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Déjà Vu: Brain Trick, or Superpower?

Have you ever walked into a space for the first time and felt as if you have been there before? Ever been talking to someone or listening to something and felt a feeling of familiarity, like you’ve experienced that moment before? You don’t know exactly when, but you must have somehow predicted this exact moment.

Déjà vu is a French term that means “already seen”. Even the most sensible of people have had this experience. In fact, studies show that about 60-70% of people have had these experiences at least once. They occur most commonly in 15-25 year-olds. However, the concept of Deja Vu is still very mysterious. It is hard to study because it happens randomly, rapidly, and to healthy people.

Most scientific researchers try to explain it mechanistically as merely a trick of the memory. Psychiatrists attribute déjà vu to a mismatch in the brain that mistakes the present for the past. Psychoanalysts attribute the sensation to wishful thinking that we can predict the future. Other people take the more esoteric stance that it is a form of precognition or prophesy. Parapsychologists believe it is related to past-life experiences.

Researchers speculate déjà vu is a brain input mismatch, where sensory input is mixed up with memory-recall. A related theory states that déjà vu is a malfunction between our long and short-term memory. The experience “leaks out” and gets incorrectly transferred from short-term to long-term memory, bypassing the usual mechanism. This makes it seem like the moment happened a long time ago. Another similar hypothesis is that it is a timing error. As we are experiencing a moment, other info is getting transferred to long-term storage, causing the feeling of having seen something before.

Some researchers have specifically pinpointed disturbances of the medial temporal lobe as the reason for déjà vu. Studies with epileptic patients demonstrate that stimulation of the rhinal cortex can actually induce a déjà vu episode. A study from Clinical Neuropsychology showed that electrical stimulation to these areas, as well as the hippocampus (a part of memory formation) and amygdala (a part of emotion) could induce déjà vu in epileptic patients.

In layman’s terms, when certain areas of the brain are stimulated at the same time, our brains may mis-categorize some of the information it’s trying to organize.

Déjà vu could be a filing mishap in our brains

A good example of this was revealed in a 2005 cognitive neuropsychology study at the University of Leeds in England that described two people with recurring occurrences of déjà vu. Their déjà vu was so severe that it was disturbing their life. Everyday activities like watching the news, reading the newspaper, and grocery shopping were very difficult for them because they felt they had already done them.  This study determined these subjects had damage to their frontal and temporal regions. Harm to these areas likely caused the patients’ familiarity signals to fire too frequently. Therefore, it was determined that in normal brains, déjà vu may occur due to processing errors in these regions of the brain.

While there continue to be scientific developments in understanding déjà vu. Others take on a more theoretical approach. The theoretical physicist Dr. Kaku explains déjà vu in terms of quantum mechanics. His theory is that there are many parallel universes in our reality. We do not vibrate in unison with them and cannot experience all of them. Sometimes, we may tune into another reality briefly, that can give us a premonition, and déjà vu can happen due to this crisscross reality effect.

Another more spiritual theory is that déjà vu is, in fact, a message from your higher self. It is a paranormal event. Your cosmic self recalls events, people, and experiences from your past lives. These moments are not mere coincidence and may signify that you are on the right path for your soul. They are clues provided to you by your higher self, to guide you in the right direction and help you remove obstacles in your way.

Clearly, there are many interpretations of the phenomenon we all know well. Whether it’s a filing mishap in our brains’ organizational centers or a message from our “higher selves,” déjà vu is nothing to be worried about. It is a very common experience and does not signify anything is wrong with you or your brain unless it happens extremely often. Feel free to assume you are just a very gifted fortuneteller!

"It's like déjà vu all over again.

-Yogi Berra, on witnessing Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the early 1960s Yankees' seasons.



Gaines, Jordan. "The Neuroscience of Déjà Vu." Psychology Today. Brain Bubble, 14 Aug. 2012. Web. 13 July 2014.

King, Deborah. "Deja Vu or past Life?" N.p., 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 July 2014.

Reber, Paul. "What Is Going on in the Brain When We Experience Déjà Vu?" Scientific American. Northwestern University, 19 Aug. 2012. Web. 13 July 2014.

Weltz, Vincent. "Deja Vu." Science in Our World: Certainty & Controversy. Penn State, 28 Nov. 2011. Web. 14 July 2014.

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