What’s the explanation for ‘deja vu’?

‘Deja vu’ means ‘already seen’ or ‘seen before.’ It’s when we feel a strong sense of recognition in a new place, as if we’ve been there before but can’t remember when.

It can occur even in places we know for certain we have never visited in the past. We may actually find that we know the layout of the rooms, or what’s round the corner in the road.

Often, ‘deja vu’ is accompanied by a strong emotional reaction to the place we recognise – perhaps a warm sense of belonging, or a feeling of sadness, or a desire to get away.

A scientific explanation of this phenomenon is that it’s some kind of blip in the brain – a disturbance in the electrical activity which causes a momentary illusion that we’ve seen the place previously when in fact we’re seeing it for the first time.

A more metaphysical explanation is that ‘deja vu’ is connected with past lives – we recognise a place because we were there in a former life. But how could that account for feelings of ‘deja vu’ which arise in a modern environment?

Larking around outside the old Town Hall in Wimbledon – part of a shopping centre now

Years ago, I revisited the town I grew up in, Wimbledon, with an old friend from school. Before the visit, I dreamt I was walking from my childhood home into the town centre, and when I got there, I was surprised to find the old Town Hall was now a shopping centre.

When we arrived, I found the town centre was exactly as I had dreamt it. You may say I must have heard about the redevelopment in the media or something, and simply forgotten. But this sort of thing happens quite often, in relation to places which have never been in the media.

Five years ago, I wanted to move house, and I was looking at cul-de-sac bungalows within a certain area. I happened upon the house I eventually found quite by chance, on an evening out – it was in the wrong place, but I viewed it on a whim, and as soon as I walked in the door, it just felt like my house.

Recently, reading back through some old dream diaries, I discovered that I had dreamt I took a detour on a house-finding mission, to view a little miner’s cottage in the middle of a terrace on the edge of the moor – I had actually dreamt about this house.

I don’t know if there is a definitive explanation for ‘deja vu’, but my own experience suggests that when we feel we have been in a place before, we have – in our dreams.

Have you ever experienced ‘deja vu’? What do you think is the explanantion?

13 thoughts on “What’s the explanation for ‘deja vu’?”

  1. Spooky! I’ve never had deja-vu as you describe it so fascinatingly here. But I have had what my mother taught me to call ‘breaking my dream.’ That is, I would see, when awake, something I’d dreamed about the night before. I once dreamed I looked down a long hall with a long polished table, on which was a vase of old, striped roses. The next day I took my small brother on an outing to Aston Hall. On the way we picked up a gardening magazine for my mother. On its cover was a vase of old fashioned, striped roses. I said to my brother, ‘That’s broken my dream.’
    Then we reached Aston Hall and went into the long gallery. It was a long, long room and I found myself looking down the length of a long polished table. On its nearer end, close to me, was a vase of old fashioned, striped roses! Now, it’s possible I remembered the gallery from previous vists – but the roses?

    1. What a fascinating story, Sue – I love threes – the dream, the magazine, and just in case you haven’t clocked it, the manifest vase of roses in the long hall! If you hadn’t remembered the dream, you might have just had that frisson of mysterious familiarity we call ‘deja vu’ – I really like that you have an expression for when it does follow a dream, ‘breaking the dream.’

  2. Love these stories. I’ve experienced many instances of deja vu, yet, I still cannot explain or understand why it should happen. I’ve read many books on the subject, I’ve had dreams about past live, but nothing could relate to my feelings of deja vu. I recently started watching the series “Fringe”. It’s just fiction, but there they explain deja vu as experiences in “parallel lives”. I’ve read about parallel lives/universes too. Cannot quite get my head around that one! Still, it makes one think…

    1. Parallel lives – yes, that’s an intriguing idea too. When I was investigating past-life therapy years ago, I reached the conclusion that if other lives exist they aren’t stacked up in an orderly line, but must indeed overlap. I love these ideas because you can’t get your head around them – they really open your mind 🙂

  3. That’s fascinating Jenny. I’ve never experienced deja vu at that sort of level. I’ve been to new places that have seemed very familiar or met new people that I’m sure I’ve been introduced to before but nothing as surreal as your experiences. Interesting!

  4. Oh, I love de ja vu. I get it quite a lot, and had moments like this even more as a child. I remember one particular occasion where I was chased by an alsation. I had walked down the road, saw a person who I knew I had seen before dressed in exactly the same way, but who I didn’t know, and saw the alsation. I knew it was going to chase me, and it turned and came for me. Even as I ran home, I knew what was going to happen. I outran it – god only knows how, and raced into the drive as the alsation skidded trying to stop itself. I must have been 9 or 10 but it’s as clear today as it was then! It defies explanation really!

    1. I’m not surprised you get a lot of deja vu experiences Abi, from getting to know you here and on your blog 🙂 I love the story about the alsatian – it’s amazing how vividly these ‘weird’ experiences stay in the memory, even decades later. I think what we love about them is that they do defy explanation, or rather they’re capable of a variety of explanations, but you can never really nail them down.

  5. Hi Jenny! Long time no type! 😀

    I dream about stuff very vididly and, it kind of just happens JUST the way i dreamed it.

    It’s VERY strange but, normal at the same time. 🙂

    1. Very strange… but normal – yes!!! That’s it exactly, and it makes ordinary life feel exciting and magical 🙂

  6. I personally do not like when i have one, there is a feeling that comes over me,i cant actually explain the feeling but it is very unconfortable, spookie and not normal. while its happening i sit there and try to figure out have i been there before , have i ever done what im before at that moment. well anyway, i take a walk when it occurs. It goes away.

    1. Hi Matt – I know these experiences can be really uncomfortable, and like you, I don’t dwell on them. But I do clock them, and enjoy the sense of mystery that comes with them, before I walk on back to the present moment. It is indeed a fleeting thing.

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