Thursday, August 03, 2006

Déjà vu

Deja Vu
Originally uploaded by saturnism.
In the last week I have been peppered with a number of episodes of déjà vu. I can go months without such an experience and now, here comes a cluster. These experiences seem like strange little wake-up calls. “What’s going on?” or “Whoa! … Déjà vu!” You know immediately, it is not possible, and yet something feels so real. Just beyond your grasp lies familiarity… I did this before… Yet, something does not compute: It seems like it was in the past… And that simply is impossible.

So what is going on here? Personally, it always makes me wonder about time and parallel universes and whether sometimes you “tune in” to the other time or place by remembering. But, these are just my own personal feelings. Surely, this can’t be. Though, time and parallel worlds leave room perhaps for that interpretation. Let’s be more hard headed here.

Science offers a variety of explanations which include: two cognitive processes momentarily out of synchrony, temporal lobe epilepsy disrupting neuronal transmission, problems in attention, and memory malfunction.

In these hypotheses the neuroscientists are arguing that specific zips of energy around and through the brain are not working quite as they normally do. And so, we feel and think a bit differently than usual.

But explication of neuro-circuits is just going for the answer to what’s been called the “Easy Question” regarding consciousness. For even if we knew the exact circuits, cells and anatomy involved in déjà vu, we would not have answered the “Hard Question”- how do these solid objects: electricity, molecules and cells create the immaterial memory. Déjà vu is a subjective experience, a totally personal and private feeling which no outsider can ever really access and thus, by definition this experience and every other act of consciousness cannot be an object. That’s the Hard Question. How does the material ever give rise to the immaterial?

Estimates for settling the easy question have been given at 100 years. As for the Hard Question, no one has even ventured a guess. Too many mysteries lie unsolved. Still, answering the Easy Question may provide insight into the Hard.

To me, invoking the function of specific neural circuits for specific experiences of consciousness (e.g. Déjà vu) is the equivalent of identifying the optics necessary for perception of the world around us. There are an array of devices out there to help us see more than we might. We need sun glasses in the sun, reading glasses for the written, telescopes to discern the rings of Saturn, and microscopes to see bacteria. Otherwise, we see nothing due to glare, blurred vision, distance, or small scale.

Devices are necessary to attune our eyes to the correct wavelength. Once outfitted correctly, whole new worlds can then be seen. Similarly, we need different neuro-circuits to perceive different realities of consciousness. It’s a good working hypothesis. Not mine, but that of cognitive science as a whole. And it is part of answering the Easy Question.

What I wonder is how far can we stretch this? How many circuits and new combinations there of are we allowed. How many realities do we get to see? Or in the case of déjà vu, remember.

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