Here and Now, There and Then.
The experience of Deja Vu in clinical and spiritual terms.
Todd Murphy © 1999
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.
Sacred Pathways: The Brain’s Role In Religious and Mystic Experiences
By Todd Murphy
Foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama
Foreword by Dr. Michael A. Persinger.
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. M.A. Persinger
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
- H.H. The Dalai Lama
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 fly in the ointment 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. 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
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
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
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
2) The person should try to disconnect from the sense of the past and try to see the present through that same
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 du 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 hour is a
long time when you're 12, and much shorter when you're 40.
Deja vu involves the 'sense' of present and past.
They are unconnected phenomena that only connect to our experience.
Like poetry and the papers it's written on.
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 existance 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.
I am of the opinion that deja vu is a neural phenomena, and not connected to timer itself.
It may or may not reference actual events in the past. The sense of the past is enough to create the phenomena.
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.
Read "future memory" by PMH Atwater.
(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,
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