Scientists may have solved the mystery of déjà vu

Why Do We Experience Deja Vu? Why Do We Experience Deja Vu?

Déjà vu is the feeling that we already experienced what's happening in the present. It can be unsettling -- if not frightening -- and the explanation of why it occurs has longtime stumped scientists.

Now, researchers at the University of St. Andrews in the UK may have solved the mystery -- and it has nothing to do with Hollywood explanations like in The Matrix or Inception.

SEE ALSO: Calcium supplements may lead to increased dementia

Déjà vu had been thought to merely be false memories, but this research suggests otherwise. It may actually be a way the brain tries to resolve conflicts.

Researchers attempted to trigger the feeling in volunteers by giving them a false memory. They gave them a list of words related to sleep -- bed, pillow, night and dream -- but not the word "sleep" itself. They then asked if volunteers heard a word beginning in "s." Volunteers said no.

Later, researchers asked if they heard the word "sleep." They knew they could not have, because it begins with "s," but the word felt familiar to them -- they had a sense of déjà vu.

"They report having this strange experience of déjà vu," said lead researcher Akira O'Connor.

RELATED: What to look out for in memory loss

Memory loss -- what to look for
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Memory loss -- what to look for

1. You forget how to do something you have done many times before. Forgetting how to get to your best friend’s house, or struggling to remember how to make your favorite meal can be a tip off to a real problem.

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2. You have trouble learning something new. Electronics, computers or card games used to come easy to you, and now, you can’t figure out how to start the new toaster. You used to be handy, and now, you can’t figure out how to put together one of your children or grandchildren’s Christmas presents.

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3. You repeat yourself in the same conversation. I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is tuning me out.  It can be very frustrating to both the speaker and the listener as it is tempting to say, “Stop talking. You told me this already and if I have to hear about your work-out this routine one more time, someone is going to get hurt!!!”  I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is probably tuning me out.

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4. You are having trouble making choices. You stare in the fridge trying to decide what to drink, or you stare at the closet with no idea what to wear. This may be a red flag if it is happening routinely.

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5. You can’t keep track of what happens in a day. If you are having an increasingly difficult time remembering if you showered, took out the garbage or went to the food store, you should discuss your concerns with your doctor.

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I started each of these warning signs with “you”, but most often, if there is a true diagnosable problem, it will be a friend or family member who will notice first.  If someone else tells you that you are losing it — hopefully, they find a more sensitive way to say it — you should probably take it seriously.
If you have a loved one whose memory seems to be failing, bite the bullet and tell them you are worried. There are many things that can cause memory loss in addition to dementia, some of which are correctable. There are also treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia that can help to halt the progression of the disease. If you noticed someone was short of breath or was clutching at his or her chest, you would address it. The brain is an organ just like the heart and lungs. It needs to be taken care of.

Speaking of letting people know you are worried about them, I am offering $500 bucks to anyone who tips me off about my intervention.

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ER physician Dr. Travis Stork shares a simple trick to improve your memory recall.

O'Connor and his team used fMRI scanning to see what kind of brain functions were going on when this "strange experience" happened. Frontal regions of the brain, the part responsible for decision-making, showed activity. This does not include the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memories.

According to Stefan Köhler at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, this suggests that there may be "some conflict resolution going on in the brain during déjà vu."

O'Connor, however, acknowledged that this is just the start of research.

Furthermore, his team's findings need to be peer reviewed. Should it be approved, though, it opens up even more questions, such as how déjà vu affects older people and if it's beneficial to humans.

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