Déjà vu, that unsettling feeling we all get sometimes when – wait, I swear I’ve said this before? Anyway, it describes an overwhelming and eerie sense of familiarity with something that shouldn't be familiar at all.
Explanations of déjà vu range from past life memories to a “glitch in the matrix,” but what does science have to say about this memory phenomenon?
Colorado State University has recently been attempting to decipher how and why people feel an unsettling sense of premonition, an experience commonly associated with déjà vu or cryptomnesia. No surprises, they found out that a moment of déjà vu does not lead to an increased ability to foresee the next step in a series of events. The feelings of premonition are a total illusion, even though they feel deeply real. It's just a forgotten memory returning without it being recognized as such.
“I think the reason people come up with psychic theories about déjà vu is that they are these mysterious, subjective experiences," lead author Anne Cleary, a cognitive psychologist, said in a statement.
"Even scientists who don't believe in past lives have whispered to me, 'Do you have an explanation for why I have this?' People look for explanations in different places. If you're a scientist, you're looking for the logical reason for why you just had this really weird experience."
To test this, the researchers created a series of virtual environments in The Sims, yes the video game. Each environment had a different space and shape, but could also be themed differently, like a junkyard rather than a hedge maze, for example.
If people were shown scenes of a junkyard that had a special template previously used for a scene of a garden that they had experienced before, they were more likely to report a sense of déjà vu.
"We cannot consciously remember the prior scene, but our brains recognize the similarity," Cleary said. "That information comes through as the unsettling feeling that we've been there before, but we can't pin down when or why."
In the latest study, published in the journal Psychological Science, they used these different maze-like scenes and asked participants to navigate themselves around them in a virtual video. Despite feeling déjà vu if they had experienced the shape of the scene before, this sense of premonition was not able to help them decide which direction they should turn to complete the maze.
From this, they confirmed that déjà vu can’t help us predict the future, however, it certainly can feel that way.
"My working hypothesis is that déjà vu is a particular manifestation of familiarity," Cleary said. "You have familiarity in a situation when you feel you shouldn't have it, and that's why it's so jarring, so striking."