Deja Vu: Real Science And Fringe Theories

“When some French were assembling an encyclopedia of paranormal experiences, they decided to leave déjà vu out, because it was so common it could not be considered paranormal.” —Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream

In A Nutshell

Scientists have been wondering since at least the 19th century: What’s the deal with deja vu? Research now suggests that it’s the result of a miscommunication in the brain, occurring when you see something that has a familiar pattern that you can’t quite place, or a location you might have seen in a book, online, or in a movie. Other theorists say that deja vu happens when parallel universes temporarily sync, and that it’s an indication that you’re experiencing the same thing somewhere else.

The Whole Bushel

It’s that strange, unnerving feeling that we’ve lived through something before, been somewhere before, even had the same conversation before. It happens to most people rarely, but sometimes, it comes with such a powerful, overwhelming feeling that we’ve been in a certain place before, heard certain things before, and smelled certain smells before that it can make a person believe that they actually have been through an event before, whether it was in this life or another.

And it’s one of those weird brain hiccups that science still can’t explain entirely, although there have been some pretty neat theories.

Researchers at Colorado State University have found that they can actually cause people to have feelings of deja vu under carefully controlled circumstances, and they did it using video games.

Using The Sims as a layout editor, the researchers created a town of structures that they had volunteer students view. The rooms and buildings weren’t random, they had been carefully designed to share certain elements like layout, patterns, graphics, and artwork.

Results were interesting. If they layouts were too similar, the students could recognize them as having the same features as another room they had already looked at. But if they were only vaguely similar, with a more carefully disguised pattern, they would create a feeling of deja vu.

This suggests that deja vu actually involves a memory malfunction, and it’s triggered when you’re looking at something similar to something you’ve seen before, but you just can’t place it. It’s thought that deja vu that happens when you’re visiting a place means that you might have seen it before, but you don’t remember it; it may have been the setting of a movie, a set of pictures you saw online. There’s a sense of familiarity, but it’s not familiar enough that your brain can make the connection between the place and where you’ve seen it before.

A similar theory suggests that it’s caused by glitches in the way our brains process information, specifically information that passes through perception and memory. This one is supported by the number of people who suffer from epilepsy reporting higher-than-average occurrences of deja vu. Once the epilepsy and the seizures are managed, the occurrences of deja vu decrease, suggesting there’s a connection between the way the brain interprets images and what it thinks it remembers.

And, of course, there are always the fringe theories.

One fringe theory says that deja vu happens when two universes, normally separate, are temporarily in sync.

Theoretical physicist Dr. Micho Kaku explains the idea that multiple universes coexisting and—briefly–coming together to create the feeling of deja vu is complicated, highly unproven, but perhaps, occasionally, possible but doubtful. The idea of multiple universes is an accepted one; we’re surrounded by them all the time. We’re made up of waves, and waves vibrate on different frequencies—we can only see and experience those that are on the same frequency as we are.

The example he gives is that occasionally, your radio might pick up two stations at once. It’s rare, but it does happen. And the multiverse explanation of deja vu suggests that when this happens on a larger scale, it results in two normally separate universe falling in sync.

Possible, perhaps . . . but Dr. Kaku also says that deja vu is more likely a misfiring, misremembering brain picking out bits and pieces of knowledge and memories that it’s not sure where it found.

Sorry, fringe theorists.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Wait, Have I Been Here Before? The Curious Case of Déjà Vu
Scientifici American: Been There, Done That—or Did I?: Déjà Vu Found to Originate in Similar Scenes
What is Deja Vu? Dr. Kaku’s Universe—Big Think

  • Check

    HAH! I see what ya did there in the first paragraph. Clever girl…..

    (Or am I reading too hard into it?)

  • Nathaniel A.

    “This suggests that deja vu actually involves a memory malfunction..’

    As someone who has vividly experienced “Deja Vu,” I hardly think it is a malfunction, seeing as there are considerable moments of time between two occurrences, and they often involve very insignificant moments that I would not have remembered otherwise. So maybe a memory “pro-function?”

  • rincewind

    I have the strong sensation of having already read this article…..

    • Nathaniel A.

      I have the strong sensation I have heard that joke many times before….

      • rincewind

        lol. I have the strong sensation of having already read that response….. 😉

        • I can see where this is going.

          • inconspicuous detective

            i’ve seen this whole thing happen before but i can’t remember where or when man. :/

        • Spartachilles

          I have a strong sensation of having already realized that these comments are entirely pointless.

