Jun 11, 2009

The Brain Slip

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brain The human brain is, arguably, the most complex construct in nature, with its billions of neurons and synapses, all working together to ensure that we are able to process outside stimuli, such as noises, sights, tastes, and so on. It also allows us to store, process and remember memories, and also to move each and every part of our bodies. But, when things go wrong, the effects can be difficult to cope with. Some of the more minor slips of the brain are the déjà vu and the “tip-of-the-tongue,” and they have puzzled experts ever since they were first reported.

Basically, tip-of-the-tongue refers to trying to remember a word, knowing you know, but simply not remembering it at one point. Naturally, minutes or hours later, it comes back to you, and you start wondering how was it that you couldn't remember it in the first place, given that it was so obvious. Deja vu is a more complex phenomenon, and refers to the instances when you find certain events, people or places familiar, even though you haven't been there before. You witness actions going on around you and keep saying, “I remember this,” even though it's the first time you've been there.

Two new studies have recently come out, and they attempt to shed some light on some of the most weird and interesting manifestations of our brain. Wellesley College in Massachusetts Psychologist Jennie Pyers believes that tip-of-the-tongue moments occur most often in bilingual people simply because similar-sounding words in two or more languages compete for attention inside the brain. “Often when we're having tip-of-the-tongue experiences, words that sound the same come to mind. There's a sense that you do know the first letter; there's a sense that you might know how many syllables it is,” she said, quoted by NewScientist.

On the other hand, one of the most interesting explanations for deja vu is the fact that the brain recognizes subtle cues that the subconscious mind has just processed moments earlier. It's a well-known fact that the subconscious mind is aware of everything around us before we are, a fact that has been demonstrated in multiple functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) tests, where the parts of the brain were seen lighting up before the conscious mind became aware of a decision.

However, the explanation does not account for the fact that some people experiencing deja vu report feeling familiar emotions and states of mind, alongside familiarity with individuals they have never seen before and unique situations that never repeat themselves again. It's hard even for researchers to determine if déjà vu is a flaw of the brain, or if it's something else. And the possibilities may be too tantalizing for scientists to even think about considering.