Saturday, June 9, 2007

Dejavu from other perspective

By Arthur Funkhouser, Ph.D., Bern, Switzerland

The term 'deja vu' has been around quite a while, now, and, in the last few years has become practically a
buzz-word, being often found in books, newspaper accounts and magazine articles concerned with a wide variety
of topics (I have amassed quite a collection, should anyone wish to see them). The problem is, though, that while
many see fit to employ it in their writing and conversation, just exactly what is meant by the words 'deja vu' is
pretty vague. Many, based on their own experience, believe it must refer to what they encountered and/or felt,
while others, having never had such experiences, have a very foggy notion of what is meant, if at all. 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.

In addition, the term 'deja vu' has become encrusted, over the years, with a number of unfortunate associations,
ranging from reincarnation to temporal lobe epilepsy, which hinder further research. These 'explanations' along
with others such as delayed intra-hemisphere transmission over the corpus callosum as well as an astonishing array
of psychoanalytical theories lead people to believe that all that one needs to know about such experiences is
already known and that there is nothing of interest still to be done.

I believe the time has come, therefore, for our terminology, especially in educated discourse, to become more
differentiated (in fact, if I had my way, we would get rid of 'deja vu' altogether as over-worked and entitled to a
well-deserved rest). To this end, I would like to draw attention to three forms of 'deja' experience, defining each
as we go along, and plea that these be used when discussing the experiences they refer to. Upon reflection,
readers may come up with other, better terms for these experiences or propose terms for other, related
experiences which are not the same as the ones described in the following. Since French scientists and thinkers
were the first to investigate these phenomena, it seems fitting to retain French names for these intriguing

1. Deja vecu (already experienced or lived through)

A fairly well-known quote from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens can be used to introduce what is meant by
deja vecu,

We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing
having been said and done before, in a remote time - of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the
same faces, objects, and circumstances - of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly
remember it! (chapter 39)

This describes the feeling that many people know as deja vu (if they know a name for it). A number of surveys
have shown that about one third of the general population have had such or similar experiences. Moreover,
surveys have indicated that such experiences tend to occur more frequently and possibly more intensely when the
respondents were young, say between ages 15 to 25. In addition, such experiences are frequently, if not always,
connected with very banal events. They are so striking, though, that they are often clearly remembered for years
following their occurrence.

Anyone having had such experiences knows that they normally involve more sense modalities than just sight. As in
the Dickens quotation, they can easily involve hearing, tasting, touch and/or proprioceptive perceptions as well.
This is why referring to such experiences as simply deja vu is inadequate.

Another feature of deja vecu that most would agree with is the amazing detail involved. When you are in the midst
of such an occurrence, you are conscious that everything conforms with your 'memory' of it. This is why
explanations which suggest that the person has read about or experienced something similar in the past cannot be
valid. Moreover, this is why explanations based on reincarnation and past lives can also be ruled out. A typical
deja vecu experience can easily involve clothing or even a PC, but styles of clothing change practically every year
and it is rather unlikely that someone had a PC on his or her desk in a previous life!

If incidences of deja vecu can be taken as being real, our notions of causality may have to be revised in some
ways. It does not seem to be difficult, though, for modern physicists to entertain notions of time loops, tachyons
(particles that can travel backwards in time) and multiple universes. That our unconscious would then be able to
avail itself of such anomalies and present us with precognitive knowledge via visions and dreams, is then not so
farfetched as it might seem at first glance.

2. Deja senti ('already felt')

I would like to turn now to a phenomena that is often confused with deja vecu. To introduce it, I would like to
quote from an 1889 paper by Dr. John Hughlings Jackson, one of the foremost pioneers of modern neurology. In
the words of one of his patients, a medical doctor suffering from what has come to be known as temporal lobe or
psychomotor epilepsy, he wrote:

What is occupying the attention is what has occupied it before, and indeed has been familiar, but has been
for a time forgotten, and now is recovered with a slight sense of satisfaction as if it had been sought for. ...
At the same time, or ... more accurately in immediate sequence, I am dimly aware that the recollection is
fictitious and my state abnormal. The recollection is always started by another person's voice, or by my
own verbalized thought, or by what I am reading and mentally verbalize; and I think that during the
abnormal state I generally verbalize some such phrase of simple recognition as 'Oh yes - I see', 'Of course -
I remember', &c., but a minute or two later I can recollect neither the words nor the verbalized thought
which gave rise to the recollection. I only find strongly that they resemble what I have felt before under
similar abnormal conditions.

This state, which sometimes appears in the aura of temporal lobe epilepsy attacks, Jackson termed 'reminiscence'
and I believe could be best termed deja senti. Three features are evident from this description, however, that
distinguish it from deja vecu: a. it is primarily or even exclusively a mental happening; b. there are no precognitive
aspects in which the person feels he or she knows in advance what will be said or done; and c. it seldom or never
remains in the afflicted person's memory afterwards.

A book has recently appeared which has temporal lobe epilepsy as its main focus. In it, the author mentions deja
vu as being a symptom of psychomotor epilepsy, a contention that also persists in most medical and psychiatric
textbooks and which would seem to be based on this and other remarks by Dr. Jackson. The book quotes a
neuropsychologist named Paul Spiers who told students at a lecture that if they had had deja vu experiences, they
were epileptics! This sort of nonsense continues at least in part because, up till now, our terms have been so
poorly defined and this has hampered making adequate surveys which distinguish between the various deja

3. Deja visite ('already visited')

There is another phenomena which is also often confused with deja vecu. It seems to occur more rarely and is an
experience in which a person visits a new locality and nevertheless feels it to be familiar. He or she seems to know
their way around. C. G. Jung published an interesting account of it in his paper on synchronicity. To distinguish it
from deja vecu, it is important to ask whether it was purely the place and location of inanimate buildings and/or
objects that were familiar, or did the situation that the person was in also play a role. Deja viste has to do with
geography, with the three spatial dimensions of height, width and depth, while deja vecu has to do more with
temporal occurrences and processes.

Deja visite can be explained in several ways. It may be that the person once read a detailed account of the place
and has subsequently forgotten it. This happened to Nathaniel Hawthorne on a visit he made to the ruins of a
castle in England. He 'recognized' the place but didn't know how or why. Only later was he able to trace it to a
piece written two hundred years earlier by Alexander Pope about it. The incident ofdeja visite described by Sir
Walter Scott in his book, Guy Mannering, is also based on this hypothesis. Reincarnation might also offer a way of
explaining some instances of deja visite. A third possibility are so-called 'out-of-the-body' experiences in which a
person is apparently able to travel abroad, leaving his or her body behind.

It is possible that mixed versions of these three forms of 'deja' experience may occur. There are also several other
phenomena which resemble these in various ways, but space does not permit going into them here. Those wishing
to know more and explore the various aspects of deja phenomena more deeply are referred to the excellent
overview in the book by Neppe.


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This article originally appeared in the Scientific and Medical Network Review, 57:20 - 22, 1995 and is
republished here with permission.

APA Reference
Funkhouser, Arthur (1996). Three types of deja vu.

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