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Who and why? Déjà vu gets a second look

brown.jpgIt is a discussion that seems familiar. But new findings show that people who travel frequently are more likely to experience déjà vu. Political liberals report more déjà vu experiences than conservatives do. And déjà vu becomes less common as people grow older.

Most of us have experienced déjà vu, which means “already seen” in French, yet few scientists have studied it. Understanding its causes, however, promises to explain other mysteries of the brain, says Alan Brown, professor in the SMU Department of Psychology in Dedman College and a leading researcher on memory.

“The community of research psychologists is largely silent on the topic, but findings from such research could expand our understanding of routine memory functions,” Brown says.

Many explanations for the déjà vu experience have been connected to the supernatural, he says. In a new book, “The Déjà Vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology” (2004, Psychology Press), Brown surveys scientific research as well as popular notions of déjà vu from the early 19th century.

From the scientific studies, Brown has identified common facts about déjà vu. A majority of people experience déjà vu, some two-thirds of the population. The frequency of déjà vu decreases with age and is most common among people ages 15 to 25. People with higher incomes and more education have more déjà vu experiences. Déjà Vu appears to be associated with stress and fatigue. Those who travel have more déjà vu experiences. For some, déjà vu experiences appear to repeat prior dreams.

Although there are no definitive answers for what causes déjà vu, Brown offers four scientifically plausible possibilities: two cognitive processes become momentarily out of phase; a brief dysfunction in the brain, such as a seizure, or disruption in the speed of normal neuronal transmission; a memory that we forgot connects with part of the present experience; and an initial perception under distracted conditions is quickly followed by a second perception of the same thing under full attention.

Déjà vu research presents a unique challenge for Brown.

“There is a thrill of examining something that seems to be on the fringes, then pulling it into the scientific realm,” he says.

Brown, who joined the Psychology Department in 1974, is the author of four books, including “Maximizing Memory Power: Using Recall in Business” (1986, John Wiley & Sons).

Related links:
Alan Brown
SMU Department of Psychology
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Energy & Matter Health & Medicine Technology

New durable materials result from silicon polymers

David Son uses some of the Earth’s most common building blocks to create complex new materials with potential wide-ranging applications.

Son conducts research on polymers containing silicon. One of the main elements in the Earth’s crust, silicon is the major ingredient in common sand, and is readily available.Son2.JPG

“It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to transform silicon into compounds we can manipulate,” says Son, associate professor in SMU’s Department of Chemistry in Dedman College. “And because silicon is an inorganic element, it gives materials great stability against temperature changes and oxidation.”

Silicon-containing polymers might be used to create more heat-resistant and longer-lasting plastic materials than common organic polymers such as polyethylene or PVC, Son says. One example is the silicone ovenware widely available in stores. Pans made of silicon polymers are temperature-safe, naturally nonstick, and so flexible that they can be turned inside out to remove baked goods.

Most polymers are what chemists call the straight-chain type, with each molecule consisting of atoms laid more or less end-to-end. Son’s research focuses on a new class of polymers called dendrimers, also known as “arborols” for their molecular resemblance to trees with many branches.

The dendrimers’ structure gives them many advantages.

“You can dissolve them much more easily in solvents,” Son says. “Because the molecules are shaped like balls, they roll right over each other and don’t get tangled up the way straight-chain polymers do, so you can use them as lubricants.”

Other possible uses include new drugs in which medicines are encapsulated in the dendrimers’ branches, transported to targeted areas of the body, and then stimulated to release medication directly to those sites.

Most recently, Son has begun creating materials that merge metal ions with organic compounds called ligands. Ligands can be as simple as water or as complex as ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA, a compound commonly used as an anticoagulant in medicine.

Son is especially interested in how nitrogen- and sulfur-based ligands bond with silver, gold, palladium, and platinum, which are elements with well-established catalytic properties. He hopes to create compounds that can be used to improve everything from optics to plastics manufacturing.

Platinum and palladium compounds are used industrially to spark reactions in other materials. Creating better catalysts, Son says, could enable more efficient manufacturing processes, for example, at lower temperatures or with fewer defects.

Son received his Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry from MIT and has conducted research at the Argonne National Laboratory and the Naval Research Laboratory.

Related links:
SMU Research 2008: Faculty mentor students
David Son
Department of Chemistry
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences