Déjà Vu: An enigma; is it science or something else?

Richa Khare

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A few years back while on vacation, I was entering a shopping mall when a group of students approached me with a few questions as a part of their school project. The first few were simple ones like from where were we and what we found fascinating in this city.

Then out of the blue one of them asked me “What is Déjà Vu?”, for which I answered what I knew from my own experiences. Then afterwards I came to know that I had won a special prize just for this answer! No one in the whole mall could answer it correctly.

Then I realized that though everyone is having this feeling at some point in their life, very few know that it’s happening to others too! Because it’s so sudden and gone in a few seconds we are not able to process it completely. We are left wondering what just happened?

What is a Déjà Vu?

Déjà Vu is the name given to a special feeling we encounter many times in our life. It’s a feeling of strong familiarity with a situation although we know that this is happening for the first time. Still, it feels as if it has happened before too. This feeling lingers just for a short while. As soon as the moment is gone, the familiarity goes with it.

It’s interesting to note that while having a Déjà Vu, we feel very strongly familiar and connected to a situation but after a while when that feeling is gone, it feels completely unfamiliar and distant.

Déjà Vu is a French phrase that translates to ‘already seen’. So the feeling that one has lived the present situation before is termed Déjà vu.

How Common Is Déjà Vu?

The percentage of people who experience Déjà Vu lies somewhere between 30% and 100%. Studies show that this feeling can start as early as six years of age and it’s the strongest between 15 and 25 years of age in our life.

It can happen once every week or months or even years. It’s so sudden and lasts for so little time that it’s very difficult to have any solid research on it. First of all, we can’t ask all the people in the world and whatever small group we survey on may have experienced it but can’t be sure. Again, the frequency is so low that it's impossible to study a person while having this feeling. It's so sudden and goes away so quickly that nothing can be recorded or studied in that period.

Still, studies have been conducted all over the world to solve this enigma.

What does Science say?

Research on Déjà Vu falls into two categories: Observational studies and Experimental studies.

Observational studies include measuring the features of Déjà Vu and looking for patterns and links in the results. These studies told us that younger people have more Déjà Vu experiences than older people.

In experimental studies, scientists try to trigger déjà vu experiences in people (one of the weirdest ways of doing this involved squirting warm water in people’s ears!). The idea behind these experiments has been that if we get to know what causes this experience, we might be able to understand more about the thought process that gives rise to it.

What Causes Déjà Vu?

Since it’s very difficult to observe and record this feeling, it’s difficult to understand what causes it. Some of the widely accepted theories are:

1. Split Perception

This theory suggests that Déjà Vu happens when we see something at two different times. The first time you saw something, you didn’t pay much attention and probably forgot about it. But your brain processed it and the details associated and formed a memory even though you don’t recall having seen it.

Now the next time when you will see it happening again, your mind will tell you it’s familiar based on the former memory though you feel otherwise. These two will produce conflict and give rise to Déjà Vu. It’ll feel like two different events though, in reality, it's just one continued perception of the same event.

2. Minor Brain Circuit Malfunctions

Another theory suggests Déjà Vu happens when our brain ‘glitches’, and experience a brief electric malfunction, very similar to an epileptic seizure.

This can be explained in other words as to a mix-up where our part of the brain which tracks present events and the part responsible for memory recall, both are active at the same time. This type of brain dysfunction is not a cause of concern unless it happens regularly.

Another theory suggests a relationship between short-term memory and a long-term one. Usually, when our brain absorbs some information, it follows a specific path first to short-term memory and then to long-term storage. This theory suggests that sometimes a memory takes a shortcut to long-term memory storage. This can make you feel that you are retrieving a long term memory rather than something that happened last second.

3. Memory Recall

Through research conducted by Anne Cleary, a Déjà vu researcher and psychology professor at Colorado State University, she’s found evidence that suggests that Déjà vu can happen in response to an event that resembles something which you have experienced but can’t recall.

Maybe it happened in childhood, but you are unable to recall it. So when something similar happens we feel as if it has happened before. This process of implicit memory leads to a somewhat odd feeling of familiarity. If you can recall a similar memory you’ll be able to relate both the events and won’t experience Déjà vu.

Here’s an example of this theory:

It’s your first day at a new job as a school teacher. As you walk into your class, you’re immediately taken aback by the overwhelming feeling you’ve been here before. The reddish wood of the chairs and tables, the huge teacher’s table in middle, the plant in the corner, the writing board on the wall — it all feels incredibly familiar to you.

If you’ve ever walked into a room with a similar layout and placement of furniture, chances are good you’re experiencing déjà vu because you have some memory of that room but can’t quite place it. Instead, you just feel as if you’ve seen a new class already, even though you haven’t.

Other Explanations

Various other explanations also exist to explain Déjà vu. Some people suggest its related to some psychic experience, such as memories of previous life or in a dream.

Different cultures also have different versions. For example, French people from whose language this term is taken, believe this to be more disturbing than their English-speaking counterparts.

What I Think

I have had my share of a fairly large number of Déjà vu experiences in life and still, I experience it quite frequently. I have a slightly different version from all the discussed above.

I would like to believe that this feeling arises due to the existence of Parallel Universes. Although this theory is not verified and most people don’t believe in it, I like to believe that there exists a parallel universe where we make different decisions and get altogether different results based on them. Where we don’t make the mistakes as we do in this universe( how cool it sounds! No more mistakes to regret in future). We feel Déjà vu when we have already experienced something in that universe and again we are experiencing it here. So it arises the feeling of familiarity.

But then, this is my personal opinion and it's not based on any study and research. I’m happy with this explanation.

Final Thoughts

Déjà vu is a phenomenon experienced by all but its still not explained fully and accurately due to its fleeting nature. Many studies have been conducted till now but nothing concrete has come up. Maybe one day we’ll get to know the real reason behind this, till then it's an Enigma for all of us to solve.

Bonus:

Jamais Vu

Termed as the opposite of Déjà vu, Jamais Vu is a feeling of unfamiliarity with a situation when we know that it's familiar. For example, sometimes it happens that we look at a word and suddenly the feeling comes that it's spelt wrong although it's correct. This feeling is temporary too like Déjà vu. When that moment is gone that same word looks correctly spelt.

So, now we know everything about Déjà vu and a little about Jamais Vu. How many of you knew already about these two?

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