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Mike Mowbray

The déjà vu experience is defined in one relatively authoritative source as “any subjectively inappropriate impression of familiarity of a present experience with an undefined past” (Neppe, cited in Brown 2004: 17). This sense effectively parallels the OED’s “illusory feeling of having experienced a present situation; a form of paramnesia.” As the French term indicates, the primary reference here may be to things seemingly already seen, but ‘déjà vu’ has come to acquire a more global meaning encompassing other aspects of experience as well. For example, subtypes pertaining specifically to taste, touch, smell and hearing have been described, though ‘déjà vu’ typically stands in as a catch-all for a more-or-less global reaction (Brown 2004: 15-16). The implications of its characterization as ‘illusion’ or ‘inappropriate impression,’ coupled with the common contention that the experience is shared by a substantial number of people, underline the pervasive difficulty in pinning down the meaning, causes, or nature of the déjà vu phenomenon.

Psychological explanations of the phenomenon tend to centre on issues of individual perception and memory, though more mysterious (or metaphysical) aspects of a possible ‘sixth sense’ have at times been invoked to account for this disconcerting feeling. Early insights into the déjà vu experience, traced as far back as Pythagoras and Plato, connect it with sensation or recollection originating in a past life – a trace of prior incarnations or of the transmigration of souls. Later explanations of déjà vu sometimes include mention of hereditary memory or telepathy, and of precognition (the ability to predict events prior to their occurrence), highlighting the dissonance aroused by the notion of familiarity with both present and future events. Augustine, perhaps disapproving, dubbed it falsae memoriae (Brown 2004: 118; Sno and Linszen 1990: 1587; Royle 1999: 10).

The strange experience has occupied not only philosophers, psychologists and cognitive scientists, but many great Western literary figures as well. Works by authors ranging from Rosetti to Proust, Tolstoy to Thomas Hardy (not to mention the songwriters Crosby, Stills and Nash or the film Desperately Seeking Susan) have described some form of déjà vu (Sno, Linszen and de Jonge 1992); Sir Walter Scott in 1828 wrote in his journals of a “sense of pre-existence” experienced at a dinner party with friends and accompanying every detail, “a confused idea that nothing that passed was said for the first time, that the same topics had been discussed, and that the same persons had stated the same opinions on the same subjects” (cited in Sno, Linszen and de Jonge 1992: 511). Literary accounts offer a range of experiences and implied or explicit explanations. The experience is described perhaps most famously by Dickens in David Copperfield:

We all have some experience of a feeling which 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 – our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remembered it (cited in Sno Linszen and de Jonge 1992: 512).[1]

Wigan (a physician) described the “sentiment of pre-existence” in 1844 as emerging from a perceptual lag between “one brain,” having processed the present scene and “the other,” which had been asleep or otherwise unawares – the combined impression of the two relatively autonomous but coordinated states of consciousness wondering at the vague but persistent impression which had not been fully grasped and retained in memory by the half in place of the whole. His interest was complemented by others, employing a host of terms including ‘double memory,’ ‘double perceptions,’ identifying fallacy,’ ‘promnesia,’ etc.. The term ‘paramnesia,’ still included in the OED definition, covers a range of memory disorders discussed mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including both spontaneous images felt to be recollections and actual experiences identified as such (i.e. déjà vu), and about which not much was agreed. The term ‘paramnesia’ persists clinically, if marginally (having largely fell out of favour by WWI), mainly to describe apparent memories of events which have not occurred (Berrios 1995; Brown 2004).

Modern psychological explanations (some of the earliest making a point of their disavowal of reincarnation) emerged, along with the clinical term ‘déjà vu’ itself, in the pages of the Revue Philosophique. This discussion was sparked by an article by André Lalande (1893), and taken up by one L. Dugas who first used the term (which he attributed to the poet Verlaine) in roughly its current sense. It entered into debate at the Société Medico-Psychologique, and in 1896 was taken up by Arnaud, who identified two central features, “intensity, which often borders on conviction, and the feeling of an identity between the subjective experience and that assumed to be recollected.” Arnaud also questioned the association with memory disorders, and suggested an aetiology in terms of the projection of present experience onto the past. Alternative hypotheses of which he was skeptical included Wigan’s ‘double-brain’ model, telepathy, and delayed perception, Arnaud suggested that the incidence of ‘true’ déjà vu in ‘normal’ individuals was likely exaggerated (Berrios 1995).

Still in the early 20th century, Freud figures as a key authority shaping contemporary understandings of the déjà vu experience. Echoing a 1904 article by Grasset (though he later professed not to know of it at the time) Freud suggested in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life that déjà vu “corresponds to the recollection of an unconscious phantasy”. However, he also suggests — in the same passage — that “we must include [déjà vu] in the category of the miraculous and uncanny” (cited in Royle 1999: 6-7), thereby seemingly relegating the phenomena to another realm.[2] Brown (2004: 125) suggests that the ultimate inability of Freud to arrive at a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon is telling, and others have noted the extreme difficulty involved in deciding between the real or illusory nature of this experience (e.g. Royle 1999), not to mention the real or illusory basis for the supposition of there being an unconscious.

