From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: déjà vu
30 Jun 2006
I did want to share a déjà vu experience with you.
Our family was on summer vacation in 1991 and arrived at Ft. Laramie, WY, an old frontier fort. As we walked around, I felt like I'd been there before. Dejà vu! but it didn't pass away in an instant as déjà vu normally does. Standing on the parade field, I could identify what particular buildings would be and hold inside. I knew the location of doors and rooms. I cannot explain the odd sensations I was experiencing as each "hunch" turned out to be right. As I toured with my family, it was as though I had become a local docent. I had never been to WY before. This couldn't be a "long lost memory." I don't believe in past lives. How could I KNOW things I couldn't possibly know? This wasn't a fleeting sensation; this was a constant, overwhelming impression that I had been there lasting well over an hour.
As we entered the gift shop I learned the reason. They had for sale a novel entitled "Queen of Bedlam" which was written in the late 1800s about Ft. Laramie. I had read a first edition years before. I had thought it was long out of print, but the historical society there must have found that it was worthy of reprinting. Although a novel, the author had to have spent time there as things were perfectly described in the book. In my subconscious, the details had stayed with me over time and so I had the feeling of "being there" before.
Name withheld by request
14 Apr 2004
I was fascinated by your account of déjà vu and your readers' comments, and would like to add a few of my own.
One of your readers comments on your site that some people have probably never experienced déjà vu and suggests that it is perhaps less common than believed - I think he is right. I have read descriptions of this phenomena by people who are obviously mistaking a simple feeling of having done something before with déjà vu. You are right to emphasise the feeling one gets when experiencing déjà vu (and I don't find your comparison with re-reading a book confusing!). It is the simultaneous feeling of experiencing and remembering that is so strange, not just the feeling of familiarity. I believe that anybody who has truly experienced déjà vu would not suggest that it is as a result of a fragment of some previous memory. When one experiences it, whilst having the strongest feeling that something has happened before, or that one knew what would happen next, one also knows, is absolutely certain, that it has not happened before, and that one's mind is playing tricks. That, I believe, is what produces the uncanniness. On the other hand, when one dredges up a memory that has not been accessed for years, usually of childhood, a very strange feeling is also experienced, but it cannot be confused with déjà vu - the two are very different sensations.
Déjà vu, for me, usually lasts for a good few seconds, long enough for me to recognise what it is that I am experiencing. I usually look around me during these few seconds to try to discover whether the feeling has been triggered by any particular object or event, reasoning that if it had, other aspects of my surroundings and situation would seem perfectly normal to me. But this is not the case. It is not just the particular conversation in which I was engaged or the scene confronting me that seems uncannily familiar, it is every minute detail of my surroundings and every aspect of my awareness that produces this odd feeling. I imagine this is how omniscience would feel! This quite clearly has nothing to do with memory, but is some sort of error on the part of the brain, just like a slip of the tongue or perhaps an involuntary twitch.
My frequent experiences of déjà vu are always accompanied by the physical feeling of light-headedness and unsteadiness that one gets before fainting: I usually have to reach for a table or lean against a wall until the feeling subsides. Whether this is a part of the déjà vu, or just as a result of its strangeness, I do not know. I would be interested to know whether other people's experiences of déjà vu are accompanied by physical sensations.
19 Jun 2003
I truly enjoy your work in the Skeptic's Dictionary - it's very useful to have a single collection of such data to point out as a resource to overly-gullible acquaintances.
Regarding déjà vu, I wanted to describe one such experience I had many years ago. My family was traveling in Hong Kong, and we went to a French restaurant. During dessert I had the strongest déjà vu feeling I can remember having, while looking at my strawberries and cream. I had never been to that place before (or since), and the berries were much larger than any I had seen before, so I am nearly certain that I had no previous similar experience to be conflating memory with, (in this life or any other). So it seems to me that déjà vu must be in some way associated with a glitch in the processing of current memory, making it seem to be an older memory in some ways, but not in others, thus leading to the strangeness.
22 Jun 2003
If further enlightenment should be sought, I would offer my own experience with this feeling. Actually, I always thought it should be called "déjà vécu". You don't think "I have seen this before", you think "I have lived this before". More than memory, it feels like something affected the arrow of time and you are re-living some (very short, say 10-15 seconds) part of your life. You somehow know that these exact persons were exactly there doing and saying exactly that. Sure, you want to ask them "When did we live this together before?" But by then you know it was an illusion.
