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Déjà Vu: Memories From an Alternate Reality?

Maybe you could swear you've read these words before, but the study of déjà vu has attracted some mainstream scientists who find that familiarity breeds recollections.

If you've been watching network TV recently, you know that various shows are going through the yearly ritual of the season finale. A finale, it seems, serves two related purposes: to reveal enough mysteries so that a viewer is satisfied, and at the same time, to not reveal too much and introduce whole new mysteries, so that the viewer returns in the fall when the new season begins.

As these things go, the recent finale of Fringe was quite satisfying. If you don't know the show, it is worth checking out. Briefly, it follows an FBI agent and a father-son duo of scientists as they try to piece together a series of strange, scientifically inexplicable occurrences. The title of the show refers to phenomenon and scientific practice on the fringes of society, which are pushing their way to the center of the lives of the characters on the show.

Starting with several episodes before the finale, Fringe introduced the well-known (and perhaps not-so-well understood) idea of déjà vu. Dr. Walter Bishop, the slightly mad scientist character on the show, suggests that déjà vu is more than a sensation of having seen or done something before even though you have not. Rather, it is a sign of an alternate reality: The experience that is remembered is actually something that occurred in a different reality.

This idea of an alternate reality becomes the driving thematic force of the show as the first season comes to an end. There is an intriguing final scene with the World Trade Center towers still standing.

So what is the story with déjà vu? Is Walter Bishop right? Is the study of it fringe science?

Recent scientific work offers several different explanations. Susumu Tonegawa, a professor of neuroscience at MIT and a Nobel Laureate, suggests it is an error in episodic memory where similarities between new and familiar experiences are confused by that part of the brain that keeps track of events.

In a recent article in New Scientist, Helen Phillips surveys the recent research on déjà vu, particularly two prominent theories.

Anne Cleary of Colorado State University thinks of it in the context of her research on memory. Explaining Cleary's research, Phillips writes: "One possibility is that déjà vu is based on a memory fragment that comes from something more subtle, such as similarity between the configuration or layout of two scenes. Say you are in the living room of a friend's new house with the eerie feeling that you have been there before, yet knowing you can't possibly. It could be just that the arrangement of furniture is similar to what you have seen before, suggests Cleary, so the sense of familiarity feels misplaced."

On the other hand, Chris Moulin and Akira O'Connor suggest that familiarity and recall can be disassociated. In other words, one can have a familiarity with something without actually having any prior experience with it.

None of these theories about déjà vu suggest the presence of an alternate reality. Dr. Bishop's argument may truly be fringe science, or at the very least, the basis for some good television.

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