Deja Vu, All Over Again

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Most of us have experienced the uncanny sense that we did this thing or had been to this place before. It is uncanny because there seems to be no way of remembering doing this thing before.

Let me give an example using my individual experience with what is known as "deja vu."


A few short years ago we were on the board walk of Asbury Park, New Jersey. I had the powerful sensation that I had been there before many years ago. Yet, I could not gather any memory of that being true. I then called family members and asked if we had visited Asbury Park during my childhood. Not only was this denied but it was pointed out that we never went to New Jersey. Somehow, I knew this was correct but the sensation of deja vu persisted until we left Asbury Park.

A recent study done by Colorado State University psychologist Anne M. Cleary PhD., and that can be found in Current Directions in Psychological Science,  found that there are similarities between déjà vu and our understanding of human recognition memory.

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Here is a little review of how memory works. Going back to our school days, when you studied for a test your were hoping to use "Recall Memory." Recall is the deeper type of memory that is filled with details and facts. "Recognition Memory" is based more on a weaker type of memory in which something is familiar. For example, on a multiple choice test you could rely on "Recall Memory." You may not be positive that you selected the correct choice but is seems familiar enough that you make that selection. If you "Recall" the information then you are fully comfortable with your choice. In fact, a fill in the blank test that demands "Recall Memory" is much more difficult because it is very difficult to use recognition on that type of exam.

The results of Dr. Cleary’s study showed that events and episodes which we experience are stored in our memory as fragments of that event. Déjà vu may occur when specific aspects of a current situation resemble certain aspects of previously occurring situations. In other words, if there is a lot of overlap between the elements of the new and old situations, we get a strong feeling of familiarity.

Therefore, it could be that there are similarities between explanations of déjà vu and explanations of recognition memory.

In my deja vu experience while at Asbury Park, I vaguely remembered childhood visits to Coney Island and it’s boardwalk. It could be that those fragments of memory from bygone years at Coney Island formed the basis for the deja vu at Asbury Park.

What are your experiences with deja vu. Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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