The numerous psychodynamic explanations of déjà vu include that it may be a residue of a dream state, a form of ego defense against uncomfortable experiences or repressed memories, or a blurring of the psychological separation of self from environment (Sno and Linszen 1990; Brown 2004). The ‘uncanny’ (and perhaps undecideable) aspects of the notion since have provided fodder for ruminations by contemporary thinkers such as Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx.[3]

A common feature in literary and psychological discussions is a tendency to emphasize the common (if not near-universal) nature of the déjà vu experience: in addition to the Dickens passage above, one could note Thomas Hardy’s claim regarding its universality in A Pair of Blue Eyes (“you are familiar of course, as everybody is with those strange sensations that the moment has been in duplicate, or will be,” cited in Sno, Linszen and De Jonge 1992: 516) alongside mentions of its assumed prevalence in psychological reports, including the work of M.A. Hardy (no relation to Thomas), who suggests that incidence reporting may “measure only the willingness of an individual to admit to an experience which may be universal” (cited in Brown 2003: 396).

However, difficulties in classifying the experience and determining its prevalence in the general population remain. Polling data on incidence in the general public is tainted, in most psychologists’ opinion, by its inclusion next to a series of questions about ‘paranormal’ phenomena such as belief in ghosts or ESP[4]; yet despite the association with phenomena likely to be discounted out-of-hand as superstition, many still claimed to have had déjà vu experience. Studies of a smaller scale have returned wildly different accounts of its prevalence, ranging from 30% in Lalande to 90%+ in several more recent surveys; large-scale surveys from the GSS and Gallup, even though (once again allegedly) tainted by association with the ‘paranormal,’ nonetheless returned figures of 68 and 57% respectively. A further difficulty is the problem of ‘belief’ in the reality of the phenomenon itself, though these polls at least tell us that there is a significant correlation between age and both belief and experience – younger persons being more likely to believe in or to claim experience of déjà vu (Brown 2003: 398-400, 2004: 77-79).

Psychologists Sno and Linszen (1990) suggest that déjà vu is associated with certain types of psychopathology or organic factors such as intoxication. As well as being associated with age, it is possible that stress, fatigue, illness or trauma may predispose an individual – though not necessarily. Others have suggested associations with (higher) education and socio-economic class, travel, etc. However, given the wildly fluctuating data on incidence, the problem of belief in the reality of the déjà vu experience, and the apparent trend towards greater incidence in more recent decades, it is important to emphasize the likely role of a terminologically and conceptually normalized phenomenon entering into the popular imagination in such a way as to dispel possible aversions to admitting to such an experience and to provide a handy label to attach to it. [5]

In a cognitively-minded vein, contemporary explanations vying for consideration fall primarily into the following types: dual-processing explanations, neurological explanations, memory explanations and double-perception explanations. Dual-processing explanations focus on problems in the interrelationship between different cognitive processes which operate out of sync or independently where they would normally work interactively (e.g. between separate processes involved with retrieval and sense familiarity or the indexing of retrieved information in temporal terms). Neurological explanations focus on relationships between the déjà vu experience and spontaneous brain activity in regions associated with perceived familiarity, including types of seizure (e.g. certain kinds of epilepsy), or variations in the speed of neural transmission (e.g. when mental processes are accelerated or slowed creating an impression of familiarity). Memory explanations assume that the “inappropriate impression of familiarity” is in fact based on some actual residual memory, and are particularly likely to focus on how some schematic or partial aspects of a given scene may coincide with past experience – the idea being that information residing in implicit memory (say, of a particular spatial arrangement of figures or other salient aspects of a scene) matches up with conscious perception to create an ambiguous sense of familiarity without defined origin. Double perception explanations focus on a short disjuncture in perceptual processing as potentially eliciting an impression of re-experiencing the same scene twice (e.g. the short disjuncture is perceived as indefinite and the scenario strangely doubled), perhaps due to distraction or inattention. Alternately, a return under full attention to a scene or detail initially occluded or experienced under diminished attention could give the impression of inexplicable familiarity, for instance when the scene is initially experienced as peripheral to the centre of attention (Brown 2003, 2004).

No single theory of déjà vu is dominant, and the variety speaks volumes; some insist that multiple causes and types of experience are likely blended in the notion of déjà vu, and more ‘pathological’ forms (long lasting or distressing, such as sometimes associated with temporal lobe epilepsy or schizophrenia) bear little resemblance to the ‘typical’ descriptions.

