflect states of consciousness. Memories don’t need to go along.
Memories are state-specific. We can have experiences in one state of consciousness (like when we are drunk, for example) that we cannot remember at all when we are in another. States of consciousness provide a much more direct way for someone to select how they will behave than remembering past behaviors and comparing them to present possibilities.
There is a problem with dreams as well. Both dreams and deja vu experiences happen in non-normal states of consciousness. Most altered states are are a fertile ground for confabulations (“embroidered” or false memories). This means that in the moment when someone is experiencing deja vu, its easier for them to create a false memory than it would be normally. In fact, during moments of deja vu , one’s consciousness has unusually direct access to long-term memories, and the brain processes that allow us to retrieve them.
I’m not going to write it here that deja vu doesn’t come from past lives or dreams, and that that’s just how it is. But we want to understand what deja vu is, and how we can respond to it when it happens. If we explain it in terms of past lives and dreams, we are giving ourselves explanations that can’t be proven. Or proved to be false. It will boil down to a matter of faith.
There are some people who experience precognitive dreams, but most episodes of deja vu happen without the person having any sense of it relating to a dream. Precognitive dreams are a different matter altogether. Having the present moment feel like a repeat of something from the past is not the same as having the present validate a previous precognition. I have spoken to some professional psychics about this, and one of them said that he could tell the two apart, but that it took him some time to learn the difference. I asked him what the difference was, and he said that it was an ‘energy.’ That’s not really enough to help understand what the difference was, but enough for us to know that there might be one.
How does deja vu happen?
The scientific explanation is that it has to do with memory processes. I’ll make it as simple as I can here. The basic idea is that there are portions of the brain that are specialized for the past, the present and the future. In general, the frontal lobes are concerned with the future, the temporal lobes are concerned with the past, and the underlying, intermediate portions (the limbic system) are concerned with the present. When these are all doing their normal thing, in normal states of consciousness, the feeling that ‘something is going to happen’ will only come up when we are thinking about the future, worrying about it, anticipating it or making plans for it. The sense of the past will only come up when our memories have been triggered in some way.
The structure that overwhelms our consciousness when we are ‘in the present are ‘being here now’ is the amygdala. It assigns an emotional ‘tone’ to our perceptions. When you step into the street and see a car speeding towards you, and you instantly freeze in terror and jump out of the way, that terror is the amygdala at work. Present. Here and now. The amygdala also recognizes expressions the expressions on people’s faces. When we are talking to someone, we can recognize their expressions and change the way we are talking to them just as quickly as we recognize danger. Words can often seem dangerous to the one hearing them. “we’re thinking of letting you go.” “I’ve been thinking that our relationship is holding me back.” “You are under arrest.”
Phrases like these need instant, appropriate responses, and the amygdala is specialized to provide them. For example, one function it participates in, the maintenance of the sense of self, is repeated 40 times per second. Each instance of the self is able to manifest a new emotional response, but only if circumstances have changed. Every 25 milliseconds. In fact, the duration of the ‘present’ in neurological terms is so brief that we don’t experience it so much as remember it.
The next level could be called ‘being around here-just about now.’
Short term-memory deals in periods of a few minutes. Its mostly based in the hippocampus. We know this because problems with the hippocampus. often lead to severe short-term memory problems. It helps us to stay oriented in time. There have been a few people who have lost all hippocampal functions, and they are unable to remember anything that happened after their brain problems began. Humans are a linguistic species, and an intensely social one. We relate to each other through words. We have conversations. In order to do this, we have to be able to remember what people say to us. We also have to be to think about it long enough to be able to respond to it. We have to remember what we have just finished doing in order not to have to do it again.
There is a joke I heard while working in a nursing home: Happiness is finding your glasses before you forget what you need them for.
Then there is long-term memory. Its ‘seated’ in the surface of the brain, along the bottom of the temporal lobes. The area has been called the parahippocampal cortex, and its very closely connected to the hippocampus.
Ordinarily, there is a fairly seamless integration of the past, present and the future. In simple terms, we experience something in the present, compare it to similar experiences in the past, and decide how we will respond. The time frame can be very brief; even a few seconds. Once in a while, though, there can be too much communication between short-term and long-term memories. When this happens, then the present can feel like the past.
If perceptions from the present are shunted through the parts of the brain that process memories from the past, those perceptions will feel like they are memories, and the person will feel that they are re-living a moment stored in long-term memory.
There is another experience worth mentioning; Jamais Vu. Its the opposite of deja vu. Instead of feeling extra familiar, thing seem totally unfamiliar. In this case there is too little connection between long-term memory and perceptions from the present. When a person is in this state, nothing they experience seems to have anything to do with the past. They might be talking to a person they know well and suddenly they person seems totally unfamiliar. Their sense of knowing the person, and knowing how to relate to them simply vanishes. A room in which they spend a lot of time suddenly becomes totally novel; everything seems new. Details they will have seen a thousand times suddenly become engaging.
Jamais Vu is not so common as deja vu, but it can be just as compelling.
How do I respond to Deja Vu?
That depends on whether you enjoy it or not. Some people are just terrified when it happens. Others find it mildly euphoric.
As with all other altered state experiences, most people who enjoy it think of the experience in spiritual terms, and those who don’t, think about it in psychological terms. I have talked to people who had it often, and found the experience to be terrifying. There is nothing frightening about deja vu in itself, but it can happen that activity from the hippocampus. can spill over into the neighboring structure, the amygdala, which is a highly emotional structure. If it gets into the one on the right, the emotion is going to be unpleasant, most likely fearful.
