The term ‘deja vu’ has been around quite a while, now, and, in the last
few years has become practically a buzz-word, being often found in
books, newspaper accounts and magazine articles concerned with a wide
variety of topics (I have amassed quite a collection, should anyone
wish to see them). The problem is, though, that while many see fit to
employ it in their writing and conversation, just exactly what is meant
by the words ‘deja vu’ is pretty vague. Many, based on their own
experience, believe it must refer to what they encountered and/or felt,
while others, having never had such experiences, have a very foggy
notion of what is meant, if at all. As such, it has become a sort of
catch-all label for any number of hard-to-explain, sometimes upsetting
occurrences of unexpected recognition, in which the person involved has
trouble identifying an antecedent for the events and/or places which
seem so strangely and intensely familiar.
In addition, the term ‘deja vu’ has become encrusted, over the years,
with a number of unfortunate associations, ranging from reincarnation
to temporal lobe epilepsy, which hinder further research. A book has
recently appeared which has temporal lobe epilepsy as its main focus
(LaPlante,1993). In it, the author mentions deja vu as being a symptom
of psychomotor epilepsy, a contention that also persisted for a long
time in most medical and psychiatric textbooks and which would seem to
be based on this and other remarks by Dr. Jackson. The book quotes a
neuropsychologist named Paul Spiers who told students at a lecture that
if they had had deja vu experiences, they were epileptics! This sort of
nonsense continues at least in part because, up till now, our terms
have been so poorly defined and this has hampered making adequate
surveys which distinguish between the various d?j? phenomena.
These ‘explanations’—along with others, such as delayed
intra-hemisphere transmission over the corpus callosum (e.g., Wigan,
1844; Efron 1963; Comfort, 1977; Weinaud et al., 1994), not to mention
an astonishing array of psychoanalytical theories (an excellent survey
is provided in. Brown, 2004)—lead people to believe that all that one
needs to know about such experiences is already known and that there is
nothing of interest still to be done. I believe the time has come,
therefore, for our terminology, especially in educated discourse, to
become more differentiated. In fact, if I had my way, we would get rid
of ‘deja vu’ altogether as over-worked and entitled to a well-deserved
To this end, I would like to draw attention to three forms of ‘d?j?’
experience: d?j? v?cu, d?j? senti, and d?j? visit?. Each one will be
defined as we go along, and the use of all three, when discussing the
experiences they refer to, will be argued. Upon reflection, readers may
come up with other, better terms for these experiences or propose terms
for other, related experiences which are not the same as the ones
described in the following. Since French scientists and thinkers were
the first to investigate these phenomena (Funkhouser, 1983a), it seems
fitting to retain French names for these intriguing experiences.
D?j? v?cu (‘already experienced’ or ‘already lived through’)
A fairly well-known quote from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens can be used to introduce what is meant by d?j? v?cu:
feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and
doing having been said and done before, in a remote time—of our having
been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and
circumstances—of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we
suddenly remember it!” (chapter 39)
This describes the feeling that many people know as deja vu (if they
know a name for it). A number of surveys have shown that about
two-thirds of the American adult population claim to have had such or
similar experiences (e.g., Fox, 1992). Moreover, surveys have indicated
that such experiences tend to occur more frequently and possibly more
intensely when the respondents were young, say between ages 15 to 25
(e.g., MacCready & Greeley, 1976). In addition, such experiences
are frequently, if not always, connected with very banal events. They
are so striking, though, that they are often clearly remembered for
years following their occurrence. Anyone having had such experiences
knows that they normally involve more sense modalities than just sight.
As in the Dickens quotation, they can easily involve hearing, tasting,
touch and/or proprioceptive perceptions as well. This is why referring
to such experiences as simply deja vu is inadequate.