A properly cultural explanation of the déjà vu experience and its tribulations would surely have to chart a different course from its cognitivist and psychological counterparts, though different bodies of research have the potential to be complementary. Aside from the history of the concept in ‘classic’ literature and psychology (as discussed above), contemporary popular culture has taken the déjà vu experience and elaborated it in a number of other directions.

In contemporary usage, the term ‘déjà vu’ has acquired a double-meaning, with a secondary sense conveyed in the OED definition as: “the correct impression that something has been previously experienced; tedious familiarity.” In addition, myriad neologisms have joined déjà vu onstage: ‘déjà lu’ (already read) and ‘déjà entendu’ (already heard) entered the lexicon of critics of culture and the arts in the 1960s to denote the impression that writers and/or orchestras might have been treading familiar ground. The term is here used to convey little more than a ‘sixth sense’ for tedium, the unflinching gaze of an existential ennui in the age of technological reproduction and the proliferation of mediocrity. Barbara Hunt Lazerson (1994) suggests that the original term entered common parlance in the early 1950s, around the same time that this secondary pejorative rather than mysterious usage was acquired. As well as estimating 40 theories positing explanations for the experience in its primary definition, she notes its use as an adjective (“déjà vu crosswords,” “a little bit too déjà vu for me”) and counts 26 lexical variants coined by various sources, including ‘déjà voodoo’ (economics, of a familiar though discredited mystical type), ‘date-ja-vu’ (getting back with a significant other from one’s past), and ‘déjà view’ (in fashion or music, the reintroduction of retro artefacts). And no survey of the history of déjà vu would be complete without a nod to Yogi Berra’s infamous utterance, “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” which appears to have caught on as a superlative form of the secondary usage appearing in the OED.

Some authors, most notably the psychologist Brown (2004: 16-17), remain concerned that alternative uses and formulations, including Berra’s, contribute to an evolution parting ways with the original meaning and specificity of the term déjà vu.  Here we may see the déjà vu experience becoming the object of a boundary dispute between psychologists and those they other — a dispute in which the evolving lexicography and more culturally-oriented considerations of déjà vu are marginalized in the name of ‘science.’ Yet cultural considerations offer a number of interesting avenues, and these avenues contribute at least as much as scientific explanations to an account of the phenomena.

Discussing the idea of déjà vu in relation to Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura,’ Andy Warhol, and the advent of an increasingly digital society, Peter Krapp (2004: xx) asserts that déjà vu subverts the rational ideal, the prospect for collective memory, and that it challenges the very media technologies  (instruments of technological reproducibility) to which he ascribes a role in its contemporary development. Krapp insists on the difference “between the first perceptions of uncanny recognition, and the age of marketing and advertising that seeks to generate such effects” (xxiii), and queries media technologies’ “potential for warping and distorting time” (xxiv). He outlines his discussion in relation to attention/distraction and the way that media effects alter public expectations of art and representation, and the themes of alienation and depersonalization which resonate through the strangely compelling sameness and collapsed distance wrought under the conditions of late modernity. In temporal terms, the strange effect is hinted at already by Klages in 1920, presenting Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return of the same as a form of déjà vu: “as if all time became at the same time immensely eternal and contracted in the moment” (cited in Krapp 2004: xiv). In effect, the déjà vu experience projects a sense that time itself is not so uniform or homogeneous as we might imagine, and prompts us to consider also the socio-culturally constructed aspects of space/time in human experience (see Bakhtin 1981 on ‘chronotopes’). As Krapp puts it, “the conundrum of time is that its subjective experience differs from its objective measurement” (2004: xx).

The contemporary subjective experience may lend itself to déjà vu. In some ways, subjectivity is a perpetual déjà vu – navigating Baudrillard’s simulacrum or forced to fish for the strands of continuity in a process of endless iteration, in a world where neither a true original nor a perfect copy seems quite possible. The culturally-supplied materials of our mental life are increasingly delivered via technologically reproduced objects, image and sound (not to mention artificial aromas, flavours, etc), and packed into the space of cities which tax our attentional resources (Cote 2007; Simmel 1997). Perhaps the qualitative and quantitative change in the sensory environment lends itself to a kind of déjà vu (like the one towards which Krapp gestures) which bridges the two OED definitions, and could bear some relationship – in addition to the effects of normalization, even popularization, of the term as it emerged in psychological discourse – to apparently increased incidence in polled populations, especially younger generations.[6]

References to déjà vu in popular culture and artistic production do not cease with the classics, as noted; one more recent example points to the link between the profusion of digital experience and the superstition attached to the strange or uncanny aspects of déjà vu. The Matrix, a popular film owing no small debt to Baudrillard (and including a cameo copy of Simulacra and Simulation on film), defines déjà vu as “a glitch in the Matrix” which occurs when the machines generating the illusion of the world make alterations to its apparent substance. The image which invoked the experience is that of a black cat, and the alteration one places a brick wall in the way of protagonist Neo and his friends’ possible escape. The association between being trapped by technological machination, the symbol of the black cat (a sign foretelling bad luck in popular superstition), and the déjà vu experience resonates with the contention that the proliferation of technologies of (mass) reproducibility and déjà vu need to be thought together.

