Many of us have had the experience of going somewhere that we’ve never been to before, yet somehow feeling that we have. Literally translated, déjà vu means ‘seen before’ and this is the feeling most commonly associated with the phenomenon; that we recognize things that we shouldn’t be able to. There are various theological theories surrounding déjà vu, the most common purporting that it is evidence of the theory of past lives; we may well have visited these places in a former incarnation and somehow remember them in the present. However, it doesn’t shed any light on other forms of déjà vu, such as the feeling that you have been present at a particular conversation or gathering before ort hat you somehow know people, although have never met them. Déjà vu is a complex phenomenon that has been studied by many notable minds throughout history.
The first recorded case of Déjà vu
Born in 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American novelist and short story writer. In one of his books, Our Old Home; A Series of English Sketches’, Hawthorne described an experience he had in visiting the old English manor house, Stanton Court. According to the book, as he entered the building, he was overwhelmed by the feeling that “somewhere or other I had seen just this strange spectacle before.” This feeling followed him throughout each of the rooms, particularly the kitchen. Although he had never visited Stanton Court before, he felt that was in “that odd state of mind wherein we fitfully and teasingly remember some previous scene or incident, of which the one now passing appears to be but the echo and reduplication.” Fifty years later, in a magazine, Review Philosophique, the writer, Emile L Boirac, named this phenomenon as ‘déjà vu’.
A simple trick of the brain?
Déjà vu has given rise to a number of theories and explanations. In 1879, a German psychology publication suggested that the feeling was brought on as the result of psychological fatigue. However, in 1889, one of the pioneers of psychology, William H Burnham suggested just the opposite; the déjà vu is the result of the body having had too much rest. He suggested that “when we see a strange object, its unfamiliar aspect is largely due to the difficulty we find in apperceiving its characteristics… when the brain centres are over-rested the apperception of a strange scene may be so easy that the aspect of the scene will be familiar.”
Other theories of the time included ‘double cerebration’; an idea that one side of the brain received information slightly before the other side. The notions of the subconscious mind and the conscious were also explored, with one theory proposing that déjà vu was the result of the subconscious appropriating information before the conscious mind, resulting in that ‘I’ve seen this before’ feeling.
As psychology evolved, particularly with the revolutionary ideas instigated by Sigmund Freud, déjà vu was seen as something else entirely; under Freud’s reign, many psychologists came to believe that déjà vu was nothing more than a defense mechanism employed by the brain, to protect itself from the id and the superego. Freud’s companion and colleague, Carl Jung had his own experience, whilst on a trip to Africa. As his train travelled around a steep cliff on the way to Nairobi, he noticed a man, standing at the top, holding a spear. Jung reported that “I had the feeling that I had already experienced this moment and had already known this world.” He suggested that it was the result of ‘collective consciousness’; the aspects of human experience that survive and are passed down from generation to generation, although we never consciously recognize them. He described his own experience as the recognition of something “immemorially known.”
However, further investigation by the Swiss psychoanalyst, Arthur Funkhouser, has led to other aspects of déjà vu being uncovered. Funkhouser states that “just what exactly is meant by the words, ‘déjà vu’, is pretty vague. 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 events and/or places which seem so strangely and intensely familiar.” In order to make research more accurate and meaningful, Funkhouser has suggested that déjà vu should be broken down into three categories:
Types of Déjà vu
● déjà vécu – something that has already been experienced or lived through
● déjà senti – something that has already been felt
● déjà visite – something that has already been visited
● déjà entendu – something that has been already heard
● déjà lu – something that has been already read
Funkhouser’s findings already tell us that over 70% of the population has experienced a form of déjà vu and that it tends to occur most in people between the ages of 15 and 25. It has also been firmly linked to temporal lobe epilepsy; people just about to fall victim to a temporal lobe seizure often report a feeling of déjà vu and this has also been reported as a fairly common feeling between convulsions. However, the phenomenon isn’t exclusive to epileptics; many people without any form of brain condition also report the feeling associated with déjà vu, seemingly without any link.
The ongoing argument
Research into déjà vu is ongoing and there seem to be just as many theories now as there was when Hawthorne wrote his piece about visiting Stanton House. Some suggest that it is a simple fantasy or even an intense example of wish fulfillment. Other still believe that it is a piece of poor wiring between the hemispheres of the brain, causing it to mistake the past for the present. In addition, there are those who believe it is evidence of the latent psychic gifts that we are all supposed to be born with.
Without doubt, more investigation is required, both into its cause and its effects. The scientific and psychic worlds are both split, with neither able to come up with a concrete answer. Until such time, the arguments will continue, leaving many of us with the feeling that we have heard them somewhere before.