How to deal with deja vu

How to deal with deja vu

Contributor: Patrick Chauvel, MD

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Déjà vu is a brisk, stunning sensation of having already lived a totally identical situation in some undefined past. The feeling that you’ve done this exact same thing once before — been in this place, engaged in this conversation — overwhelms you.

At the same time, you’re clearly aware that this cannot be reality because you have never been in this place or met these people at any time in your past.

Sixty to 70 percent of healthy people experience this transitory mental state. A peculiar visual context most often triggers déjà vu, although spoken words alone sometimes create the illusion of familiarity.

Déjà vu occurs most often between 15 and 25 years of age and decreases progressively with age. People who have more education, who travel, who remember their dreams and who hold liberal beliefs are more susceptible to it. Among students, fatigue or stress may facilitate déjà vu. Déjà vu also occurs more frequently on evenings and weekends.

Insight into how déjà vu happens

Déjà vu can also be a neurological symptom. The same sensation, with exactly the same features, is often reported by patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.

Recordings of the brain prior to surgery for temporal epilepsy offer some insight into the mechanisms of déjà vu. In the brain, part of the temporal cortex lies just below the hippocampus. Seizure discharges from this temporal cortex simultaneously activate two circuits in the hippocampus.

One circuit monitors our ongoing experience of the outer world. The other retrieves past memories. The simultaneous activation compresses time between the two brain functions, causing us to “remember the present,” or experience déjà vu.

When déjà vu signals a problem

Déjà vu may suggest a neurological problem when it:

  • Occurs frequently (a few times a month or more often versus a few times a year)
  • Is accompanied by abnormal dream-like memories or visual scenes
  • Is followed by loss of consciousness and/or symptoms such as unconscious chewing, fumbling, racing of the heart, or a feeling of fear

If there is any doubt about the cause of déjà vu, it is important to consult a neurologist.

Apart from epilepsy, déjà vu has been observed in vascular dementia and more rarely in other dementias. Patients with frontotemporal dementia experience persistent déjà vu and fabricate stories about their current life to rationalize the illusion.

Dr. Chauvel is a neurologist in Cleveland Clinic’s Epilepsy Center.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Author

Research Fellow in Neuroscience, UNSW

Disclosure statement

Amy Reichelt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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UNSW provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations

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Have you ever experienced a sudden feeling of familiarity while in a completely new place? Or the feeling you’ve had the exact same conversation with someone before?

This feeling of familiarity is, of course, known as déjà vu (a French term meaning “already seen”) and it’s reported to occur on an occasional basis in 60-80% of people. It’s an experience that’s almost always fleeting and it occurs at random.

So what is responsible for these feelings of familiarity?

Despite coverage in popular culture, experiences of déjà vu are poorly understood in scientific terms. Déjà vu occurs briefly, without warning and has no physical manifestations other than the announcement: “I just had déjà vu!”

Many researchers propose that the phenomenon is a memory-based experience and assume the memory centres of the brain are responsible for it.

Memory systems

The medial temporal lobes are vital for the retention of long-term memories of events and facts. Certain regions of the medial temporal lobes are important in the detection of familiarity, or recognition, as opposed to the detailed recollection of specific events.

It has been proposed that familiarity detection depends on rhinal cortex function, whereas detailed recollection is linked to the hippocampus.

The randomness of déjà vu experiences in healthy individuals makes it difficult to study in an empirical manner. Any such research is reliant on self-reporting from the people involved.

Glitches in the matrix

A subset of epilepsy patients consistently experience déjà vu at the onset of a seizure – that is, when seizures begin in the medial temporal lobe. This has given researchers a more experimentally controlled way of studying déjà vu.

Epileptic seizures are evoked by alterations in electrical activity in neurons within focal regions of the brain. This dysfunctional neuronal activity can spread across the whole brain like the shock waves generated from an earthquake. The brain regions in which this electrical activation can occur include the medial temporal lobes.

