Have you ever visited a store for the first time and had it feel eerily familiar? Or maybe you’re deep in conversation with a friend and you suddenly get the feeling that you’ve had the exact conversation before, even though you know that you haven’t. If you’ve ever found yourself in either of these situations, you’ve experienced déjà vu. Sixty to 70 percent of us admit to getting this feeling at least once in our lives. The sight, sound, taste or even smell of something makes us think that we’ve experienced it before, although we know that we couldn’t have.
There are more than 40 theories as to what déjà vu is and what causes it, and they range from reincarnation to glitches in our memory processes. In this article, we’ll explore a few of those theories to shed some light on this little understood phenomenon.
Déjà vu is a French term that literally means “already seen” and has several variations, including déjà vécu, already experienced; déjà senti, already thought; and déjà visité, already visited. French scientist Emile Boirac, one of the first to study this strange phenomenon, gave the subject its name in 1876.
There are often references to déjà vu that aren’t true déjà vu. Researchers have their own definitions, but generally déjà vu is described as the feeling that you’ve seen or experienced something before when you know you haven’t. The most common misuse of the term déjà vu seems to be with precognitive experiences— experiences where someone gets a feeling that they know exactly what’s going to happen next, and it does. An important distinction is that déjà vu is experienced during an event, not before. Precognitive experiences — if they are real — show things that will happen in the future, not things that you’ve already experienced. (However, one theory about déjà vu deals with precognitive dreams that give us a “déjà vu feeling” afterwards. See the Déjà Vu and Precognitive Dreams section.)
Hallucinations that are brought on by illness or drugs sometimes bring a heightened awareness and are confused with déjà vu. False memories that are brought on by schizophrenia can be confused with déjà vu as well. Unlike true déjà vu, which typically lasts from 10 to 30 seconds, these false memories or hallucinationscan last much longer.
Defining types of déjà vu is a very slippery area. Those who have studied it have applied their own categories and differentiations — each usually tied to a specific theory about what causes déjà vu. Alan Brown, a professor of psychology at South Methodist University and author of “The Déjà Vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology,” has three categories for déjà vu. He believes there is déjà vu caused by biological dysfunction (e.g., epilepsy), implicit familiarity and divided perception. In 1983, Dr. Vernon Neppe, Director of the Pacific Neuropsychiatric Institute in Seattle, proposed four subcategories of déjà vu, including epileptic, subjective paranormal, schizophrenic and associative.
Taking a very broad look at the research and resources available, we can put déjà vu experiences into two categories and then see the more subtle distinctions that researchers have placed on it:
- Associative déjà vuThe most common type of déjà vu experienced by normal, healthy people is associative in nature. You see, hear, smell or otherwise experience something that stirs a feeling that you associate with something you’ve seen, heard, smelled or experienced before. Many researchers think that this type of déjà vu is a memory-based experience and assume that the memory centers of the brain are responsible for it.
- Biological déjà vu There are also high occurrences of déjà vu among people with temporal lobe epilepsy. Just before having a seizure they often experience a strong feeling of déjà vu. This has given researchers a slightly more reliable way of studying déjà vu, and they’ve been able to identify the areas of the brain where these types of déjà vu signals originate. However, some researchers say that this type of déjà vu is distinctly different from typical déjà vu. The person experiencing it may truly believe they’ve been through the exact situation before, rather than getting a feeling that quickly passes.
Déjà vu also occurs with some predictability in major psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression, dissociative disorders and schizophrenia.
Next, we’ll look at how researchers have studied this phenomenon.