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Talking Headlines with Akira O’Connor: how déjà vu research came to dominate the media

by on 2016/08/19

Dr Akira O’Connor is a lecturer at the School of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews. Akira uses different approaches, including functional imaging, to understand the neuronal basis of forming memories. In one particular project he studied how the brain perceives déjà vu and his work in this area has recently been the focus of media attention (e.g Medical Daily, and Digital Trends). An interesting aspect of the story is that his scientific results were presented at a research conference rather than following the usual route of a press release associated with a publication.

We asked Akira how his work made the headlines.

Akira, first of all, could you briefly explain what déjà vu is and what you have discovered?

Déjà vu is the strange sensation of finding something familiar, but knowing that that familiarity is inappropriate and therefore must be incorrect. In 2014 a student in my lab, Josie Urquhart, published a method by which we were able to generate an experimental analogue of this sensation in the laboratory. At the International Conference on Memory in Budapest last month, I reported a follow-up experiment in which we fMRI-scanned participants as they were undergoing this procedure. We found that brain regions associated with conflict monitoring and resolution, rather than brain regions associated with memory per se, were positively associated with participant reports déjà vu. The take-home message was that déjà vu could be reconceptualised as a sign of successful memory conflict detection, rather than just the presence of a false or partially complete recognition.

You presented these results at a conference. How was the story picked up from the media?

I presented as part of a symposium on déjà vu research I had organised. A journalist from the New Scientist contacted various symposium speakers and we met with her outside the symposium. After we returned from Budapest, I spoke to the journalist again over the phone and the story was published online a few days later. She ended up focusing most on my work with comments about it solicited from other symposium speakers.

As soon as other news outlets saw the story there was an almighty rush to cover it. Within a few minutes of it appearing online I had requests for interviews with various radio stations and quite a few journalists contacted me for their own stories. What was more surprising was the number of organisations that covered it without speaking to me at all. In the past couple of days the stories seems to have got more and more sensational (“Scientists solve the mystery of déjà vu”, etc.). I think we were very lucky that the original New Scientist article was so comprehensive and measured. With different source material the stories could have reached a whole new level of hysteria.

Did you expect so much attention?

Yes and no. From past experience I know that when the press pick up on these déjà vu stories there tends to be a lot of interest from lots of different news organisations. I knew that if our work made it into the New Scientist article then I’d likely be dealing with a lot of interest. That said, I was surprised at how much this still happened in the absence of a press release. I’m also always surprised at how derivative the science news agenda seems to be. It appears to take just one reliable and trustworthy outlet to go with it before everyone wants to cover it.

Did social media play a role in this process?

I think so. The New Scientist piece got a fair number of retweets, and follow-ups from the BBC World Service and IFLScience took that to another level. The video from the New Scientist article also popped up a few times on my Facebook timeline.  I suspect that news organisations being able to gauge interest from the extent to which earlier stories are shared allows them to test the water as to how their own coverage of the story will be received. For the first time, I also had journalists making contact with me on Twitter rather than over email or phone. Using Twitter I was also able to engage in discussion of the various pieces, which allowed me to feel like I was in some sort of control of the narrative too.

Did you come across significant distortions?

The original New Scientist piece was excellent. Later pieces, especially those into which I have had no further input have become more and more hyperbolic e.g. “Akira O’Connor from the University of St Andrews reckons he’s solved it once and for all…” (I really don’t, and I haven’t ever conveyed that to anyone). Also, ALL of the headlines, and especially the tweets promoting the pieces have been way too over-the-top. It’s very easy to get upset by this – it’s so different from the way in which we operate as cautious, incremental researchers – but to some extent I think you just need to set the record straight when the platform is offered to you (e.g. when interviewed on the radio or for subsequent print/internet coverage) and float over the rest of it. That said, it’s difficult not to take some of the social media and below-the-line snark to heart, especially after reading the responses to the Daily Mail coverage!

One distortion in this piece was particularly irresponsible. The Daily Mail managed to twist the findings into a headline that suggested that people who don’t experience déjà vu have unhealthy memory systems; I have already had someone contact me to ask about this.

We have suggested our readers try to check the original research articles when coming across sensational headlines. In this case they will have to wait to see your work published. Do you have some tips to offer readers and fellows researchers that might find themselves in similar situations?

Yes, the big rush now is to get the work published. The experimental procedure is all over the Internet, so I’m a little paranoid about getting scooped.

Online, my suggestion is to engage with the coverage as much as is consistent with your online persona. Don’t set up social media accounts just to get media coverage, but if you have them and use them, engage with the coverage of your work. One of the first things I did as soon as I realised that there was going to be a lot of coverage was to write a blogpost quickly stating our findings and providing a link to a high quality image and radio interviews I had done. That blog has been quoted in later articles (e.g. The Daily Mail) and gave me, in the absence of a press release, the potential for some first-hand input into later coverage.

Offline, say yes to all interviews within reason, even if (especially if) you don’t like or respect certain news outlets. We have an obligation to communicate to and engage with everyone, so the more coverage you can have input into, the better. If you’re going to be on the radio, ask whether you’ll be live or pre-recorded. If it’s a pre-record you can start over if you fluff your lines. If you’re live, there’s no second chances.

Overall, if it happens to you, it’s stressful but try and enjoy it. Your journal articles mean very little to readers outside academia, but a listicle on Buzzfeed will give them a tangible insight making your research more accessible to the public.

Akira thank you for chatting with us and for this fascinating account on the origin of déjà vu and related headlines.

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