“Doing It Again for the First Time”
“We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time—of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances—of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remember it!”
—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
It comes on without warning, that sudden and eerie feeling of “I’ve been here before.” Yet, you are certain that this is the first time you have ever set foot in this location. Or have you? Perhaps you hear a conversation and then realize that you have heard it before, word for word, nuance for nuance, yet there is no possible way you could have. Maybe you say or do something, and you stop, gasping as the feeling overwhelms you. “I said this before. I did this before.” Only you are not remembering an action from the past.
Instead, you are remembering an action from the present.
Déjà vu, French for “already seen” is one of the most widely reported, yet least understood, anomalies of the mind. Is it merely a brain slip, or the clue to something more—perhaps a true paranormal experience? Can the incident be explained as nothing more than a simple “glitch”—the backfiring of a neural connection as it speeds along, reversing back on itself for just a few seconds, re-recalling something that either just happened, or is happening NOW?
What is it? And why do so many of us have it so often?
Also known as promnesia (remembering something from the future) or paramnesia (distortion of memory), déjà vu has been described as everything from a “brain fart” to a memory “loop-de-loop” to a tantalizing glimpse into a parallel universe situated right smack alongside our own.
“I was saying the same words, to the same person, and wearing the same clothes. I was sitting in the same chair, doing the same thing, but it was as if I was doing it all over again. I knew I had not done any of it before in that very same way, because I had just gotten this new computer. Yet as it happened, and it only lasted a few seconds at most, I completely felt as though I had done it all before…in the exact same setting…”
So goes the average déjà vu experience. The distinct and often unsettling sensation of remembering something that is happening in that very same moment. An experience that would seem to be an utter contradiction in terms, for you cannot remember something as it is happening. This would certainly not appear to be short-term memory, but instantaneous memory.
“I could swear this happened before, in just the same way,” we hear people say as they scratch their heads in wonder and amazement. “I did this before.” “I said this before.” “I saw this before.” Yet those who have experienced this baffling phenomenon know without a doubt that they indeed did not do, say, or see it before.
A Brief History
Although we certainly believe that people have been experiencing it since the dawn of humanity, the formal history of déjà vu actually began hundreds of years ago, with mention of similar sensations in the writings of
The term déjà vu, which has no English equivalent, was termed by Emile Boirac (1851–1917). Boirac, a French philosopher, was fascinated with psychic phenomena, and in 1876 first applied the term to an event that occurred in the past. In a letter to the editor of Review Philosophique (some accredit the term to his book L’Avenir des Sciences Psychiques), Boirac called it “le sensation du déjà vu.” Later, in 1902, he served as president of the
Perhaps déjà vu is a reaction to a familiar sensation or memory from an earlier experience, one that was not fully detailed, yet filled with enough elements to trigger the feeling of having been there before. Triggers could be images, smells, or even sounds that make one feel a sudden sense of recognition during a new event or experience. A simple explanation for some déjà vu experiences, but one not quite convincing for those who have had very detailed, extended sensations involving actual conversations, specific locations, and certain people present. Some people have such profoundly detailed déjà vu, they mumble along to the words of a conversation they recall having before, but know for certain they are having for the first time.
In 1896, F.L. Arnaud introduced the concept of déjà vu into the scientific community. Arnaud formally proposed that the phenomenon be referred to using the common name of déjà vu (up until then, it has been called paramnesia, memory phantasms, and promnesia). Arnaud’s work included the categorization of the first “symptoms” of a typical déjà vu experience, gleaned from his studies of a 34-year-old patient recovering from cerebral malaria.
Frederick William Henry Myers (1843–1901), founder of the Society for Psychical Research, called déjà vu “promnesia,” which referred to the Greek pro meaning “prior to,” and mnesis, meaning “memory.” In 1889, psychologist William H. Burnham suggested that déjà vu occurs when the human body is over-rested, stating that when brain centers are “over-rested, the apperception of a strange scene may be so easy that the aspect of the scene may be familiar.” This discounted earlier beliefs that extreme fatigue caused déjà vu!
In 1896, Arthur Allin, a psychology professor at the
Carl Jung, in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, described déjà vu as “recognition of immemorially unknown” and believed the phenomenon was related to his concept of the collective unconscious. Since then, some writers have misconstrued Jung's idea of the collective unconscious as being some sort of shared memory bank of humanity, and that when experiencing déjà vu one was in fact accessing this repository. It has also been held that Jung’s collective unconscious also served as an origin point for sensations of having lived a past life. Certainly, accessing such a field of memory could provide for a variety of psychological, anomalous, and even “paranormal” anomalies involving mind, memory, and time.
The authors of this book posed the simple question, “What is déjà vu?” to the Yahoo Answers Website, and the responses ran from a glitch in the brain to God. Some of the more interesting answers are below:
1) Memories of the past becoming memories of the present inside the brain.
2) Deja vu, stands for “already seen,” in French. What happens is that just before you realize you see, your brain already processed the images, thus making a memory for it. The human mind is made like that that you automatically bring up memories after being exposed to a certain trigger. So basically, deja vu is preprocessing of the images caught with the eye. However, there are other types of deja vu's. In the other one, you can fully predict what someone will say and what will happen in a certain period of time, and you are fully realizing that. In that case, your brain either truly had experienced it before, which has small odds, since the change you experience something twice is quite small Or your brain processes
3) I don't think it is a misfire. I think it is something the brain is supposed to be doing. Everything that goes on around you—cars going by, people walking, wind blowing, the way something is settled on the ground—is taken in by your subconscious. I feel that these things are calculated by your subconscious to aid you in better judgment that prolongs survival. When what you have calculated actually happens a few moments later, you get the feeling of deja vu. I think it's possible the mild euphoria and positive recognition you feel is your brain producing chemicals to indicate you have prolonged your survival. When you are doing something good for your body, it feels good. Same goes for mental stimulus (in most cases, not including compulsion and mental defect).