Electrical disturbance of this neural system generates an aura (a warning of sorts) of déjà vu prior to the epileptic event.

By measuring neuronal discharges in the brains of these patients, scientists have been able to identify the regions of the brain where déjà vu signals begin.

It has been found that déjà vu is more readily induced in epilepsy patients through electrical stimulation of the rhinal cortices as opposed to the hippocampus. These observations led to the speculation that déjà vu is caused by a dysfunctional electrical discharge in the brain.

These neuronal discharges can occur in a non-pathological manner in people without epilepsy. An example of this is a hyponogogic jerk, the involuntary twitch that can occur just as you are falling asleep.

It has been proposed that déjà vu could be triggered by a similar neurological discharge, resulting in a strange sense of familiarity.

Some researchers argue that the type of déjà vu experienced by temporal lobe epilepsy patients is different from typical déjà vu.

The déjà vu experienced prior to an epileptic seizure may be enduring, rather than a fleeting feeling in those who don’t have epileptic seizures. In people without epilepsy the vivid recognition combined with the knowledge that the environment is truly novel intrinsically underpins the experience of déjà vu.

Mismatches and short circuits

Déjà vu in healthy participants is reported as a memory error which may expose the nature of the memory system. Some researchers speculate that déjà vu occurs due to a discrepancy in memory systems leading to the inappropriate generation of a detailed memory from a new sensory experience.

That is, information bypasses short-term memory and instead reaches long-term memory.

This implies déjà vu is evoked by a mismatch between the sensory input and memory-recalling output. This explains why a new experience can feel familiar, but not as tangible as a fully recalled memory.

Other theories suggest activation of the rhinal neural system, involved in the detection of familiarity, occurs without activation of the recollection system within the hippocampus. This leads to the feeling of recognition without specific details.

Related to this theory, it was proposed that déjà vu is a reaction of the brain’s memory systems to a familiar experience. This experience is known to be novel, but has many recognisable elements, albeit in a slightly different setting. An example? Being in a bar or restaurant in a foreign country that has the same layout as one you go to regularly at home.

Even more theories exist regarding the cause of déjà vu. These span from the paranormal – past lives, alien abduction and precognitive dreams – to memories formed from experiences that are not first-hand (such as scenes in movies).

So far there is no simple explanation as to why déjà vu occurs, but advances in neuroimaging techniques may aid our understanding of memory and the tricks our minds seem to play on us.

All of us have experienced being in a new place and feeling certain that we have been there before. This mysterious feeling, commonly known as déjà vu, occurs when we feel that a new situation is familiar, even if there is evidence that the situation could not have occurred previously. For a long time, this eerie sensation has been attributed to everything from paranormal disturbances to neurological disorders. However, in recent years, as more scientists began studying this phenomenon, a number of theories about déjà vu have emerged, suggesting that it is not merely a glitch in our brain’s memory system. A new report by Colorado State University psychologist Anne M. Cleary, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, describes recent findings about déjà vu, including the many similarities that exist between déjà vu and our understanding of human recognition memory.

Recognition memory is the type of memory that allows us to realize that what we are currently experiencing has already been experienced before, such as when we recognize a friend on the street or hear a familiar song on the radio. The brain fluctuates between two different types of recognition memory: recollection and familiarity. Recollection-based recognition occurs when we can pinpoint an instance when a current situation has previously occurred. For example, seeing a familiar man at a store and realizing that we’ve seen him before on the bus. On the other hand, familiarity-based recognition occurs when our current situation feels familiar, but we don’t remember when it has happened before. For example, we see that familiar man in the store, but we just can’t remember where we know him from. Déjà vu is believed to be an example of familiarity-based recognition— during déjà vu, we are convinced that we recognize the situation, but we are not sure why.

