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A Better Understanding of Déjà Vu and You

By: Marion Rutan

Have you ever felt like you have been in a situation before even though you know for a fact that you haven’t? If you have, then you have experienced déjà vu. Déjà vu is fairly common: about 6 of 10 people will experience it sometime in their life. That would be about 3,767 Elon students who have experienced déjà vu at least once in their life.

Both Amanda Willingham and Claire Xu, juniors here at Elon, have dreamt about a specific detail or event and then later on in real life experience that particular occurrence or interact with the certain details. The big question is, can these students actually predict the future through their dreams or is there more going on?

Contrary to what one might believe from movies, déjà vu is not likely to be a result of alternative dimensions interacting with each other, as much as my Stranger Things inner fangirl is hoping. It is also unlikely that déjà vu is “a glitch in the Matrix.”

Some people believe that déjà vu is because you have experienced the situation before, just in your past life. While others believe that when you experience déjà vu, it means that you are on the right path and you are meant to be where you currently are in life.

When we turn to science for an answer, there is still not really a clear answer but, they are closer to providing a definitive explanation of the cause of déjà vu. One past theory suggests that déjà vu is a mini-seizure that stops before it causes any major problems. This model is based on evidence that déjà vu often precedes seizures that happens in the temporal lobes of the brain.

Although this thought is a little unsettling and still technically a possibility, it is very unlikely that it is the sole reason that déjà vu occurs. Déjà vu may stem from the temporal lobe, which explains the common occurrence of déjà vu right before a seizure in those who suffer from epilepsy, but it is unlikely a mini-seizure occurs in a healthy person given how common déjà vu is. This theory was also discussed in the mid 1990s, so science has significantly evolved since then. The evolution has allowed us to discover that people who have the sensation of familiarity right before a seizure is really just an overload of senses in a specific part of your brain.

A more recent theory comes from Anne Cleary and Alexander Claxton, two researchers from Colorado State University. They recently published an article in Psychological Science, arguing that déjà vu is actually related to normal memory functioning. They claim that déjà vu is “driven by an unrecalled memory of a past experience that relates to the current situation.”

One of the reasons why a specific theory has not been accepted is that it is extremely hard to study déjà vu in the laboratory. The challenge is to capture something that doesn’t happen regularly and no one really knows how or why it happens.

Cleary and Claxton managed to actually stimulate déjà vu in the lab by creating different environments in the computer game The Sims. Each environment would be paired with another environment that followed a similar layout but had different features in them. For example, if you are walking through a garden in one environment you would be walking through the city in another, but there would be an obstacle in the same place in both environments and have the same turns to guide you through both of the scenes. The similar layouts of the environments will elicit feelings of déjà vu, because the layouts of the first environment will act as a past experience.

The participants in the study would virtually walk through the first environment by following a sequence of turns. Continuing the garden environment as an example, the participant would walk straight then turn left, another left, go around a flower bed and then take a right. After finishing that environment, the participants would engage in another environment, this one being the pair of the first one shown. So instead of being in a garden, they would be in a city, but the turns would be same. Throughout the walk through in the second environment, the screen would stop right before a turn and the participant would have to rate their confidence in knowing what direction the next turn would be, what the next turn would be, whether or not they experienced déjà vu, and if the environment seemed familiar or not.

Cleary and Claxton found no evidence that déjà vu allows people to actually predict what is going to happen next. However, because of déjà vu, people are more confident in what they think will happen next. These results also explain that unfortunately, the Elon students who dreamed of a detail that later happened in life, are most likely not able to predict the future with their dreams. This study did reaffirm that déjà vu is not unusual and allowed us to see one relatively successful way to study déjà vu in the laboratory.

Overall, there is still so much more to learn about déjà vu but Cleary and Claxton seem to already be following up with another experiment. The pair, and other scientists are researching diligently trying to find out more information about this mysterious yet common phenomenon.


Bancaud, J., Brunet-Bourgin, F., Chauvel, P., and Halgren, E. (1994). Anatomical origin of déjà vu and vivid ‘memories’ in human temporal lobe epilepsy. Brain 117:71–90. doi: 10.1093/brain/117.1.71

Brown, A. S. (2003). A review of the déjà vu experience. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 394–413.

Cleary, A. M., & Claxton, A. B. (2018). Déjà vu: An illusion of prediction. Psychological Science, 29(4), 635–644.

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