The French phrase deja vu is literally translated “already seen” or, less precisely, “already experienced.” It refers to the uncanny sensation caused by an experience in the present that appears strikingly familiar to an experience from a vaguely defined past. The present feels as though it is being remembered. Often, deja vu is used synonymously with paramnesia; however, there are terms for varieties of paramnesia having to do with other senses and similar sensations.
Explanations of experience similar to deja vu arose in occultist and parapsychological circles prior to properly scientific investigation, and authors as far back as Pythagoras and Aristotle in ancient Greece examined the phenomenon. Such theories as hereditary transmission of experience, telepathy, precognition, or reincarnation were popular accounts of the sense of time transcendence experienced during deja vu.
References to and descriptions of the deja vu phenomenon have appeared frequently in fiction since the early 19th century, and it was first discussed in scientific literature of the late 19th century. Credit for coining the term is often attributed to Emile Boirac in a letter to the editor of Revue Philosophique (1876); however, some note that the topic was discussed by name as early as Arthur Ladbroke Wigan’s The Duality of the Mind (1844).
With the rise of the Freudian psychodynamic perspective in psychology, many began hypothesizing that deja vu is the result of remembering an unconscious wish, blurring of the boundary between one’s self and external environment, or the rousing of a repressed memory. Gestalt psychologists believed deja vu to be caused by structural familiarity of a past experience—lived, dreamed, read, or imagined—to the experience in which the deja vu occurred.
As scientists found methods for examining the brain, their explanations moved farther away from phenomenological descriptions. The main causes purported in this community became epilepsy, temporal lobe abnormalities, and time lag between brain hemispheres or cognitive processes.
The development of even more advanced research methods in cognitive and biological psychology has sparked a resurgence of interest among those favoring these explanations. Often, contemporary theorists suggest that an adequate account of deja vu must rely on an eclectic combination of these causes. Different causes might explain different experiences, for example, auditory or visual, and possibly even different occurrences of the same experience.
Social, cultural, and media studies theorists have also taken up interest in this topic today. Under the influence of psychodynamic theory’s resurgence in continental philosophy and postmodernism, this literature may be seen as part of a broader interest in the study of culture and memory.
See also Cognition; Consciousness; Flashbacks; Memory; Psychology and Time; Time, Imaginary; Time, Subjective Flow of
Brown, A. S. (2004). The deja vu experience: Essays in cognitive psychology. New York: Psychology Press.
Krapp, P. (2004). Deja vu: Aberrations of cultural memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.