There’s a First Time for Everything, Again: Experiencing Déjà vu

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By Sarah E. Knapp

The sloping corners of an oak bedroom dresser ascend sharply until they meet at the tip of the Gothic structure. As if in prayer, the arms jut abruptly toward the sky as the corners weep down. The piece of furniture sits equidistant between a window that appears top heavy with ornamentation, and a red brick keystone doorway. Now, hold this thought.

Have you ever experienced déjà vu (DV)? Most have. Approximately 65% of adults and 79% of students (Funkhouser & Schredl, 2010) have encountered the feeling of a “subjectively inappropriate impression of familiarity of a present experience with an undefined past” (Neppe, 1983).  There are several different hypotheses regarding the occurrence of déjà vu in healthy persons (those without neurological or pathological disorders), yet the familiarity-based recognition hypothesis has received recent attention and credence.

Of Gestalt origins, this hypothesis suggests that the way a certain scene is visually configured may incite feelings of déjà vu in an observer who has seen a similarly constructed scene in the past, although the memory of that scene is no longer available to recall. Collaborative researchers from 4 major U.S. universities recently looked into the familiarity hypothesis using virtual reality technology to ascertain the importance of a three dimensional experience on the occurrence of déjà vu. Additionally, for the first time, these researchers sought to induce in a laboratory setting the simultaneous feeling of both newness and familiarity that characterizes DV (Cleary et al., 2012).

In the first of two experiments conducted by Cleary et al. (2012), college students participated in a two-part task involving original (or “primary”) scenes and an equal number of similarly configured scenes. Each was precisely matched to its counter to mimic a sort of visual stage that was hoped to incite a feeling of DV. For example, a virtually animated 3-D primary scene of a bowling alley that shows the lane, rows of chairs, and certain background architecture may be matched with an airport scene that shows like structural elements (rows of chairs, a long empty aisle, parallel architecture, etc.). The elements are placed in the same relative configuration as in the primary image (Cleary et al., 2012).

For the first part of the experiment, Cleary and colleagues used 3-D virtual reality goggles to introduce primary scenes. A title of the scene (such as “bedroom”) was revealed to the participant. In the second part of experiment 1, the corresponding similarly constructed 3-D virtual scene was presented to the participant, three questions were asked. 1) Is the scene familiar? 2) Can you recall the name of a primary scene that it may be similar to? 3) Are you experiencing déjà vu? These questions served as an important part of the first experiment. The ability of the participant to associate the scene with a previously viewed primary scene suggested that the individual retained a conscious memory of that scene. Individuals who scored scenes as being highly familiar, yet did not believe that it had been previously seen (as a primary image) were more likely to report that the task incited a feeling of déjà vu. This indicates that one’s inability to recall a previously viewed scene is a factor in eliciting déjà vu when a structurally similar scene is introduced (Cleary et al., 2012).

Experiment 2 started with a new set of participants and was conducted in nearly the same manner as the first; however, when the participants viewed scenes in the second round of the experiment, some scenes were unaltered from the first (they were not reconfigured to be similar, they were unchanged) and others were again reconfigured to be different scenes with similar elements as in experiment 1. Researchers found that when participants viewed a scene identical to that which they previously viewed, but could not recall having viewed it, they were more likely to experience déjà vu. This was true even compared to those participants who viewed scenes with similar features to those they had previously seen yet did not make the connection (such as in experiment 1). The fact that participants’ likelihood of experiencing déjà vu was greater when re-viewing forgotten scenes lends credibility to the familiarity-based hypothesis (Cleary et al., 2012).

The findings of this study are exciting on several levels. This is the first of its kind to provide quantitative evidence that an individual’s surroundings, as configured by similar spatial elements, can be perceived as familiar in a 3-D environment, even when no recall of the originally experienced space is retrievable in memory. In addition, for the first time in an artificial environment, the feeling that a situation has “oldness” yet is entirely new has been successfully mimicked under laboratory conditions. This inherently difficult-to-study phenomenon may be more accessible to future researchers as a result of this model. Lastly, the second experiment lends weight to the familiarity-based hypothesis with the finding that an identical scene that cannot be recalled is still even more likely to induce déjà vu than a scene that is just very similar. Though impressive, a laboratory cannot substitute for the impact that a truly unrecallable memory can have on the occurrence of déjà vu (Cleary et al., 2012).

Now, back to the dresser, window and door. Imagine, as if perfectly placed upon a grid in the mind’s eye, these three separate objects suddenly click into their place like puzzle pieces. Now, imagine that instead of those three objects, a fireplace, framed oil painting and keystone-shaped bookcase replace their exact location and formation within a room. The sloping corners of an elaborate fireplace mantle ascend sharply until they meet at the tip of the Gothic structure. As if in prayer, the arms jut abruptly toward the sky as the corners weep down. The fireplace sits equidistant between an oil painting that appears top heavy with an ornately decorated frame, and a keystone-shaped shelving unit. Each is of nearly precise size and shape as the dresser, window and door, and is arranged in the same spatial configuration.

The cognitive processes are overwhelmed by an illusory recognition of the surroundings, creating a feeling that this moment has been lived before. In a room infused with ambiguous familiarity, the feeling that time has been interrupted sets in and a profound ambivalence begins to overpower the senses. This is both old and new. This is déjà vu.

Cleary, A. M., Brown, A. S., Sawyer, B. D., Nomi, J. S., Ajoku, A. C., & Ryals, A. J. (2012). Familiarity from the configuration of objects in 3-dimensional space and its relation to déjà vu: A virtual reality investigation. Consciousness And Cognition: An International Journal, 21(2), 969-975. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.12.010

Funkhouser, A., & Schredl, M. (2010). The frequency of déjà vu (déjà rêve) and the effects of age, dream recall frequency and personality factors. International Journal Of Dream Research, 3(1), 60-64.

Neppe, V. M. (1983). The Psychology of Déjà Vu: Have I Been Here Before? Witwatersrand University Press.


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