  • Stormsinger

    What about deja vu experiences where you not only have the feeling this has happened before, but actually know that the phone is about to ring or someone is going to say something that they haven’t said yet? I have had this happen, not often but at least 3 times that I can recall. The thing the person said was not Earth shattering just ordinary, but it is a strange experience.

    • Evan Belgard

      Thats precognition then.

    • Passin’ Through

      Exactly. What you described happened to me yesterday. I knew what was about to be said. I tried to say it a the same time but I felt as though I was just a microsecond behind. It’s happened before but yesterday was the eeriest I’ve ever had it.

      • Michael Creel

        YES!!! Same thing for me!!! I always try to do something entirely different than the déjà vu but just feels as if something is (as if 2 hands on my chest) holding me back or preventing me from doing so…idk if U’ll understand the sensation I’m trying to describe….

  • goog yubari

    Deja Vu freaks me out. I felt this shizz one time eight years ago in front of my drowning cousin.

  • Low blood sugar. If science can’t explain it, it’s probably low blood sugar. Or hallucinations.

    • Stormsinger

      or a god

  • TyBH

    “Strange. I just got this feeling: Vuja De. Not Deja Vu. Vuja De: The feeling that somehow, none of this has ever happened before. And then it’s gone.”

    • lbatfish

      Brilliant concept! I’m pretty sure I’ll be stealing it for use at some point in the future.

      • TyBH

        Well, it’s not mine. George Carlin said that. Brilliant man, indeed!

        • lbatfish

          But if you hadn’t had the good taste to post it, I never would have seen it. So you get a “partial credit”, at least. 🙂

  • Jimmy

    I once saw a theory that Deja Vu was caused by your brain playing back a memory as it’s being recorded, if you see what I mean. The idea was that as the memory is being formed, you are tricked into thinking you’ve seen it before by your brain remembering the memory. It’s sort of like those screens you get on video camera’s when you can see the film as it’s being recorded. It’s a lot less complicated than I made it out to be, I’m just not very good at explaining it.

    • lbatfish

      I also saw that proposed as a possible cause (if I understood you correctly).

      You’re “seeing” it from a routing within your brain that’s usually used for “seeing” memories.

  • oouchan

    I do get these sensations of having seen, said or done something before. So weird. I like the parallel universe idea, but it’s really the Matrix. 🙂


    • I remember some really peculiar experiences of déjà vu. None were regarding anything earth-shattering, just very ordinary stuff, but so intensely weird that I can recall them vividly even years later.

  • Nothing wrong with believing we have all been here before.

  • Sweet-Sativa

    I would say its purely neurological. From my own life I remember de ja vous occurring a lot when I was younger but since I been a regular pot smoker I have not experienced it at all to my recollection.

    • Passin’ Through

      Doctor: Any memory loss?
      Me: Not that I can recall.

    • lbatfish

      “Now, Bob, for the grand prize . . . what is your name?”
      “Oh, I know that one, man!”
      “Starts with a ‘B’.”
      “Uhhhh . . . . ”
      “Ends with a ‘B’.”
      Oh, wow, man . . . I know this one . . . .”
      “Ten seconds, Bob.”
      “BOB!!! BOB!!!”

      — Cheech & Chong (“Let’s Make a Dope Deal”)

  • Passin’ Through

    I agree with whatever Dr. Micho Kaku says. That guy is extremely smart and knows about everything.

  • Spartachilles

    This article wasn’t he best. To me it was just saying obvious things, with a science fact I didn’t know or two sprinkled around, and the random parallel universe theory.

  • Charlize Blossom

    parallel universe, genetical memory, synaptic error, far sight/scry, telepathy, vision from God, reincarnation
    ok, give me more …

    • …genetical…

      Hey, icky, we have to conversate about your use of this word 😉

  • Michael Creel

    It’s more than just misfiring…for myself atleast…my déjà vu is WAY too DETAILED to be just “misinterpretation and assimilation of different memories.”….

  • sarah jung

    I have a query, Whenever I experience Deja Vu I can pinpoint the time, day and location and and know exactly what will happen next before it happens. So is this normal?

  • Billy

    Sorry fringe theorists why? One scientist is a quantum physicist and the other a neurologist. Both theories are just that, theories. Don’t choose sides, you are supposed to be looking for possibilities and the many worlds theory of quantum physics is being tested and proven all the time.