Why do some people experience deja vu

Déjà-vu: Explanation of what's behind it + 6 causes

Déjà-vu describes the strange feeling of having seen or experienced something in exactly the same way. Studies assume that every second person has already had or regularly has déjà vu. The online lexicon for psychology and pedagogy even assumes up to 97 percent of people. Déjà-vu can occur in a wide variety of situations. It's almost always confusing and irritating. But what is behind the phenomenon? How do déjà-vus arise? The answers…

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Déjà vu explanation: what is déjà vu?

The term "déjà-vu" comes from French and literally means something like "seen before". Those affected have the secure feeling that they have seen or experienced something or a situation in exactly the same way. Usually it is just a so-called "memory illusion", as the British neuroscientist Akira Robert O'Connor says. A fleeting phenomenon where our brains play tricks on us.

The 4 characteristics of déjà vus

Colloquially, déjà-vu is sometimes used when you run into a friend twice on the same day, motto: “I think I've just had a déjà-vu!” A real déjà-vu, however, is characterized by 4 typical features from:

  1. doubt
    Despite the familiarity of the situation, you feel that it cannot be real.
  2. uncertainty
    You can never name exactly what the déjà vu reminds you of.
  3. Snapshot
    They only remember a tiny moment, a scene, never the before or after.
  4. volatility
    The feeling of familiarity is over within a few seconds.

If all four characteristics apply, it is a real déjà-vu.

Déjà vu relatives: experience with all your senses

Déjà-vu is the collective term for something that confuses people's sensory system and triggers the feeling of memory. There are also related phenomena, some of which overlap in terms of content:

  • Fausse reconnaissance (French for "false recognition")
  • Déjà-entendu, Déjà-écouté (French for "already heard")
  • Déjà-vécu (French for "already experienced")
  • Déjà-rêvé (French for "already dreamed")
  • Déjà-senti (French for "already felt")
  • Déjà-visité (French for "already visited")
  • Déjà-èprouvé (French for "already through")

Jamais-vu: The opposite of déjà-vu

There is also the opposite of déjà-vu - the so-called “jamais-vu”. The term translated means “never seen” or “never been there” and describes the inability to remember something, although we experience it every day. Example: You want to explain to a friend the route to your apartment that you have been walking every day for years. But you can't think of the name of the side street where you have to turn day after day.

Danger: If jamais-vus occur more often without you being able to attribute them to causes such as drug use, lack of sleep or the like, you should consult a doctor. Regular memory interruptions can (but do not have to be) early warning signs of Alzheimer's or dementia.

Causes: How does déjà vus arise?

To this day, there is no consensus in science about how déjà vu comes about. Sigmund Freud still believed that hidden desires are triggers. Modern research, on the other hand, knows that stress, lack of sleep or substances such as alcohol and drugs can also lead to increased déjà vus. After all, psychology knows a few motives that can explain the occurrence of déjà-vu:

  • Déjà-vu as a false association

    Some psychologists believe that in déjà vu we only remember a fragment that was not fully captured the first time. Fragments from the past that we link incorrectly with the present and thus interpret as repetition. Accordingly, there is a wrong association between something new and something old that is stored deep in the subconscious. For example a certain place, smell or phrase. A study by researchers at St. Andrews University in Scotland supports this theory. Using brain scans, they found out that during a déjà vu it is not the areas for memory performance in the brain that are active, but those for making decisions.

  • Déjà-vu as a forgotten memory

    It is characteristic of déjà vu experiences that for a moment you are certain that you have already experienced the situation in this way. But you don't remember the point in time. Accordingly, déjà vu can arise if it is an actual memory that we have forgotten by then. This is what the French authors Marc Tadie and his brother Jean-Yves believe, for example. One is the director of a neurosurgical university institute, the other a professor of literature.

  • Déjà-vu as a neurological process

    Another thesis says that the déjà vu feeling is triggered by a neurochemical process in the brain. Some kind of faulty switching. The gray cells assign an old memory to the current sensory impressions. We are already recognizing it - wrongly - as something that we have already experienced. The hypothesis is based on stories from epileptics who often experience déjà-vus. In fact, an epileptic seizure affects the same region of the brain (hippocampus or amygdala) that is responsible for the feeling of recognition.

