The term déją vu is French and means, literally, “already seen.” Those who have experienced the feeling describe it as an overwhelming sense of familiarity with something that shouldn’t be familiar at all. Say, for example, you are traveling to England for the first time. You are touring a cathedral, and suddenly it seems as if you have been in that very spot before. Or maybe you are having dinner with a group of friends, discussing some current political topic, and you have the feeling that you’ve already experienced this very thing — same friends, same dinner, same topic. The phenomenon is rather complex, and there are many different theories as to why déją vu happens. Swiss scholar Arthur Funkhouser suggests that there are several “déją experiences” and asserts that in order to better study the phenomenon, the nuances between the experiences need to be noted. In the examples mentioned above, Funkhouser would describe the first incidence as déją visité (“already visited”) and the second as déją vecu (“already experienced or lived through”). As much as 70 percent of the population reports having experienced some form of déją vu. A higher number of incidents occurs in people 15 to 25 years old than in any other age group. Déją vu has been firmly associated with temporal-lobe epilepsy. Reportedly, déją vu can occur just prior to a temporal-lobe epileptic attack. People suffering an epileptic seizure of this kind can experience déją vu during the actual seizure activity or in the moments between convulsions. Since déją vu occurs in individuals with and without a medical condition, there is much speculation as to how and why this phenomenon happens. Several psychoanalysts attribute déją vu to simple fantasy or wish fulfillment, while some psychiatrists ascribe it to a mismatching in the brain that causes the brain to mistake the present for the past. Many parapsychologists believe it is related to a past-life experience. Obviously, there is more investigation to be done.déją vuDéją vu is French for “already seen.” Déją vu is an uncanny feeling or illusion of having already seen or experienced something that is being experienced for the first time. If we assume that the experience is actually of a remembered event, then déją vu probably occurs because an original experience was neither fully attended to nor elaborately encoded in memory. If so, then it would seem most likely that the present situation triggers the recollection of a fragment from one’s past. The experience may seem uncanny if the memory is so fragmented that no strong connections can be made between the fragment and other memories. Thus, the feeling that one has been there before is often due to the fact that one has been there before. One has simply forgotten most of the original experience because one was not paying close attention the first time. The original experience may even have occurred only seconds or minutes earlier.On the other hand, the déją vu experience may be due to having seen pictures or heard vivid stories many years earlier. The experience may be part of the dim recollections of childhood.However, it is possible that the déją vu feeling is triggered by a neurochemical action in the brain that is not connected to any actual experience in the past. One feels strange and identifies the feeling with a memory, even though the experience is completely new.The term was applied by Emile Boirac (1851-1917), who had strong interests in psychic phenomena. Boirac’s term directs our attention to the past. However, a little reflection reveals that what is unique about déją vu is not something from the past but something in the present, namely, the strange feeling one has. We often have experiences the novelty of which is unclear. In such cases we may have been led to ask such questions as, “Have I read this book before?” “Is this an episode of Inspector Morse I’ve seen before?” “This place looks familiar; have I been here before?” Yet, these experiences are not accompanied by an uncanny feeling. We may feel a bit confused, but the feeling associated with the déją vu experience is not one of confusion; it is one of strangeness. There is nothing strange about not remembering whether you’ve read a book before, especially if you are fifty years old and have read thousands of books over your lifetime. In the déją vu experience, however, we feel strange because we don’t think we should feel familiar with the present perception. That sense of inappropriateness is not present when one is simply unclear whether one has read a book or seen a film before. Thus, it is possible that the attempt to explain the déją vu experience in terms of lost memory, past lives, clairvoyance, and so on may be completely misguided. We should be talking about the déją vu feeling. That feeling may be caused by a brain state, by neurochemical factors during perception that have nothing to do with memory. It is worth noting that the déją vu feeling is common among psychiatric patients. The déją vu feeling also frequently precedes temporal lobe epilepsy attacks. When Wilder Penfield did his famous experiment in 1955 in which he electrically stimulated the temporal lobes, he found about 8% of his subjects experienced “memories.” He assumed he elicited actual memories. They could well have been hallucinations and the first examples of artificially stimulated déją vu.
THREE TYPES OF DEJA VU Arthur Funkhouser, Ph.D., Bern, Switzerland (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The term ‘deja vu’ has been around quite a while, now, and, in the last few years has become practically a buzz-word, being often found in books, newspaper accounts and magazine articles concerned with a wide variety of topics (I have amassed quite a collection, should anyone wish to see them). The problem is, though, that while many see fit to employ it in their writing and conversation, just exactly what is meant by the words ‘deja vu’ is pretty vague. Many, based on their own experience, believe it must refer to what they encountered and/or felt, while others, having never had such experiences, have a very foggy notion of what is meant, if at all. As such, it has become a sort of catch-all label for any number of hard-to-explain, sometimes upsetting occurrences of unexpected recognition, in which the person involved has trouble identifying an antecedent for the events and/orplaces which seem so strangely and intensely familiar. In addition, the term ‘deja vu’ has become encrusted, over the years, with a number of unfortunate associations, ranging from reincarnation to temporal lobe epilepsy, which hinder further research. These ‘explanations’ along with others such as delayed intra-hemisphere transmission over the corpus callosum as well as an astonishing array of psychoanalytical theories lead people to believe that all that one needs to know about such experiences is already known and that there is nothing of interest still to be done. I believe the time has come, therefore, for our terminology, especially in educated discourse, to become more differentiated (in fact, if I had my way, we would get rid of ‘deja vu’ altogether as over-worked and entitled to a well-deserved rest). To this end, I would like to draw attention to three forms of ‘deja’ experience, defining each as we go along, and plea that these be used when discussing the experiences they refer to. Upon reflection, readers may come up with other, better terms for these experiences or propose terms for other, related experiences which are not the same as the ones described in the following. Since French scientists and thinkers were the first to investigate these phenomena, it seems fitting to retain French names for these intriguing experiences.
1. Deja vecu (already experienced or lived through) A fairly well-known quote from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens can be used to introduce what is meant by deja vecu, 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 suddenlyremember it! (chapter 39) This describes the feeling that many people know as deja vu (if they know a name for it). A number of surveys have shown that about one third of the general population have had such or similar experiences. Moreover, surveys have indicated that such experiences tend to occur more frequently and possibly more intensely when the respondents were young, say between ages 15 to 25. In addition, such experiences are frequently, if not always, connected with very banal events. They are so striking, though, that they are often clearly remembered for years following their occurrence. Anyone having had such experiences knows that they normally involve more sense modalities than just sight. As in the Dickens quotation, they can easily involve hearing, tasting, touch and/or proprioceptive perceptions as well. This is why referring to such experiences as simply deja vu is inadequate. Another feature of deja vecu that most would agree with is the amazing detail involved. When you are in the midst of such an occurrence, you are conscious that everything conforms with your ‘memory’ of it.