The Psychology of Déjà vu

All of us have experienced being in a new place and feeling certain that we have been there before. This mysterious feeling, commonly known as déjà vu, occurs when we feel that a new situation is familiar, even if there is evidence that the situation could not have occurred previously. For a long time, this eerie sensation has been attributed to everything from paranormal disturbances to neurological disorders. However, in recent years, as more scientists began studying this phenomenon, a number of theories about déjà vu have emerged, suggesting that it is not merely a glitch in our brain’s memory system. A new report by Colorado State University psychologist Anne M. Cleary, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, describes recent findings about déjà vu, including the many similarities that exist between déjà vu and our understanding of human recognition memory.

Recognition memory is the type of memory that allows us to realize that what we are currently experiencing has already been experienced before, such as when we recognize a friend on the street or hear a familiar song on the radio. The brain fluctuates between two different types of recognition memory: recollection and familiarity. Recollection-based recognition occurs when we can pinpoint an instance when a current situation has previously occurred. For example, seeing a familiar man at a store and realizing that we’ve seen him before on the bus. On the other hand, familiarity-based recognition occurs when our current situation feels familiar, but we don’t remember when it has happened before. For example, we see that familiar man in the store, but we just can’t remember where we know him from. Déjà vu is believed to be an example of familiarity-based recognition— during déjà vu, we are convinced that we recognize the situation, but we are not sure why.

Cleary conducted experiments testing familiarity-based recognition in which participants were given a list of celebrity names. Later on, they were shown a collection of celebrity photographs; some photographs corresponded to the names on the list, other photographs did not. The volunteers were told to identify the celebrities in the photographs and indicate how likely it was the celebrity’s names were on the list they had seen previously. The findings were surprising. Even when the volunteers were unable to identify a celebrity by photo, they had a sense of which names they had studied earlier and which they had not. That is, they couldn’t identify the source of their familiarity with the celebrity, but they knew the celebrity was familiar to them. Cleary repeated the experiment substituting famous places (such as Stonehenge and the Taj Majal) for celebrities and got similar results. These findings indicate that the participants stored a little bit of the memory, but it was hazy, so they were not able to connect it to the new experience.

Cleary also ran experiments to figure out what features or elements of situations could trigger feelings of familiarity. She had participants study a random list of words. During a word recognition test, some of the words on the test resembled the earlier words, although only in sound (e.g. lady sounds similar to eighty), but the volunteers reported a sense of familiarity for the new words, even when they could not recall the earlier-presented, similar-sounding words that were the source of this familiarity. Previous research has also shown that people feel familiarity when shown a visual fragment containing isolated geometric shapes from an earlier experience. This suggests that familiar geometric shapes may create the sense that an entire new scene has been viewed before.

These results support the idea that events and episodes which we experience are stored in our memory as individual elements or fragments of that event. Déjà vu may occur when specific aspects of a current situation resemble certain aspects of previously occurring situations; if there is a lot of overlap between the elements of the new and old situations, we get a strong feeling of familiarity. “Many parallels between explanations of déjà vu and theories of human recognition memory exist”, Cleary concludes, “Theories of familiarity-based recognition and the laboratory methods used to study it may be especially useful for elucidating the processes underlying déjà vu experiences.”


Were the participants in the experiments later asked if they had ever had a deja vu experience, and if so, did the sense of familiarity induced by this experiment feel like deja vu to them?

Good morning,
I am trying to find out who I would be able to speak with about visions that I’ve been having. Since I was a child, I have had quite a few instances where I experienced visions of things that later happened. Through the years I have been able to write them down on my computer but the problem is that after I have these premonitions, I forget about it almost entirely until the event or situation actually occurs. When this happens, I experience the strange phenomenon of “Deja Vu”. I have had a very difficult time with these experiences and I was hoping that someone might be interested in discussing this in detail.

Thank you for your time.

Ben Jones

I have had the same experiences. When arriving at an experience I can almost sense the correct decision or I can feel what is about to happen. I also hope someone would give some insight to why we experience this.

My deja vu are so real that I can tell what’s going to happened the seconds after it start I always had it but lately it became more frequent and making me very uncomfortable

I have had the same this as mr. Jones. But not as long as him. I have had this for several months every single day bit don’t know it till in the very moment of it. I just want to understand why.

Yeah your definitely alright… its so strange to be honest.. i felt this for several months and till now i cant understand why! one moment u feel like its a great moment then its so strange and it makes you unknown

I was suffering deja vu alot and memory issuse’s so I seen a doctor and turns out I have a cyst in my brain. if you are having Issue’s with deja vu Id go see a docotors get checked out

I’ve experienced the same as Mr Jones but I’m only 15 and as a young child I would have dreams about stuff that actually goes on in my life today but it’s scary because it’s so familiar that if I think hard enough i can remember the dream and it’s so beautiful

For most of my life I have been fascinated with deja vu and being a curious person started to experiment with it. I almost never dream maybe 4-8 times per 6 months. About 60% of my dreams later become deja vu moments. From an early age I started to write down my dreams that could potentially become deja vu. What makes it interesting is that it is often conversations. I have learned that so dream in sound is uncommon but this makes the precision of my tests mush more accurate. And after some practice I have learned to realize as soon as deja vu experience starts and then close to the end I change what I said in the dream. And the strangest result came out. The other person still replies exactly the same as in my dream even if the reply makes no sense at all in the altered conversation. I have even managed to once stop someone from falling be realizing that I knew she was about to trip. Because of this none of the current theories satisfy me.

Iam 50 years old and almost never experience dejavu now but when I was a kid I got them all the time. The one question I have is if anyone ever had any dizziness when they experienced dejavu. I knew I was going to have a dejavu experience because I would become extremely dizzy right before it happened. The whole time I was having dejavu I was extremely dizzy and knew exactly what was going to be said and done the whole time as if I were in a dream like state. Afterwards I would be very tired and would have to rest. I have experienced dejavu in my adult years, but it was never as intense as when I was a child. I sometimes don’t even know I’m having dejavu until it’s almost over with.

I remember as a child I would walk into a room or a house and get very dizzy like my vision was blurred for a moment and then I would always experience dejavu. Only as a child not as an adult.

Remember folks, Déjà vu is not the feeling of what’s going to happen before it actually happens. That’s a precognitive experience, and its different than Déjà vu, mainly because it has to deal with past experiences with precognitive experiences have to deal with the future. Don’t get them mixed up!

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