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 rest.
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:
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:
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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