Déjà vu

Definition: An unexpected sense of familiarity when encountering what you believe is actually a new experience, place, person, or object.
Etymology: 1876. French for "already seen".
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

In his book, Our Old Home-A Series of English Sketches1, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) related his experience in visiting the kitchen of the English manor, Stanton Harcourt. Upon entrance, Hawthorne was struck with the eerie feeling that "somewhere or other I had seen just this strange spectacle before."

The kitchen was huge, taking up all of a 70-foot tower and Hawthorne described it as a "vast chimney" that held the "reminiscence of the fires and feasts of generations that have passed away." Although certain he had never before seen the room or any room similar, he described the sensation as "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."

Had Hawthorne lived another half century, he may have described his experience as déjà vu.

Frederick Myers
Frederick William Henry Myers

"Le Sensation of Déjà Vu"

As difficult as déjà vu is to explain or define, it is commonly understood is that there is no English term that succinctly describes the experience. Frederic Myers (1843-1901), a founder of and ardent voice for the Society for Psychical Research, called the experience promnesia (from the Greek pro, “prior to,” + mnesis, “memory”). In an 1876 letter to the editor of Review Philosophique, Émile L. Boirac called the experience "le sensation of déjà vu"2; F.L. Arnaud is credited with introducing the name to science in 1896.

Theory and Speculation

Over time, many notable scholars have theorized about the possible causes and origins of déjà vu. In 1878, an article in a German psychology magazine proposed that a possible cause of the phenomenon is fatigue. Eleven year later, in 1889, psychologist William H. Burnham proposed the exact opposite3; that déjà vu occurs when the body is "over" rested. He wrote, "When we see a strange object, its unfamiliar aspect is largely due to the difficulty we find in apperceiving its characteristics... when the brain centers are over-rested, the apperception of a strange scene may be so easy that the aspect of the scene will be familiar."

As early as 1884, some psychologists believed déjà vu was caused by "double cerebration" or that one hemisphere of the brain received information a moment before the other hemisphere. In 1895, Frederic Myers postulated that déjà vu occurred when the subconscious mind registered information in advance of the conscious mind.

In an 1896 essay, Arthur Allin, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, put forth several theories on the cause of déjà vu, among them he suggested that the sensation might be caused by elements of forgotten dreams or by a brief interruption of attention when encountering a new image.

With the advent of Freudian psychology many scholars accepted the belief that déjà vu was only a defense mechanism the ego used to defend itself from the id and superego3.

In 1945 one scholar, British psychologist Oliver Zangwill wrote a lengthy essay about Hawthorne's experience at Stanton Harcourt, concluding that the kitchen experience arose from an intimate fixation on his mother, although Hawthorne, himself attributed the uncanny experience to his remembrance of "a letter of [Alexander] Pope's, addressed to the Duke of Buckingham, there is an account of Stanton Harcourt (as I now find, although the name is not mentioned), where he resided while translating a part of the 'Iliad'."

The noted psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) speculated that déjà vu is the product of "collective consciousness"4, drawing on the fragments of the body of human experience that survive from generation to generation, yet never breaching conscious memory. Jung's theory possibly arises from his own déjà vu experience. During his first trip to Africa, on looking out the window of his train, Jung felt as if he was returning to a home that had been his five thousand years earlier. In his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections (60), he described the feeling as "recognition of immemorially known."

Reincarnation, forgotten memories, out of body experiences (astral projection), and even epilepsy have all been considered as possible causes of déjà vu.

Although many theories evolved about the origination or cause of déjà vu, no theory has been successfully proven due, in part, to the enigmatic nature and the many faces of the phenomenon.

Children of Déjà vu

Déjà vu is a broad term that is parent to a variety of phenomena such as déjà entendu "already heard" and "déjà lu" already read.

Psychologist Arthur Funkhouser writes5, "... just exactly what 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 the events and/or places which seem so strangely and intensely familiar." Funkhouser, who would like to see the term déjà vu put to rest, has further separated the experience of déjà vu into three categories of déjà experience:

Although the origination of the phenomenon continues to be a mystery and finding a concise definition continues to be puzzling, déjà vu is one paranormal experience that is unquestionable in its plausibility. Over 67% of the respondents in a 1986 survey admitted to having one or more experiences of déjà vu. Other surveys have mirrored or even exceeded 67% 2, 5, 6.

1. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Our Old Home-A Series of English Sketches. Project Gutenberg, 2007. 17 Jun 2008 <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/oldhm10.txt>.
2. Alan G. Hefner. “Deja vu.” The Mystica N.D . 14 Jun 2008 <http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/d/deja_vu.html>.
3. David Glenn. “The Tease of Memory.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 23 Jul 2004: A12. 15 Jun 2008 <http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i46/46a01201.htm>.
4. Dr. C. George Boeree. “Carl Jung.” Shippenberg University 1997. 17 Jun 2008 <http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/jung.html>.
5. Arthur Funkhouser, PhD. “Three Types Of Deja Vu.” Scientific and Medical Network Review 1995: 57:20-22. 15 Jun 2008 <http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=264&cn=0>.
6. “Déjà vu .” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 11 Jun 2008. 15 Jun 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9j%C3%A0_vu>.
7. Douglas Harper. “deja vu.” Online Etymology Dictionary Nov 2001. 15 Jun 2008 <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=d&p=4>.