Cleary conducted experiments testing familiarity-based recognition in which participants were given a list of celebrity names. Later on, they were shown a collection of celebrity photographs; some photographs corresponded to the names on the list, other photographs did not. The volunteers were told to identify the celebrities in the photographs and indicate how likely it was the celebrity’s names were on the list they had seen previously. The findings were surprising. Even when the volunteers were unable to identify a celebrity by photo, they had a sense of which names they had studied earlier and which they had not. That is, they couldn’t identify the source of their familiarity with the celebrity, but they knew the celebrity was familiar to them. Cleary repeated the experiment substituting famous places (such as Stonehenge and the Taj Majal) for celebrities and got similar results. These findings indicate that the participants stored a little bit of the memory, but it was hazy, so they were not able to connect it to the new experience.

Cleary also ran experiments to figure out what features or elements of situations could trigger feelings of familiarity. She had participants study a random list of words. During a word recognition test, some of the words on the test resembled the earlier words, although only in sound (e.g. lady sounds similar to eighty), but the volunteers reported a sense of familiarity for the new words, even when they could not recall the earlier-presented, similar-sounding words that were the source of this familiarity. Previous research has also shown that people feel familiarity when shown a visual fragment containing isolated geometric shapes from an earlier experience. This suggests that familiar geometric shapes may create the sense that an entire new scene has been viewed before.

These results support the idea that events and episodes which we experience are stored in our memory as individual elements or fragments of that event. Déjà vu may occur when specific aspects of a current situation resemble certain aspects of previously occurring situations; if there is a lot of overlap between the elements of the new and old situations, we get a strong feeling of familiarity. “Many parallels between explanations of déjà vu and theories of human recognition memory exist”, Cleary concludes, “Theories of familiarity-based recognition and the laboratory methods used to study it may be especially useful for elucidating the processes underlying déjà vu experiences.”

Comments

Were the participants in the experiments later asked if they had ever had a deja vu experience, and if so, did the sense of familiarity induced by this experiment feel like deja vu to them?

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Déjà vu: brain tricks, or predicting the future?

Posted August 14, 2012

How to deal with deja vu

Even the most rational of us experience it: you’ll be chatting with friends or exploring a place you’ve never been when suddenly a feeling washes over you: you’ve experienced this exact moment before. The familiarity is overwhelming, and it shouldn’t be familiar at all. The sensation becomes stronger before ebbing, then completely leaves, all within a matter of seconds. Had you predicted the future? Yet, chances are, you can’t pinpoint exactly when you’d experienced that premonition before.

Déjà vu is a French term that literally means “already seen” and is reported to occur in 60-70% of people, most commonly between the ages of 15 and 25. The fact that déjà vu occurs so randomly and rapidly—and in individuals without a medical condition—makes it difficult to study, and why and how the phenomenon occurs is up to much speculation. Psychoanalysts may attribute it to wishful thinking; some psychiatrists cite mismatching in the brain causing us to mistake the present for the past. Still, parapsychologists may even believe it is related to a past-life experience. So what do we know for certain about what happens during an episode of déjà vu?

Some researchers speculate that déjà vu occurs when there is a mismatch in the brain during its constant attempt to create whole perceptions of our world with very limited input. Think about your memory: it only takes small bits of sensory information (a familiar smell, for instance) to bring forth a very detailed recollection. Déjà vu is suggested to be some sort of “mix-up” between sensory input and memory-recalling output. This vague theory, however, does not explain why the episode we experience is not necessarily from a true past event.

A different but related theory states that déjà vu is a fleeting malfunctioning between the long- and short-term circuits in the brain. Researchers postulate that the information we take in from our surroundings may “leak out” and incorrectly shortcut its way from short- to long-term memory, bypassing typical storage transfer mechanisms. When a new moment is experienced—which is currently in our short-term memory—it feels as though we’re drawing upon some memory from our distant past.

A similar hypothesis suggests that déjà vu is an error in timing; while we perceive a moment, sensory information may simultaneously be re-routing its way to long-term storage, causing a delay and, perhaps, the unsettling feeling that we’ve experienced the moment before.

