Déjà vu experience – Author Interview

Today we published a new study describing a laboratory analogue of the déjà vu experience. We invited the lead author, Akira O’Connor, to comment on his fascinating research and his experience publishing with us.

PJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

imageAO: I am a lecturer in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews University. I did my PhD on curious memory sensations like déjà vu at Leeds University. I then changed direction, focusing on neuroimaging of more straightforward memory decision-making during my postdoc at Washington University in St Louis. The work I’m doing at St Andrews is a mix of the interests I have picked up over the course of my career so far. Overall, I’m trying to better understand how we make the decisions we make about our memories by understanding the various stages of this decision-making process.

PJ: Can you briefly explain the research you published in PeerJ?

AO: We combined a couple of fairly straightforward procedures to make people experience déjà vu – or at least to make people report experiencing déjà vu. The first procedure we used is a neat memory ‘trick’ called the DRM task.  For this, we show you a list of words which are all related to one critical word. For example, we might show you the words ‘bed’, ‘pillow’, ‘night’, ‘tired’, ‘yawn’, ‘dream’ and ‘blanket’. These words are all related to ‘sleep’, but we don’t show you that word yet. We then give you a memory test for the words you saw previously. People are pretty good at recognizing words like ‘pillow’ and ‘blanket’ and pretty good at ruling out unrelated words like ‘antelope’ and ‘messy’. What is surprising is that people believe very strongly that they have also seen the previously unpresented word ‘sleep’ before – they’ll even tell us what they thought when they saw it the first time round!

We combined this DRM task with another more straightforward task, where we get you to count the number of words beginning with the letter S during the learning phase. If you report that you saw no ‘S’ words, and we remind you of this at the same time as you see and falsely recognize ‘sleep’, that creates a conflict in your memory decision-making system. On the one hand, this word feels really familiar. On the other, you know you haven’t seen it because you saw no ‘S’ words. It’s this conflict that we think makes people report experiencing déjà vu, a memory experience characterized by familiarity coupled with an awareness that the familiarity is inappropriate.

The reason I hedged my statement at the start of this answer is that it’s really hard to be sure that people actually experience déjà vu as a result of the procedure. People certainly reported much more déjà vu for the conditions in which we hypothesize they should, but given that it has no outward signs and there are no right or wrong answers, it’s very difficult to verify.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

AO: This work is a bit of a milestone for me. Since my time as a PhD student I have been trying to generate déjà vu in the lab (I have run experiments where I have subliminally presented pictures to people and even experiments where I have hypnotized people). This is the first time that I feel that what people experience as a result of the procedure might approximate the conflict that people experience when they have real-life déjà vu. I would have given anything for an experiment like this to write up for my thesis!

PJ: What surprised you the most with these results? 

AO: That thing worked out almost exactly as hypothesized. When I was coming up with the experiment I was thinking about the definition of the déjà vu experience and trying to come up with things we could do in the lab that would tick all the boxes. I remember being on the phone to my PhD supervisor Chris Moulin (we are collaborators and good friends now) and getting excited about this particular idea. It was lovely to feel just as excited about the data after they had been collected, as I had felt on the phone anticipating doing the experiment.

PJ: What kinds of lessons do you hope the public takes away from the research? 

AO: An awareness that even very strange, mysterious feeling sensations, such as déjà vu, might come from our minds trying to make sense of different pieces of information, which are individually very straightforward. We get all sorts of signals from the world (“this feels familiar”, “I’ve never been here before” etc) and there’s generally a lot of consistency across the various signals. Disrupting these signals to introduce inconsistency is may be all it takes to cause rare and wonderful experiences like déjà vu.

More generally, it would be great for the general public and the scientific community alike to understand the value of researching subjective psychological experiences. We have learned a lot about how vision works using visual illusions. In the same vein, it would be great to show people the importance of studying curious memory phenomena to understanding the memory decision-making system.

PJ: Where do you hope to go from here?

AO: One of the problems with researching déjà vu is that it is very hard to get people to have it ‘on-demand’. Most people experience it at such low frequency (a few times a year) that it is impossible to study it as it happens. Developing procedures like the one we published in PeerJ allows us to start thinking about where we go from here in concrete terms. I use fMRI to look at brain activity during other memory decision-making tasks. It would be fascinating to take a look at this sort of procedure in the scanner to see if we can link the brain activation associated with this task to brain activation which we know characterizes other memory decision-making tasks.

PJ: Why did you choose to reproduce the complete peer-review history of your article?

AO: Articles change a lot as a result of the review process. Making the review history available to readers is important if we value transparency in publishing. After a particularly drawn-out reviewing process at another journal I wrote to the publisher to ask if I could publish the peer review history on my blog. They refused on the grounds that it would break agreements of confidentiality between the reviewers and the journal. I understand this reasoning, but also appreciate that if there was awareness from the outset that the reviews could be published, this wouldn’t be a problem, and it might even improve the quality of the reviews! PeerJ offers exactly what I am after in terms of open reviews, which may well be reflected in their quality.

PJ: How did you first hear about PeerJ, and what persuaded you to submit to us?

AO: There was a lot of buzz about PeerJ on my twitter feed. Most of the scientists I speak to on Twitter agree that the traditional subscription model of publishing is in need of an overhaul. The way PLOS and Frontiers are doing this is great, but it also raises the issue of scientists having to pay large APCs. This is fine if you have a grant in which you have asked for OA publishing costs, but not ideal if you don’t. PeerJ appears to have thought about how to change publishing in a way that makes it accessible not only to readers, but also to the writers. This, combined with the open review process, the speedy turnaround I kept hearing about, and my own institution’s support of PeerJ (we have a fantastic OA team at the St Andrews University Library) made it very easy to submit to PeerJ.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about your overall experience with us? Anything surprising?

AO: I loved that I got an email from you at every stage of the review process. I’ve often thought about writing an app to check in on the various other editorial system websites for manuscript updates. There’s no need for that with PeerJ.

PJ: How would you describe your experience of our submission/review process?

AO: Submission was straightforward. I love that any form of referencing goes as long as it is clear to the reader. The review process was quick but didn’t appear to compromise on quality at all. The reviewers made some excellent points and the Academic Editor also provided guidance on how we might best amend the paper.  The way in which the Academic Editor did this was actually very impressive. He helped to prevent any impasses and demonstrated a real understanding of how to manage this sort of open review process. 

PJ: Did you get any comments from your colleagues about your publication with PeerJ?

AO: Not yet, though people seem to be very interested in the subscription model.

PJ: Would you submit again, and would you recommend that your colleagues submit?

AO: Yes, absolutely. I can’t get over the fact that this project was done with a fantastic undergraduate student, Josie Urquhart, who ran the experiment during her 2014 Summer Internship. With many journals we’d still be waiting for our first round of reviews. With PeerJ the whole process, from submission through revisions, to acceptance, took only 45 days.

PJ: Anything else you would like to talk about?

AO: I’m very impressed that PeerJ waive publication charges for undergraduates. That along with the review process made it a very palatable experience with which to introduce one of my undergraduate students to scientific publishing.

PJ: In conclusion, how would you describe PeerJ in three words?

AO: Fast, innovative, accessible.

PJ: Many thanks for your time!

Join Akira O’Connor and thousands of other satisfied PeerJ authors – send your next article to PeerJ! Don’t forget you might have access to a PeerJ publishing plan via your institution. Talk to your library or visit the PeerJ Institutional Page for more information and eligibility criteria.

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