Another feature of d?j? v?cu that most would agree with is the amazing
detail involved. When you are in the midst of such an occurrence, you
are conscious that everything conforms with your ‘memory’ of it. This
is why explanations which suggest that the person has read about or
experienced something similar in the past cannot be valid. Moreover,
this is why explanations based on reincarnation and past lives can also
be ruled out. A typical d?j? v?cu experience can easily involve
clothing or even a PC, but styles of clothing change practically every
year and it is rather unlikely that someone had a PC on his or her desk
in a previous life (this objection to the reincarnation explanation was
pointed out already in 1845 by von Feuchtersleben)! If incidences of
d?j? v?cu can be taken as being real, our notions of causality may have
to be revised in some ways. It does not seem to be difficult, though,
for modern physicists to entertain notions of time loops (Deutsch &
Lockwood, 1994), tachyons (particles that can travel backwards in time
– Chester, 1978) and multiple universes (DeWitt & Graham, 1973).
That our unconscious would then be able to avail itself of such
anomalies and present us with precognitive knowledge via visions and
dreams (Funkhouser, 1983b; Rybach & Sweitzer, 1988) is then not so
farfetched as it might seem at first glance.
D?j? senti (‘already felt’)
I would like to turn now to a phenomenon that is often confused with
d?j? v?cu. To introduce it, I would like to quote from an 1888 paper by
Dr. John Hughlings Jackson, one of the foremost pioneers of modern
neurology. In the words of one of his patients, a medical doctor
suffering from what has come to be known as temporal lobe or
psychomotor epilepsy, he wrote:
what has occupied it before, and indeed has been familiar, but has been
for a time forgotten, and now is recovered with a slight sense of
satisfaction as if it had been sought for… At the same time, or…
more accurately in immediate sequence, I am dimly aware that the
recollection is fictitious and my state abnormal. The recollection is
always started by another person’s voice, or by my own verbalized
thought, or by what I am reading and mentally verbalize; and I think
that during the abnormal state I generally verbalize some such phrase
of simple recognition as ‘Oh yes—I see’, ‘Of course—I remember’,
&c., but a minute or two later I can recollect neither the words
nor the verbalized thought which gave rise to the recollection. I only
find strongly that they resemble what I have felt before under similar
This state, which sometimes appears in the aura of temporal lobe
epilepsy attacks, Jackson termed ‘reminiscence’ and I believe could be
best termed d?j? senti.
Three features are evident from this description, however, that distinguish it from d?j? v?cu:
- it is primarily or even exclusively a mental happening;
- there are no precognitive aspects in which the person feels he or she knows in advance what will be said or done; and
- it seldom or never remains in the afflicted person’s memory afterwards.
D?j? visit? (‘already visited’)
There is another phenomenon which is also often confused with d?j?
v?cu. It seems to occur more rarely and is an experience in which a
person visits a new locality and nevertheless feels it to be familiar.
He or she seems to know their way around. C. G. Jung published an
interesting account of it in his paper on synchronicity (Jung, 1966).
To distinguish it from d?j? v?cu, it is important to ask whether it was
purely the place and location of inanimate buildings and/or objects
that were familiar, or did the situation that the person was in also
play a role. D?j? visit? has to do with geography, with the three
spatial dimensions of height, width and depth, while d?j? v?cu has to
do more with temporal occurrences and processes. D?j? visit? can be
explained in several ways. It may be that the person once read a
detailed account of the place and has subsequently forgotten it. This
happened to Nathaniel Hawthorne on a visit he made to the ruins of a
castle in England (Hawthorne, 1863). He ‘recognized’ the place but
didn’t know how or why. Only later was he able to trace it to a piece
written two hundred years earlier by Alexander Pope about it. The
incident of d?j? visit? described by Sir Walter Scott in his 1815 book,
Guy Mannering, is also based on this hypothesis. Reincarnation might
also offer a way of explaining some instances of d?j? visit?.
A third possibility is so-called ‘out-of-the-body’ experiences (see
Chap. 8, Chari) in which a person is apparently able to travel abroad,
leaving his or her body behind. It is possible that mixed versions of
these three forms of ‘d?j?’ experience may occur. There are also
several other phenomena which resemble these in various ways, but space
does not permit going into them here. Those wishing to know more and
explore the various aspects of d?j? phenomena more deeply are referred
to the excellent overviews in Neppe (1983) and Brown (2004).
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This article originally appeared in the Scientific and Medical Network Review, 57:20 – 22, 1995 and is republished here with permission.
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