Of course, as indicated above, the psychological and cultural approaches to the deja vu experience can be complementary. Certainly the experience is, at one level, a result of cognitive processes involving perception, memory, and affect. Certainly these processes would be influenced by organic and other factors related to the state and psychological condition of the individual. Interestingly, recent studies of perception indicate that the physical exigencies of processing sense-data (from sense-organs to brain and the process of sense-making) leave us with a minute delay; we are always a fraction of a second behind the world (Libet 2004). This interval is the likely space for the dissonant feeling of déjà vu – for “subjectively inappropriate impression of familiarity of a present experience with an undefined past.” Yet clearly the (socio-) cultural approach has a prominent contribution to make to our thinking about déjà vu as well. The effects of a variety of socio-cultural phenomena need to be part of any full consideration of déjà vu, and the traditions of cultural theory and sociology offer a number of productive avenues. It is worth tracing the movement from literary or popular descriptions to psychological discourse, the subsequent normalization of the concept and its term, its transmutation in common language (incorporating the apparent opposite of the illusory or ‘inappropriate’ connotations in the primary, psychological, definition), and the questions of attention/distraction, changes in the lived environment (such as proliferating technologies of reproducibility), and cultural change evoked here. The processes by which sensory or perceptual experience and efforts at its description or deciphering are influenced by cultural circumstance, beyond (if also in interaction with) the influence of cognitive and organic factors, remain a vital area of inquiry and thinking. Déjà vu, notwithstanding such efforts, remains as elusive as a subject as it is subjectively perplexing to experience.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. “Forms of Time and of the chronotope in the novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Berrios, G.E. 1995. “Déjà vu in France During the 19th Century: A Conceptual History.” Comprehensive Psychiatry 36(2): 123-129.

Brown, Alan S. 2003. “A Review of the Déjà vu Experience.” Psychological Bulletin 129(3): 394-413.

Brown, Alan S. 2004. The Déjà vu Experience. New York: Psychology Press.

Cote, Jean-Francois. 2007. “Comparing the Cultures of Cities: Epistemological

Perspectives in the Concept of Metropolis from the Cultural Sciences” in Urban Enigmas: Montreal, Toronto and the Problem of Comparing Cities. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the New International. New York: Routledge.

Krapp, Peter. 2004. Déjà vu: Aberrations of Cultural Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lazerson, Barbara Hunt. 1994. “Déjà vu.” American Speech 69(3): 285-293.

Libet, Benjamin. 2004. Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Royle, Nicholas. 1999. “Déjà vu.” In Post Theory: New Directions in Criticism edited by

Martin McQuillan, Graeme McDonald, Robin Purves and Stephen Thompson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Simmel, Georg. 1997. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, edited by David Frisby. London: Sage.

Sno, Herman N., and Don H. Linszen. 1990. “The Déjà vu Experience: Remembrance of Things Past?” American Journal of Psychiatry 147(12): 1587-1595.

Sno, Herman N., Don H. Linszen and Frans de Jonge. 1992. “Art Imitates Life: Déjà vu Experiences in Prose and Poetry.” British Journal of Psychiatry 160: 511-518.

[1] The same passage was used to illustrate the pseudonymous account of one “Quaerens”, a medical practitioner, describing his own déjà vu experiences in the 1880s (see Berrios 1995:123-124), indicating the impact of literary and cultural accounts on the developing psychological discourse.

[2] It is notable that, as Royle (1999) points out, Freud makes no mention of déjà vu in his 1919 essay on ‘The Uncanny’ – a seeming departure from his assertion that it “must be included”.

[3] Derrida describes “a troubling effect of ‘déjà vu’” (14) in revisiting Marx’s problematic in 1994; in the conclusion to Spectres of Marx , he makes much of the notion of ‘the uncanny’ in Freud, signaling potential connections with his own notion of ‘hauntology’.

[4] Indeed, many existing investigations of déjà vu are of a parapsychological inclination, a situation from which psychologists might wish to rescue it.

[5] Findings on the association of the déjà vu experience with age – older adults being much less likely to report lifetime incidence, and less likely to claim belief in the reality of the phenomena, despite having once been young – clearly indicate some factor(s) other than those inherent in a ‘natural’ process of aging (Brown 2003: 400).

[6] It is noteworthy that many of the highest incidence rates for reported déjà vu experience are reported in recent surveys of college students, implying that level of education augments rather than diminishes openness to the phenomenon.