Understanding Déjà Vu: Experts Explain the Cognitive Phenomenon

Ever get the feeling that something or someone seems familiar, yet you swear you’ve never experienced or met this person before?

You may be walking down the street, somewhere you’ve never been, only to turn the corner and have an overwhelming sensation that you have been in that same spot before. No, you’re not going crazy. You’re just experiencing déjà vu.

“Déjà vu is a sudden, and involuntary, sensation that an event or set of circumstances currently being experienced has been experienced before, even when that cannot actually be the case,” says psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Neuman.

According to Dr. Anne Cleary, a cognitive psychologist at Colorado State University, a prior memory that we are unable to call to mind is what produces a sense of familiarity in a current situation. Sometimes, déjà vu can be accompanied by a sense of knowing what will happen next.

"If déjà vu itself results from an unrecalled, buried memory, then it is possible that an accompanying sense of what will happen next comes from that same buried memory," Cleary explains. In short, a past experience, even though you may fail to recall it, can allow you to predict the future without knowing why.

Neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki says there is some evidence that the same areas of the brain involved in memory retrieval are also active during the experience of déjà vu. "A particular object, the general configuration of the environment, or even a smell might trigger this feeling of overall familiarity." The brain is retrieving information from the past based on cues in the environment.

Although some believe these feelings of familiarity run deep in our memories, psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Bober believes otherwise.  He says déjà vu is simply the misfiring of "electrical circuits" in your brain.

"Some theorize that déjà vu could be a past life intruding on present time, but it is more like a ‘hiccup’ in our mind having to do with short term and long-term memory storage,” he explains.

Dr. Neuman adds that there are many, specific, unnamed feelings that color our moment to moment experience of life.  “I think these shifting, very subtle, feelings explain the sense of déjà vu that suddenly strike certain individuals from time to time.”

So what should we make of these déjà vu experiences when it comes to specific people or events?

Dr. Cleary says the best way to handle déjà vu is to treat it like a hint. "The feeling or sensation clues you in to the possibility that there is something relevant in your memory, and if you just keep searching your memory, you just may find it."

There are many theories and fantasies used to explain déjà vu, says Dr. Bober.  “At the end of the day, it is just another mystery of the mind that we can marvel at.”