You experience the same realization as when you wake up from a dream, that was so real the second before and the next is evidently false. So this has absolutely nothing comparable with a feeling of remembering, of lost memory. On the contrary, the "memory" (bad wording) is extraordinarily vivid. What gives it out is this default: even though when somebody says something you instantaneously know you always knew he/she was going to say it, you quickly realize you never could actually predict what they were going to say. I am quite convinced this is a dysfunction of our memory system. For a few seconds, what you perceive as present happening, also triggers the mechanisms normally related to long-term memory (yes, it always feels like it happened some time ago, nothing similar to short-term memory). It usually comes (to me, anyway) in situations of absolute normality, like something forgotten because there was no reason to commit it to memory, and suddenly brought back in the way of the "madeleine" of Marcel Proust. (Sorry, my references and mother tongue are French.) Keep up your excellent work.
reply: From the descriptions of the previous and following letters, it is apparent that the experiences being described represent some sort of brain "malfunction." What we know about the brain and how it processes experience reveals a very complicated neural network involving various parts of the brain associated with such things as short-term memory, long-term memory, feelings, anticipations, recognition of patterns and of significance, and so on. That signals should sometimes get crossed seems inevitable.
15 Jun 2003
As I was browsing your site today, I came across your article along with reader comments about this phenomenon. With all due respect for your excellent body of work, after reading your description of déjà vu and especially your reply to a reader's comment, I feel that you do not have a good grasp on this particular subject. Your descriptions of the feeling of déjà vu appear to indicate the feeling one has when certain events are familiar in the sense that one reads a book or watches a movie and eventually remarks to oneself, "I believe I have seen [read] this before, but I can't exactly remember when or where."
reply: No. I specifically distinguish these kinds of experiences from the déjà vu experience. Experiences such as these are not accompanied by any uncanny feelings. As I state in the entry, "the feeling associated with the déjà vu experience is not one of confusion but of strangeness." There is nothing strange about not remembering whether you've read a book or seen a movie before.
This is a perfectly normal experience shared by anyone who has a normal, healthy capacity for forgetfulness. However, this is not the same sensation as the odd phenomenon of déjà vu.
From personal experience, déjà vu is quite different, and since it most likely is due to a very short-lived neurological condition, it is quite probable that some people simply do not experience true déjà vu, and it is a difficult sensation to adequately describe. People who have experienced it lapse into inadequate descriptions of "familiarity" or "I think I've been here before," and since everyone experiences that feeling from time to time, someone who has never really experienced déjà vu can naturally relate to these insufficient descriptions and so believes that he or she has also felt déjà vu.
When I experience this sensation, it is quite abrupt and generally only lasts for a few seconds, although it occasionally lingers for about a minute. It is a sensation that is far beyond mere familiarity; rather, it is an odd feeling that for a moment your entire existence has suddenly "clicked" into a complete, fully recognizable pattern of events that is unfolding precisely as it did at some point in the past. Déjà vu is not just recognizing some object as being familiar or thinking that you've been in this or that building before but you just can't remember when.
reply: It is probable that there are several distinct but related experiences that are lumped together under the heading of déjà vu. (See Three Types of Déjà Vu by Arthur Funkhouser, Ph.D. (1995. Scientific and Medical Network Review, 57:20 - 22.) One theory is that the déjà vu experience involves a minor malfunction (a seizure) of various parts of the brain, some of which are usually associated with experiencing the immediate present (the amygdala), short-term memory (the hippocampus), and long-term memory (the frontal lobes). These kinds of seizures may begin in the amygdala, for example, and then "spread into other structures, and there are quite a number of them. One nearby structure will introduce smells into the experiences, and leave someone a heightened sense of smell. Another will create distortions in spatial perception. Another can leave some one with overactive sweat glands. Another can leave someone wanting to talk or write all the time. Another can make a person prone to brief, intense bursts of anger. Another can make a person's sexuality change. The list goes on. There are also a variety of personality changes that can happen, as well" (DEJA VU Here and Now, There and Then. The experience of Deja Vu in clinical and spiritual terms. Todd Murphy. 1999).