One characteristic is common of all déjà vu experiences: we are completely conscious that they are occurring, implying that participation of the entire brain is not necessary to produce the phenomenon.

Over the years, researchers have pinpointed disturbances of the medial temporal lobe as the culprit behind déjà vu. Studies of epileptic patients investigated via intracerebral electrodes demonstrate that stimulation of the rhinal cortex (such as the entorhinal and perirhinal cortices—structures involved in episodic memory and sensory processing) can actually induce a déjà vu episode.

A study published in the March issue of Clinical Neurophysiology analyzed the patterns of electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the rhinal cortices, hippocampus (involved in memory formation), and amygdala (involved in emotion) in epileptic patients for whom déjà vu could be induced by electrical stimulation.

The researchers (from France!—who better?) found that synchronized neural firing between the rhinal cortices and the hippocampus or amygdala were increased in stimulations that induced déjà vu. This suggests that some sort of coincident occurrence in medial temporal lobe structures may “trigger” activation of the recollection system.

While the cause and precise mechanism of déjà vu remains a mystery, worry not—if it happens, nothing is wrong with you. In fact, bask in the moment and appreciate the strange feeling that washes over you. Or pretend to be a fortune teller.

“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.

Bartolomei F, Barbeau EJ, Nguyen T, McGonigal A, Régis J, Chauvel P, & Wendling F (2012). Rhinal-hippocampal interactions during déjà vu. Clinical neurophysiology : official journal of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology, 123 (3), 489-95 PMID: 21924679

All of us have experienced being in a new place and feeling certain that we have been there before. This mysterious feeling, commonly known as déjà vu, occurs when we feel that a new situation is familiar, even if there is evidence that the situation could not have occurred previously. For a long time, this eerie sensation has been attributed to everything from paranormal disturbances to neurological disorders. However, in recent years, as more scientists began studying this phenomenon, a number of theories about déjà vu have emerged, suggesting that it is not merely a glitch in our brain’s memory system. A new report by Colorado State University psychologist Anne M. Cleary, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, describes recent findings about déjà vu, including the many similarities that exist between déjà vu and our understanding of human recognition memory.

Recognition memory is the type of memory that allows us to realize that what we are currently experiencing has already been experienced before, such as when we recognize a friend on the street or hear a familiar song on the radio. The brain fluctuates between two different types of recognition memory: recollection and familiarity. Recollection-based recognition occurs when we can pinpoint an instance when a current situation has previously occurred. For example, seeing a familiar man at a store and realizing that we’ve seen him before on the bus. On the other hand, familiarity-based recognition occurs when our current situation feels familiar, but we don’t remember when it has happened before. For example, we see that familiar man in the store, but we just can’t remember where we know him from. Déjà vu is believed to be an example of familiarity-based recognition— during déjà vu, we are convinced that we recognize the situation, but we are not sure why.

Cleary conducted experiments testing familiarity-based recognition in which participants were given a list of celebrity names. Later on, they were shown a collection of celebrity photographs; some photographs corresponded to the names on the list, other photographs did not. The volunteers were told to identify the celebrities in the photographs and indicate how likely it was the celebrity’s names were on the list they had seen previously. The findings were surprising. Even when the volunteers were unable to identify a celebrity by photo, they had a sense of which names they had studied earlier and which they had not. That is, they couldn’t identify the source of their familiarity with the celebrity, but they knew the celebrity was familiar to them. Cleary repeated the experiment substituting famous places (such as Stonehenge and the Taj Majal) for celebrities and got similar results. These findings indicate that the participants stored a little bit of the memory, but it was hazy, so they were not able to connect it to the new experience.

