You've Been Here Before: Where The F*ck Does Déjà Vu Come From?

by Dan Scotti

Let me paint the scene.

You’re with the crew. You’re in the car. You’re road tripping.

About halfway to your destination, you realize the gas meter is flirting with E, so you pull off at the nearest exit with a rest stop and a Starbucks.

As soon as you jump out of the car (and look for a bathroom), something feels, I don’t know, weird. You could almost swear you’ve been here before, but you know you haven’t.

After all, you’re fully aware you’re in Bumblef*ck, USA right now – but still, something about it feels oddly familiar.

After about 90 seconds of trying to figure out why you feel as though you’ve been here before, you murmur “déjà vu” under your breath and link up with the rest of your friends.

End scene.

Everyone probably has his or her own unique rendition of that scene. Déjà vu is a common thing for people to experience; although, I will say, I doubt anyone truly knows what is going on as it happens.

And so, I ask the question – where the f*ck does déjà vu come from?

Well, according to a number of previous studies, the phenomenon has long been linked to specific places.

In response, Cognitive Psychologist Anne Cleary and her team of researchers at Colorado State University in Fort Collins decided to see if they could provoke the experience using virtual reality.

To test this, Cleary used computer graphics to create a three-dimensional realm for test subjects to engage in and report back any feelings of déjà vu.

According to Charles Choi of Scientific American, “the researchers found déjà vu most often occurred when new scenes were very similar to previously experienced scenes in terms of their spatial layout but not similar enough that people consciously recognized the resemblance.”

Therefore, déjà vu pertains equally to the layout of certain landmarks in space, as it does to the physical location of where you are.

For example, in the “scene” I described earlier, the déjà vu could have originated from memories of a past rest stop on the other side of the country – and not necessarily from being in Bumblef*ck, USA.

The reason why this feeling is so overwhelming, Choi explains, is “the contrast between the sense of newness and the simultaneous sense of oldness.”

This occurs when certain aspects of a new scene elicit memories of an older one, such as the rest stops.

From a biological standpoint, déjà vu only becomes more complicated. According to Marc Lallanilla, assistant editor at Live Science, there is reason to believe déjà vu is linked with brain epilepsies.

As reported by Lallanilla, “there is a strong and consistent link between déjà vu and the seizures that occur in people with medial temporal lobe epilepsy, a type of epilepsy that affects the brain's hippocampus.”

For those of you who snoozed throughout your Psych 101 courses in college, the hippocampus is responsible for managing the bulk of our short AND long-term memories.

Oddly enough, Lallanilla continues to explain how people with medial temporal lobe epilepsy “consistently” report experiencing déjà vu directly before their seizures.

In Lallanilla’s mind this “may be the result of a neural misfiring, during which neurons in the brain transmit signals at random and cause healthy people to experience a false sense of remembered familiarity.”

The one theory that I found especially interesting, however, related déjà vu to dreams.

According to Michelle Carr, a PhD candidate at the University of Montreal, certain dreams may play a role in future occurrences of déjà vu.

While you dream, you may feel as though you’re in your own home – but rarely do these representations of your home align with their existence in reality.

This is very similar to the “feelings of familiarity” that one might report after experiencing déjà vu.

With that said, Carr explains the “core feeling” of certain places will linger in our memories far longer than the finer details. These “feelings of familiarity,” as Carr describes, may be the sources of our déjà vu.

Other theories on the subject have more spiritual roots. On religious blog “Soul’s Code,” (take it as you will) Sandy Andrew, radio host and author, explains his take on the phenomenon.

According to Andrew, déjà vu cannot be explained solely through science. In his mind, the source of déjà vu is one’s own spirit.

Likewise, many Eastern religions feel déjà vu is a direct result of reincarnation and premonitions from past lives.

Hey, I’ve always been a firm believer in science, but if you’re into the spiritual side of things – I’m not going to rule it out.

In fact, the presence of all these different theories on the subject is what makes it so interesting.

Regardless of how “abstract” certain views on déjà vu may be, at the end of the day, they’re all equally as valid until somebody proves (or disproves) something concrete, once and for all.