4) I think that when we experience something, our brains break that experience down into various components, like what something looked like, what the weather was, what it felt like, and so on. Different parts of the brain receive these different dimensions of the experience since the brain has different areas that deal with things like color, movement, and other sensory modes. When we remember the experience, all of these different components are gathered together and presented to the consciousness as an integrated memory. Call this process of sensory recall and integration "The Presenter." When we have deja vu, we feel an uncanny sense that what we are experiencing we are experiencing for the second time exactly the way it happened the first time, and that we are always on the verge of knowing what will happen next because we've "been here before." This state can last quite a long time for some people. My own idea is that there is some neuronal activity in the brain, either from a direct stimulus or from internal misfiring that evokes what I called "The Presenter" all by itself with no palette of sensory experiences for it to integrate and show to the conscious. So we feel that we are experiencing a memory because "The Presenter" is active, but it's running on empty. So the sense of memory recall that "The Presenter" creates is applied to the immediate experience and you think "This has all happened before—I seem to be remembering it."
The most common modern theories into the origins of déjà vu involve the brain and memory. The latter part of the 20th century has led to some serious scientific study of the phenomenon as an anomaly of memory recall. To validate this explanation, researchers point to the fact that the “sense” of recollection of a déjà vu is actually stronger than the actual details of the recalled event itself! It is this “sensing” that the focus is placed upon. Studies claim that some people actually will go on to have déjà vu of past déjà vus! Remembering a memory? How could this be possible?
Although this sounds incredible, the emphasis here is on a glitch in short-term memory processing. Certainly, the possibility of this being a software “bug” in our brain’s programming is a possibility…and one which might explain the almost precognitive feel of the experience. Perhaps there is an overlap between the neurological systems responsible for short-term memory and those controlling long-term memory.
Some scientists have suggested that déjà vu is simply one eye perceiving an event a fraction of a second before the other eye does with the theory being that that one eye might record the stimuli fractionally faster, creating the sense of “recollection” once the other eye kicks in and cognitively makes the same perception. Although this seems like a rational, scientific explanation for the phenomenon, unfortunately it does not explain the research that has been conducted of people with only one functional eye who still report déjà vu. Again, this fact would point to the brain’s overall causal involvement with the strange phenomenon.
Unfortunately, when an anomaly is presented to science, the result is often to immediately categorize and label it as a functional disorder. Regrettably, déjà vu is not immune from this moniker. Some researchers have associated déjà vu with everything from anxiety to multiple personality disorder to epilepsy. Of all of the possible pathologies, temporal lobe epilepsy, which is the result of improper electrical discharges in the brain, seems to be most commonly associated with déjà vu.
In 1955, American-born Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield conducted his now famous experiments stimulating the temporal lobes of the study participants with electrical charges. Interestingly, Penfield, a pioneer in research into the human mind, found that approximately 8 percent of the participants experienced déjà vu type “memories” as a result of his electrical probing. Could déjà vu be just such a neurological anomaly that it only occurs in a select few? Possibly a glitch that is triggered by an aberration of the proper functioning of the brain or a zap of electricity to the temporal lobe? Or perhaps it is the brain mistaking a past memory for a present experience, thanks again to the misfiring of neurons, or missed neurological connections.
Cryptamnesia, the unconscious recollection of material that sometimes spontaneously rises to consciousness as memory, might also explain déjà vu. Perhaps it is true that learned information is never really forgotten, but instead stored away deep in the brain, and when a similar occurrence invokes a need for the knowledge learned in the past, suddenly, we remember it NOW, leading to the feeling of that all familiar feeling. In a 1941 study, hypnosis was utilized in an attempt to try and create post hypnotic amnesia in participants using previously viewed materials. Perhaps not surprisingly, three of the 10 participants reported having the sensation of déjà vu when once again presented with the material.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Multiple personality disorder, now more formally known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), hints at the spooky possibility that we all have fractured minds. In this disorder, it is believed that when one experiences the same thing as another, within the same time frame, we experience classic déjà vu. Same body, different mind, so to speak. This might explain why we always sense our presence in both worlds, yet know we are only operating fully in one (or are we?). Schizophrenia, one of the most interesting brain disorders, may also be linked to déjà vu, as a disease of a split mind that could account for the dual recognition of a single event.
Perhaps the mind has a mind of its own.
Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) is most often linked with déjà vu as a potential cause, because déjà vu sometimes accompanies experiences of TLE in patients, usually right before an attack or during the seizure between convulsions. However, the sheer prevalence of déjà vu experiences in society discredits this connection as being the sole source for them, nevertheless, way too many people who do not have TLE do experience déjà vu episodes.
Skeptics will argue that we are simply remembering a similar event, or even the actual event itself, but one that indeed really occurred many moons ago. Are we simply recalling an event from childhood, or a forgotten situation to which we barely paid the first time around? The very definition of the word skeptic is someone who “instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions” really says it all. One has to wonder, though, what the skeptics would say if they ever had had an intense experience of déjà vu, one that shakes the very foundation of what they believe reality to be. What would their reaction be to an experience that forces them to consider if there is truly some deeper, more implicate meaning to their existence?Not everyone agrees that déjà vu is an anomaly of the memory, or even some kind of simple brain slip-up. Some suggest that déjà vu is a proverbial doorway or, rather, a peek inside the keyhole of a door that leads to other (perhaps more interesting!) worlds. Or maybe a fleeting vision of a past life or even a parallel life in another dimension, another universe. Think of the incredible possibilities! Are we indeed living double lives? And is déjà vu the connective link between those lives?