Cleary also ran experiments to figure out what features or elements of situations could trigger feelings of familiarity. She had participants study a random list of words. During a word recognition test, some of the words on the test resembled the earlier words, although only in sound (e.g. lady sounds similar to eighty), but the volunteers reported a sense of familiarity for the new words, even when they could not recall the earlier-presented, similar-sounding words that were the source of this familiarity. Previous research has also shown that people feel familiarity when shown a visual fragment containing isolated geometric shapes from an earlier experience. This suggests that familiar geometric shapes may create the sense that an entire new scene has been viewed before.

These results support the idea that events and episodes which we experience are stored in our memory as individual elements or fragments of that event. Déjà vu may occur when specific aspects of a current situation resemble certain aspects of previously occurring situations; if there is a lot of overlap between the elements of the new and old situations, we get a strong feeling of familiarity. “Many parallels between explanations of déjà vu and theories of human recognition memory exist”, Cleary concludes, “Theories of familiarity-based recognition and the laboratory methods used to study it may be especially useful for elucidating the processes underlying déjà vu experiences.”

Comments

Were the participants in the experiments later asked if they had ever had a deja vu experience, and if so, did the sense of familiarity induced by this experiment feel like deja vu to them?

Most of us have experienced deja vu—that sensation when new events feel eerily familiar. Could this “glitch in the Matrix” be a brain short-circuit?

  • By Everyday Einstein Sabrina Stierwalt on March 23, 2020

How to deal with deja vu

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Wait, have I been here before? Have we stood in this exact spot as you said these same words to me at some point in the past? Haven’t I seen this very cat pass by this very hallway already? Sometimes, as we experience a new event or place, we get that creepy feeling that it’s not the first time. We call that sensation déjà vu, a French phrase that means “already seen.” But what is déjà vu, and can science explain why it happens?

Déjà vu feels like a “glitch in the Matrix”

Some think déjà vu is a sign that you’re recalling an experience from a past life. Spooky!

Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity in The Matrix trilogy, tells us (and Keanu Reeves as Neo) that déjà vu is a “glitch in the Matrix”—the simulated reality that keeps humanity unaware that intelligent machines have actually taken over the world. That explanation is perfect for cyberpunk science fiction, but it doesn’t give us any scientific understanding of the phenomenon.

We associate the feeling of déjà vu with mystery and even the paranormal because it is fleeting and usually unexpected. The very things that intrigue us about déjà vu are the same things that make it hard to study. But scientists have tried using tricks like hypnosis and virtual reality.

Déjà vu could be a memory phenomenon

Scientists have tried to effectively recreate déjà vu in the lab. In a 2006 study by Leeds Memory Group, researchers would first create a memory for patients under hypnosis. That memory was usually something simple like playing a game or looking at a printed word in a certain color. Then patients in the different groups were given a suggestion to either forget or remember the memory, which could later trigger the sense of déjà vu when they encountered the game or word.

Other scientists have attempted to bring on déjà vu using virtual reality. One study found that participants reported experiencing déjà vu when moving through the virtual reality Sims video game when one scene was purposefully created to spatially map to another. (For example, all of the bushes in a virtual garden were replaced with piles of trash to create a junkyard with the same layout.)

These experiments have led scientists to suspect that déjà vu is a memory phenomenon. We encounter a situation that is similar to an actual memory but we can’t fully recall that memory. So our brain recognizes the similarities between our current experience and one in the past. We’re left with a feeling of familiarity that we can’t quite place.

Beyond this general explanation, there are dozens of theories that attempt to explain why our memories might malfunction in this way. Some say it’s like a short in the circuits in our brain leading to long- versus short-term memory so that new incoming information goes straight to long term memory instead of making a stop in the short term memory bank. Others blame the rhinal cortex—the area of the brain that signals that something feels familiar—for somehow being triggered without the memories to back it up.

Another theory is that déjà vu is associated with false memories—memories that feel real but aren’t. This form of déjà vu would be similar to the feeling when you can’t differentiate between something that really happened versus a dream. However, researchers have begun to push back on this idea.

