The Mysterious Meaning of Déjà Vu

Photo: Getty Images/Guido Mieth
About two-thirds of people have experienced déjà vu in their lifetimes, but for something that's such a common experience (Olivia Rodrigo even wrote a hit song about it), the phenomenon is still shrouded in mystery. Theories about why people experience déjà vu—or moments that seem like they've happened before—range from metaphysical to scientific.

In French, déjà vu means "already seen"—the perfect description for this particular sensation. Maybe you're in the middle of a conversation with a friend and suddenly feel like it's familiar or perhaps you visit a place for the first time and find yourself feeling like you've been there before. Whatever the details of the weird, eerie moment may be, you'll know it when you feel it.

Experts In This Article
  • Eli Bliliuos, hypnotist and founder of NYC Hypnosis Center

The most common theories may answer the (kind of unanswerable) question: What is déjà vu? You might find significance in these moments, if you're open to it.

The Neuroscientific Meaning of Déjà Vu

It's difficult to study déjà vu. It occurs randomly, which makes it challenging to recreate in a lab setting. And thus, researchers are largely working with theories. For example, science writer and postdoctoral researcher Jordan Gaines Lewis, PhD, previously told Psychology Today, scientists attribute the phenomenon to something like a glitch in the brain.

More specifically, your brain is always processing information in an attempt to paint a full picture of your world, and sometimes, that picture isn't perfect. Your sensory input and memory-recalling output cross wires, and you wind up feeling you've been standing there before. However, there's a flaw in this theory because déjà vu events don't always come from real past experiences.

Yet another theory is that these episodes have to do with a transfer of information between the long-term and short-term parts of the brain. In this glitch, short-term memory seeps into long-term memory, making it feel like you remember something from the past that you're actually remembering from the present moment.

There are many other theories about your brain crossing wires (the result being déjà vu): Perhaps déjà vu is an error in timing as your brain tries to process info, perhaps disturbances in the medial temporal lobe—which is in charge of episodic and spatial memory—are the reason for these interruptions.

Some breakthroughs have happened by studying epileptic patients, but again, nothing is conclusive so far.

The Past Lives Theory of Déjà Vu

The past lives theory speculates that déjà vu is memory leaking in from a past life. "From a spiritual perspective, déjà vu happens when we unconsciously find a person or place familiar due to a past life experience," explains hypnotist Eli Bliliuos of NYC Hypnosis Center. "When we feel like we know someone we have just met, or feel at home in a city we are visiting for the first time, that familiar feeling is very often due to a past life experience. This happens at an unconscious level, where all our memories are stored, including past life memories."

There's no research to support this theory (and the American Psychological Associate doesn't recognize it as legitimate), but there are many anecdotal success stories of people deepening their déjà vu experiences through past life regression therapy. Some folks even seek out this treatment as a therapeutic tool.

"A past life regression is a hypnosis session that can access past life memories. A client is guided into hypnosis where they can experience past life memories that relate to their current life in some way shape or form," says Bliliuos. "It is common to identify the people and characters in your past life memories as current life friends and family—but in different bodies, playing different roles." Many of his clients come into his clinic hoping to work out karmic experiences from past lives.

This theory isn't supported by the scientific community, however, and ethics of the practice have been questioned by some mental health experts.

The Takeaway

In short, some things in life just can't be explained. (Researchers don't really know why yawning is contagious.) It's up to you how deep you wade into interpreting your moments of déjà vu. Maybe you want to think of it as a past life experience; maybe you just want to laugh it off and move right on. It's up to you, but—hey—if you feel like you're reading the end of this article for the second time, enjoy this mystery.

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  1. Cutsuridis, Vassilis, and Motoharu Yoshida. “Editorial: Memory Processes in Medial Temporal Lobe: Experimental, Theoretical and Computational Approaches.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 11 19. 6 Apr. 2017, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2017.00019
  2. Andrade, Gabriel. “Is past life regression therapy ethical?.” Journal of medical ethics and history of medicine vol. 10 11. 2 Dec. 2017
  3. Norscia, Ivan et al. “Auditory Contagious Yawning Is Highest Between Friends and Family Members: Support to the Emotional Bias Hypothesis.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 11 442. 3 Apr. 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00442

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