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Down this road before? Psych science explains déjà vu

Have you seen this report before?

Déjà vu has been successfully explained and replicated in the laboratory.

Researchers write in a new study published in Psychological Science that the eerie feeling that has been explained by some as evidence of past lives is actually a normal phenomenon triggered by the human brain’s memory center when it recognizes patterns that are similar.

Does this sound familiar?

Cognitive psychologists from Colorado State University used a simulation game, The Sims, to bring on déjà vu under lab conditions. It can be triggered easily through recreating the spatial arrangement of objects in a controlled environment.


In the lab, researchers created virtual reality scenarios within the game and instructed study participants to move through a scene via a series of confusing turns. To induce déjà vu in the next trial, they asked participants to move through different scenes that were spatially mapped in the same way as the first. At the end of the trial the participants were asked to choose their own final turn and explain why they felt it was the right way.

Half the respondents said when it came time to choose a path, they experienced a strong sense of déjà vu. This sensation was “accompanied by increased feelings of knowing the direction of the next turn,” the researchers write. However, these respondents weren’t any more accurate in choosing the right direction than the other half of study participants. To the researchers, this indicated that déjà vu can manifest a confident feeling of premonition but doesn’t actually help people predict the future.

“We cannot consciously remember the prior scene, but our brains recognize the similarity,” lead author Anne Clearly, Ph.D., explained. “That information comes through as the unsettling feeling that we’ve been there before, but we can’t pin down when or why.”

The researchers suggest déjà vu is like the experience of having something at the “tip of your tongue” — an example of the “metamemory” phenomena. This is when a person feels familiar with a concept because subjective awareness is pulled from their own memories; that is, somewhere in their past they experienced a similar situation, but they can’t place where. That jarring experience confuses the brain, and in the case of déjà vu, it feels like a mysterious moment of clairvoyance.

Does this sound familiar, by the way?

In reality, déjà vu is just seeing or hearing something similar to what you’ve seen or heard before, concludes the study.


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