One study used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 21 participants as they experienced a kind of lab-induced déjà vu. Interestingly, the areas of the brain involved in memory, like the hippocampus, were not triggered as we would suspect if the feeling was linked to a false memory. Instead, the researchers found the active areas of the brain were those involved in decision making. They interpret this result to mean that déjà vu could instead be a result of our brains conducting some form of conflict resolution. In other words, our brain checks through our memories like a rolodex looking for any conflict between what we think we’ve experienced versus what actually happened to us.

Having dГ©jГ vu can be a somewhat disorienting experience, there’s no doubt about that. You’re in a totally new situation, and yet you get this distinct feeling that it has all happened before. I had a dГ©jГ vu moment just yesterday, in fact. I was at a diner with a friend and their friend, a person I’d never met before, and yet I had this overwhelming feeling that the three of us had previously been there together. It’s unsettling, you know? I’ve heard a lot of theories that debate what this phenomenon is, and whether dГ©jГ vu is real, but is there any legit science to the whole thing?

As it turns out, my friends, there has, indeed, been some research out there that aims to get to the bottom of this age-old phenomenon, and I hate to break it to you, but it seems like dГ©jГ vu isn’t quite as magical or metaphysical as it feels.

Cognitive psychologist Anne Cleary, of Colorado State University (CSU), has investigated dГ©jГ vu for years now. In fact, in a 2012 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, she and her team of researchers found that the phenomenon might be explained as simply having an experience that triggers a memory of something you did or experienced that feels similar, but your mind just isn’t quite able to access that memory (or memories). I know, it’s confusing, but think about it this way: It’s kind of like your brain is registering an “error” message of sorts, or trying to make sense of a memory that isn’t actually there.

Cleary’s previous research indicated that these “false memories,” or the feeling of having experienced something before, could essentially be “planted” — and that’s what her new research set out to do.

Cleary’s new study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, essentially recreated dГ©jГ vu experiences in the study participants, specifically with the intention to examine their feelings of premonition — in other words, the feeling that you can predict what’s going to happen next, based on your dГ©jГ vu experience.

According to the research, Cleary created dynamic virtual reality video scenes, in which the participants moved through a series of turns through various settings, like yards or streets. Then, later on, the participants moved through a different set scenes, which were intentionally mapped to be spatially similar to the previous scenes, but were aesthetically different. The researchers believed these subtle similarities between the two sets of scenes would successfully cause that dГ©jГ vu sensation in the participants, and make them think they could predict what they might see next.

Picture it this way: You’re passing through a virtual backyard, where there’s a bush on your left in one scene, then later, you’re passing through the same sized yard, but now it’s a junkyard, and there’s a car on the left, in the same exact spot where the bush was in the previous setting.

Toward the end of the experiment, the participants were asked what they thought the final turn in the scene would be, and whether or not they felt like they knew what the next turn should be. According to the study’s findings, about half of the participants who had been brought through the two spatially similar videos felt very strong premonitions and experienced dГ©jГ vu, but get this: They weren’t more likely to give the correct answer as to what the next turn would be, than if they were to just choose randomly, without any influence of dГ©jГ vu or premonition.

Basically, these study participants felt confident they could predict what they’d see next in these virtual scenes, but their answers weren’t actually accurate.

In an interview with CSU’s College of Natural Sciences, Cleary explained her findings:

We cannot consciously remember the prior scene, but our brains recognize the similarity. That information comes through as the unsettling feeling that we’ve been there before, but we can’t pin down when or why.

My working hypothesis is that déjà vu is a particular manifestation of familiarity. You have familiarity in a situation when you feel you shouldn’t have it, and that’s why it’s so jarring, so striking.

Interesting stuff, right?

So, the next time you’re getting that super weird dГ©jГ vu feeling, I’m sorry to tell you that it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re psychic, nor does it automatically mean you’re experiencing a past life. It’s likely just your very complicated, and very cool brain, doing its thing. But if you ask me, that’s still pretty freaking awesome in and of itself.