  • Déjà-vu as a premonition

    Those who are more spiritual or esoteric often think that déjà-vu is a sign. Perhaps from the spirits of the deceased. Or a cosmic warning of a terrible calamity. Usually this is dubious hocus-pocus. According to experts, the only permissible procedure is the same as in dream interpretation: Perceptions are examined for the background of current problems of the subconscious in order to find a plausible explanation of what is really on our mind. Incidentally, the “spirituality” category also includes the interpretation that déjà vu arises because one has lived before. The déjà-vu is thus an experience from a previous life.

  • Déjà-vu as wishful thinking

    Many hallucinations and déjà-vus can be explained as perceptual errors. Like the so-called confirmation bias. In short: we filter information based on our expectations. Instead of providing objective information, we look for information that confirms our opinion. In déjà vu, too, the wish is often the father of the thought. In addition, behind the idea of ​​being able to communicate with spirits or angels there can be a latent urge to gain recognition. The desire to be special.

  • Déjà-vu as a protective mechanism

    We almost create some déjà vus ourselves. Especially when profound changes in life are on the horizon - for example a job change, a troubled partnership - some people tend to fall into old patterns and habits. These give you security. The déjà vu experience would thus be a protective mechanism of the soul that should confirm our actions.

  • Optical Delay Theory (refuted!)

    The Optical Delay Theory (or “Optical Delay Theory”) says that we first take in information through one (mostly right) eye and pass it on to the brain before it is taken in again and passed on through the other eye. The delay is supposed to be the reason why we “see something twice” and conclude from this that we must already know it. However, this theory has proven to be wrong: blind people also report déjà-vus.

Déjà-vu in film

Because déjà-vus are so fascinating and popular, the film industry has long since adopted them as a motif. For example in the film "Groundhog Day". There the viewer experiences a real déjà vu together with the protagonist, a cynical weather presenter. He's stuck in a time warp and experiences the same day over and over again. Until he begins to change attitudes and behavior. In the film of the same name ("Déjà-vu") with Denzel Washington in the lead role, it is again possible to thwart a terrorist attack with the help of a kind of time machine.

Reaction: How do I deal with déjà vu?

A déjà vu usually passes as quickly as it came. After a few seconds, the amazement and aha experience evaporate - and we realize: It's all just a little ghost in the brain. If you remain puzzled and wondering what just happened, you can do the following:

  • distance
    Let the distorted perception subside and orientate yourself briefly - especially if you had the déjà-vu in an unfamiliar environment. Make it clear to yourself that it is an illusion and that you have no way of knowing what is waiting for you around the next street corner, for example. During the déjà vus you were certain, but the reality is different.
  • comparison
    In the second step, you can rummage through your memories: What could have triggered the déjà-vu? Perhaps, in hindsight, you can figure it out and see what started the memory delusion.
  • Check off
    Finally, don't let the déjà vu fool you any further. Everyone has that. Even if you fail to recognize the triggers and causes, it remains a simple memory illusion. An amusing gimmick of the brain. Not more.

Is déjà vu a cause for concern?

Admittedly, every déjà vu has a breath of the supernatural. Something mysterious that sends a little shiver down our spine. So some people ask themselves: Is this normal at all? Or do I have to worry and maybe even see a doctor?

No reason to worry! Everything is normal. Scientists have found that déjà-vus and memory errors occur more often at a young age. They are a kind of checking mechanism for our memory - triggered by increased dopamine intake. This decreases with age - and with it the déjà-vus. Only in rare exceptional cases is there a connection between déjà-vu and illnesses, such as epilepsy. So if you have more déjà vu experiences, you don't have to see a doctor.

However, you should seek medical or psychological advice if you have repeated déjà vu experiences and these trigger fears and negative feelings. In such a case, however, it is less the déjà-vus that are harmful. Rather, it is the accompanying circumstances, as phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorder are so often expressed.

Isn't déjà vu a cause for concern?

If déjà vu is completely normal, some might think that not having any is an indication that something is wrong. Here, too, we can give the all-clear: some people have never experienced déjà-vu. Maybe a shame, but nothing to worry about.

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December 16, 2020Author: Jochen Mai

Jochen Mai is the founder and editor-in-chief of the career bible. The author of several books lectures at the TH Köln and is a sought-after keynote speaker, coach and consultant.

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