If you have deja vu appear with fear, you might want to get some help, depending on how strong the feeling is. One of the best places to start is with an epileptologist, especially if you think you might be going crazy. Why not start with a psychologist? Because Deja vu is highly symptomatic of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), and its misdiagnosed more often than not, usually as schizophrenia, but also as bipolar disorder, and several others.
On reason for the frequent bad calls psychologists make is that TLE isn’t listed in the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Stastitical Manual of Psychological Disorders. This is the standard guide to diagnosing psychiatric illness. Because it isn’t listed, its pathology isn’t covered, and psychologists miss the mark when dealing with it. TLE also has a much wider range of possible symptoms than other disorders. While most seizures of this type (called complex partial seizures) begin in the amygdala, they spread into other structures, and there are quite a number of them. One nearby structure will introduce smells into the experiences, and leave someone a heightened sense of smell. Another will create distortions in spatial perception. Another can leave some one with overactive sweat glands. Another can leave someone wanting to talk or write all the time. Another can make a person prone to brief, intense bursts of anger. Another can make a person’s sexuality change. The list goes on. There are also a variety of personality changes that can happen, as well. Proper diagnosis is going to be a problem, with so many possible combinations.
When deja vu feels good, a person will respond differently. There’s no need for a diagnosis, even if it is a positive-emotional TLE. In that case, it really can’t be called a disorder, but people still feel that it somehow calls for a response, and it will ‘feel’ like a spiritual one will be most appropriate.
For deja vu that feels spiritual, I suggest meditation. The kind that emphasizes being present in the here and now. Deja vu is an alteration in the perception of the present moment. The two best known ones are Zen and vipassana, both Buddhist practices. I’m not saying that people who have deja vu a lot should become Buddhists, only that these two Buddhist practices are well suited for those with frequent deja vu experiences. There are times I’ve thought that Jesus might have been close to these practices when he said to ‘be still and know”. The more often Deja vu happens, the more likely a person will be able to stop their ongoing mental processes, and just be in the present. Deja vu is an experience that won’t go into words very well. When its happening, a person can still speak, but the phenomena that will demand their attention is that sense of the past.
Most commonly, a person having deja vu will give their attention to the feeling that ‘this is the past!’ If some one wants to use the experience to enhance their spirituality, they are three things they can try.
1) When deja vu happens, they should pay attention to what is happening in the present. They can pay attention to their senses, and look at the ‘sense’ that perceives that sense of familiarity. If they can get a clear perception of that ‘sense’, they can look there at any time afterwards. Especially while practicing meditation. This practice, for those who have deja vu often enough to take advantage of it, can chop months off the time it takes to get into meditation deeply.
2) The person should try to disconnect from the sense of the past and try to see the present through that same sense.
During meditation, the person should pretend that deja vu is happening right then. With practice, the familiar sensations should appear, and then they can stop paying attention to the ‘past’ and go into being ‘present’. When this happens, their meditation practice should acquire something new.
And Deja Vu, with time, can become a friend.
How do you personally relate deja vu to the existence of time?
These are provisional opinions only, something like ‘working hypotheses’, but to me, time is a matter of subjective experience which follows as-yet undiscovered algorithms. A year is a long time when you’re -nine years old, and much shorter when you’re 40.
Deja vu and the phenomena of time are completely unrelated, in spite of the connection we feel between them. Understanding one offers no clues to the other.
Deja vu is ‘about’ the past. There is a related phenomena – ‘future memory’, whose existence offers the possibility that deja vu and ‘future memory’ are at two different ends of a single spectrum. If so, then we have perception in two directions – past and future.
A skeptical scientist would deny the existence of future memory, and there is no evidence that can prove them wrong. I have yet to experience the phenomena myself, and I have no ongoing jobs right now that would be changed by my holding one opinion on the subject, so I prefer not to decide about it now.
Time only runs in one direction.
My opinion is that deja vu is a neural phenomena, and not connected to time itself.
It may or may not reference actual events in the past. The sense of the past is enough to create the feeling.
It may also be that there are two mechanisms – one behind deja vu ‘to’ actual events, and one that spins out (confabulates) memories to which the deja vu seems to refer.
For the mind to create a memory, right in the moment, that matches the present is a small thing next to the entire worlds it can create in dreams, visions, and near-death experiences.
By Todd Murphy
Foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama
Foreword by Dr. Michael A. Persinger.
506 pages, paperback
Order HERE (Amazon Link – Opens In a New Window)
“In this book, Professor Todd Murphy recounts what he has discovered about the brain’s role in religious and mystic experience; findings that interested readers will no doubt find illuminating”… His Holiness, The Dalai Lama
“Sacred Pathways is the Principia (“book of basic principles”) or (“first work”) of the scientific investigation of spiritual experiences. … Individuals who appoint themselves protectors of “true knowledge” may find this book disquieting.” – Dr. Michael A. Persinger.
(1) Bancaud, J., Et Al, “Anatomical Origins of deja vu and vivid ‘memories’ in human temporal lobe epilepsy” Brain, (1994) v.117, 71-90
(2) Gloor, Pierre, MD, Ph.D., Et Al, “The Role of the Limbic System in Experiential Phenomena of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy” Annals of Neurology Vol. 12, No.2 August 1982
(3) Persinger, M.A., “Geophysical Variables and Behavior: XXII. The Tectonic Strain Continuum of Unusual events” Perceptual and Motor Skills 1985, 60, 59-65
(4) Persinger, M.A. & Lafreniere, “Space-time Transients and Unusual Events” Nelson-Hall Chicago, 1977
Also Read “Future Memory” by PMH Atwater.
Here’s a video lecture that discusses Deja Vu, along with other subtle altered states of consciousness:
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