When you read a familiar book as you described in your reply to reader Chris Solnordal, you keep a firm hold on your sense of living in the present: you feel that you have read that passage at some point in the past, but you do not actually feel like you are reliving the instant-to-instant experience of reading the passage with all of the other minute details that accompanied your first reading: where you were sitting, how the light played on the page, the sound of that cricket outside your window as you read, or seeing your wife out of the corner of your eye move into the room while you were reading a particular sentence. Rather, it is simply that the passage you just read begins to look familiar, and you wonder where you might have read that before. If you then remember reading the book the year before, you might be able to recall in a disjointed way some of those other details that I described. But you probably don't suddenly feel like you clicked into an absolutely perfect repeat of your entire existence as it unfolded in those moments when you first read that passage a year before, and that strange sensation is just what déjà vu is, whether or not you actually had read the book before.
reply: Apparently, the book and movie example I use is more confusing than helpful. In the dictionary entry, I use the example to distinguish mere forgetfulness from déjà vu. I try to argue there that, despite the origin of the term and its historical associations, déjà vu may have nothing at all to do with memory or forgetting. Your experience seems to confirm my point.
While the feeling persists, each detail (color, movement, light, sound) of each instant does *not* seem like a memory, for memory is just disjointed bits of recollection. It feels more like you are abruptly enmeshed in a complete pattern. When you see a leaf fall while experiencing déjà vu, there is the sensation of absolute certainty that that was supposed to happen just at that instant, and not just because you've seen a leaf fall before, but because it fit with the whole pattern of events you are experiencing. *That* particular leaf was supposed to fall at *that* instant and twirl around in exactly *that* way, the light was shaded just so, *that* bird was singing those particular notes and *that* car horn honked in the distance just then.
As you walk through a room, the motion and placement of objects, the very "picture" that your eyes see, are all precisely unfolding in every detail the way they should be. It is not prescience or anything absurd like that: you can't actually say what is going to happen next, but everything seems to click together and perfectly fits. Even more, your own actions, words, feelings, and even your sense of self are all wrapped up in this pattern.
It's for all these reasons that people describe the sensation as "strange" and "creepy" and "odd." It is a most unsettling feeling and completely different from merely thinking something seems familiar.
Often as I listen to people misuse the term, I wonder if the true sensation is more rare than is commonly believed. Or perhaps it is simply that words fail to adequately describe a common neurological phenomenon that seems to displace us for a few seconds out of our normal absolute sense of living in the present. In any case, I hope through this long-winded explanation that I have been able to at least partially describe this feeling.
reply: I think you've done an excellent job of describing your experience. But, while you recognize that you are not prescient, it is easy to see how someone might have a similar experience and mistake it for clairvoyance or even a mystical union with the paranormal or the supernatural.
09 Oct 1998
Congratulations on a wonderful piece of work! I regularly spend my lunchtime or an evening reading through the entries in your dictionary, and use your arguments often in discussions with less sceptical friends and acquaintances. Also, while in my case you're generally preaching to the converted I admit that there have been a few occasions (particularly the MBTI entry) which caught me unawares. I have certainly changed my perception of that "psychological indicator" now. I may write more on that later, but just quickly I'd like to comment on your Déjà Vu entry. You write "There is nothing strange about not remembering whether you've read a book before, especially if you are fifty years old and have read thousands of books over your lifetime. In the déjà vu experience, however, we feel strange because we don't think we should feel familiar with the present perception. That sense of inappropriateness is not present when one is simply unclear whether one has read a book or seen a film before. "
I feel that this is not a good example, in that with my experience
of déjà vu I have found myself thinking "I knew you were going to say that
next!" "And that ... and that ..." like I was running through a
conversation I had already had. There is a reason for feeling strange in this scenario.
With a book or a movie it would be normal for me to experience exactly the same dialogue
etc. With a conversation, not so - unless there was some conspiracy to instigate the
response! I certainly don't think I actually have experienced these conversations before,
but the book/movie comparison was for me a small weakness in an otherwise convincing
Chris Solnordal, Melbourne, Australia
reply: I don't know what to say. I often find myself reading a book that I can't remember having read before and when things start to click that make me think that I have read the book before, I do not feel anything uncanny. I just feel more poignantly the years that have gone by that are filled with experiences I don't remember. Perhaps you have an exceptional memory, or are much younger than I am.
2 May 1997
I wanted to expand on your theory of déjà vu. Another theory, which has some scientific merit, shows that the brain occasionally has chemical misfires. What happens is that you may experience something for the first time, for example, seeing a certain building; however, your brain misclassifies your current memory (the last few seconds) into your past memory (several years ago). Because of this, you instantly perceive, with great clarity, that this has happened to you before. Well it has! Except it was only a few seconds ago.