“Haven’t I seen this before?” Déjà vu, a phrase of French origin meaning “already seen,” is a mysterious, often eerie sensation of having formerly experienced a situation that you are currently experiencing. From parapsychological claims of reincarnation to medical speculations of pharmaceutical interactions, déjà vu has over 40 scientific theories attempting to decode its existence. So far, some of the most plausible theories posit that déjà vu is a “hiccup” in the brain processes involved in memory, and that it is merely caused by cognitive slip-ups that trick our brains. These cognitive slip-ups are more than just random biological happenstances: they just might be indicative of the kind of person you are.
A brain “hiccup” can be a brief neural disconnect in the memory-processing areas of the brain, or possibly a tiny, localized seizure that produces a memory gap. This causes you to distance yourself from the initial memory, making it seem like you’re having a separate yet uncannily familiar memory of the same scene only seconds later. In other words, you think the same thought twice without realizing it. Another explanation suggests that people recognize familiar objects in unfamiliar situations, and this recognition can trigger separate memories that falsely manifest themselves as identical experiences. The more observant you are, the more objects you’ll recognize in instances of déjà vu.
Though déjà vu is a common sensation, not everybody experiences it. In fact, certain criteria can make you more or less prone to experiencing déjà vu. Synthesizing the results scientific studies of Alan Brown, Ph.D. and Anne Cleary, Ph.D., Jeannette Leardi illustrates the archetypal experiencers of déjà vu:
“In order to experience déjà vu, you have to be prone to it. Déjà vu-ers tend to be people who are educated and liberal. They are open to new and different experiences, and willing to accept rather than dismiss them. They’re also frequent travelers, readers, or movie-watchers, and they remember their dreams. They have built up a very large stockpile of images and experiences that feed the déjà vu reaction. Interestingly, young people report experiencing déjà vu more often than older adults…Not only do you have to be prone to experiencing déjà vu, but the circumstances also must be right. You’ll probably sense it more often in the evening, on the weekend, when you’re fatigued, under stress, doing everyday tasks or relaxing. Déjà vu can happen when your mind is momentarily distracted from what you’re looking at so that you don’t perceive it completely the first time around.”
Next time that you’re freaked out by your experience of déjà vu, just remember that it doesn’t mean you’re having memories from a past life. You’re probably just observant, young, educated, and/or stressed. Let déjà vu be a reminder of your brain’s ability to play tricks on you, and find humor in things you’ve already seen.