The experience of déjà vu is a truly extraordinary phenomenon that has been studied by scholars of various disciplines. Before it became a subject of scientific research, the occurrences of déjà vu were frequently mentioned throughout history by such figures as Pythagoras, St Augustine, Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Dickens. Since the nature of this experience is highly complex, it is challenging to give it one accurate definition and explanation of its origin, and despite the numerous studies and experiments, the concept of déjà vu is still disputable.
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Definitions of Deja Vu
The term ‘déjà Vu comes from French and means “already seen” (Neppe 1). However, the term refers to all types of experiences, like “already heard,” “already thought,” “already felt,” or “already done.” This phenomenon has been studied by various scientists, from different perspectives, and has several alternative explanations. Déjà vu is a feeling that always arises in a completely new and unknown situation for an individual. In his study of clinical disorders of memory, Khan describes that a sense of déjà vu usually happens under fatigue, heightened sensitivity, and anxiety (206). Such experience is quite common for young people, especially those predisposed to daydreaming. Typically, déjà vu lasts only a few seconds, but in particular pathological cases, the feeling might stay for a longer time (Khan 206). A person experiencing déjà vu recognizes only some aspects of the event but does not know where and when something similar had happened before or whether it happened at all. According to Neppe, déjà vu has an individual character and evokes the “inappropriate familiarity of the present experience” (1). In his research, Neppe defined four separate subtypes of this phenomenon: a temporal lobe epileptic déjà vu, psychotic déjà vu, subjective psi experience déjà vu, and the most common form – associative déjà vu (3). The phenomenon has mostly been studied from the perspective of psychology, however, for the past decades, scholars have been investigating it about epilepsy, schizophrenia, psychosis, and subjective psi experience (Neppe 4).
Explanations of the Experience
Dunlosky and Tauber state that déjà vu possesses a certain adaptive function as it suggests that related information already exists in an individual’s memory (103). The sense of familiarity could be developed from a situation experienced in the past and triggered by the same environment, including visual elements, noise, smells, and other stimuli. It is an experience, when “something is familiar but more conscious deliberative systems cannot detect where that familiarity comes from” (Dunlosky and Tauber 103). A person cannot recall the exact event in his or her memory because, in most cases, it is only one tiny detail that can link two unrelated situations and provoke déjà vu. Schwartz, Bennet, and Brown have conducted various experiments and tests, examining the nature of déjà vu and discovered that it can “result from a similarity of the spatial layout of the current situation to one stored in memory” (273). For example, a person enters a college building for the first time and suddenly experiences déjà vu. The reason for this inappropriate familiarity might lay in the existence of the extremely similar layout of the settings in a person’s memory. The pattern of the windows or furniture in this building might be similar to a pattern of the shelves in a supermarket or plants in a park, seen a long time ago.
For more than a century, researchers have been investigating the phenomenon of déjà vu, yet due to its subjective nature, no specific explanation has been found. The subject has different interpretations from the points of view of psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists, but they all agree that it is an impression of irrelevant familiarity that is based on the experiences from the past. Déjà vu can exist in a pathological form and relate to specific disorders, and in the non-pathological form that is common to all human beings.
Dunlosky, John, and Sarah Tauber. The Oxford Handbook of Metamemory. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Khan, Aman U. Clinical Disorders of Memory. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.
Neppe, Vernon M. “An Overview Perspective on what Déjà Vu is (Part 1).” Journal of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 2, no. 6, 2015.
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Schwartz, Bennett L., and Alan S Brown. Tip-of-the-Tongue States and Related Phenomena. Cambridge University Press, 2014.