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Biology 202
2002 Third Paper
On Serendip

Déjà vu: The Past in the Present

Serendip Student

"...parapsychologists think déjà vu is a glimpse into a past-life. The event did happen similarly before, you just happened to die between the occurrences." (2)

The mysterious nature of déjà vu does not only lie in the experience itself, but in its definition. The sole unity of truth is the direct French translation - 'already seen.' In general, the phenomena can be summed up as experiencing the past in the present. It is "an uncanny feeling or illusion of having already seen or experienced something that is being experienced for the first time." (3) The déjà vu experience is puzzling because it often leaves people disoriented and searching for explanations. In fact, it is a fairly common occurrence with 70% (a higher rate is reported between the ages of 15 and 25) of the population reporting that they have felt déjà vu at some point in their lives. (2) The frequency of the experience has left specialists scrounging for information. There is an evident absence of truth, as expressed through varying opinions from psychologists, scientists, neurobiologists and spiritual healers. The nature? The cause? No one seems to be pointing to a definite answer. Some widely discussed causes appear to point to the brain's temporal lobes, past memory, wish fulfillment or temporarily mismatched connections in the brain.

Emile Borac who was greatly interested in psychic phenomena first utilized the term déjà vu. (3) The connotation used refers to the past, while the nature of the experience is clearly positioned in the present reality. It is ambiguities such as these that spark debate over the nature of the actual déjà vu experience. Hence several definitions of déjà vu have arose, all emphasizing different aspects of the experience. Arthur Funkhouser, Ph.D. and Vernon Neppe, M.D., Ph. D. have performed extensive research on the various types of déjà vu.

Funkhouser seeks to clarify déjà vu and remove it from inaccurate associations. He claims that there are three forms of déjà vu: déjà vecu, déjà senti, and déjà visite. Déjà vecu is most similar to the widely acknowledged definition of déjà vu. It is the feeling that the present scenario has been experienced in the past - the details are identical and it is possible to predict what will happen next. While in the midst of déjà vecu, the detail of the experience is astounding, and the person is conscious that the present scenario conforms to their memory of it. (5) Déjà senti is best described an act of reminiscing, triggered by a thought or a voice. It is distinguished from déjà vecu by the following: 1. it is primarily a mental occurrence, 2. there are no existing precognitive aspects where the person has the ability to foretell an action and 3. it often times escapes the person's memory afterwards. (5) Déjà visite, unlike the other forms of déjà, is overtly physical or geographical. The experience is associated with a location, familiar inanimate objects, or a particular situation. Commonly it is experienced as the feeling of a location seeming familiar, despite the fact that it is, in the present, a new experience. Furthermore, Funkhouser adds to the phenomena of déjà vu by mentioning that it is possible to experience the interplay of all three forms of déjà vu and other phenomena exist, which closely resemble this synthesis.

Vernon Neppe, defines déjà vu as "any subjectively inappropriate impression of familiarity of the present experience with an undefined past." Concurrently, Neppe classifies déjà vu into 21 different types falling under 7 phenomenological classifications of experience: disorder of memory, disorder of ego state, an ego defense, a temporal perceptual disturbance, a recognition disorder, a manifestation of epileptic firing, and a subjective paranormal experience. (6) The theoretically, the argument is premised on the experience being dependent on the definition. Neppe's definitions, in contrast to Funkhouser's, heavily rely on the theoretical causes of déjà vu's clinical manifestations to dictate their description.

Despite the several means of defining déjà vu, explanations of the causes remain uniformly elusive. A scientific reading of the experience maintains that déjà vu is related to memory. The divided specialization of experience in the brain: the frontal lobes are tied to the future, the temporal lobes are concerned with the past and the limbic system deals with the present. (4)Regular function of all parts, under a normal state of consciousness, will only trigger sensory responses in accordance with the time frame being targeted. In this area of the brain are the hippocampus (part of the limbic system) associated with short-term memory and the parahippocampal cortex (on the surface of the brain, along the bottom of the temporal lobes) associated with long-term memory. Often, upon proper functioning, there is seamless integration between the past, present and future. However, when excessive communication between short-term and long-term memories occurs, the present may begin to feel like the past. (4) When perceptions of the present are incorrectly filtered through the memory system of the parahippocampal gyrus and its neocortical connections (responsible for recognizing memories from the past), the present moment will feel like a past memory. Since the memory system is responsible for judgments of familiarity, the faulty, isolated activity results in a momentary scene being given the characteristics of familiarity, which would ordinarily be in conjunction with a conscious recollection. (1) While the seemingly scientific explanation may debunk déjà vu's phenomenological reputation, the phenomenon is found in the fact that the miscommunication is completely isolated. Parts of the brain structure involved in memory retrieval (prefrontal cortex, hippocampus), function normally while the isolated activity in the memory system is occurring. (1)

Déjà vu has been linked to schizophrenia and temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) to explain causality. The link to TLE appears to be significantly stronger, as déjà vu appears in the aura of temporal lobe epilepsy. An instance of déjà vu can occur right before a temporal lobe epileptic attack or during the seizure between convulsions. (7) The prevalence of déjà vu in society, however, discredits the notion that déjà vu is attributed to TLE because the experience is undergone by masses of people, not solely epileptics.

Yet another discussed cause of déjà vu appears to be the emergence of memories of past lives to the present life. Parapsychologists support this hypothesis as being connected to wish fulfillment from the past life in the present. This particular reasoning is highly debated because it can't be proved, disproved or investigated. It remains a matter of faith. However, Algorithmic Reincarnation is most consistent with the theory of reincarnation and predicts that memories are unable to pass from one life to the next. A set of signals, instead, can be transferred to reflect states of consciousness. (4)

Treatment for déjà vu is dependent on the individual response of the person. Some people become terrified, while other find it exciting in its surrealism. "As with all other altered state experiences, most people who enjoy it think of the experience in spiritual terms, and those who don't, think about it in psychological terms." (4) While the experience of déjà vu in itself remain harmless, if the activity from the hippocampus (subscribing to a neurobiological explanation for causation) were to transfer to the amygdala; the structure that emotionally overwhelms consciousness in the present state, it is likely that déjà vu can yield a sense of fear. The advice commonly given for fear of déjà vu is to seek professional help from a psychologist, epileptologist, etc. For people who react positively to déjà vu, meditation and further spiritual exploration of the experience is suggested. The goal, therefore, of the meditation, which would focus in the here and now, would be to emphasize the present reality of déjà vu, as opposed to focusing on the familiar perception of the past. (4) Aside from the spiritual approach, there seem to be few recommended treatments for déjà vu because it is not classified as a disorder, or condition. It is only by association with temporal lobe epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other similar conditions that it acquires a symptomatic quality.

Déjà vu, in all respects, is considered a phenomenon from definition to treatment. It occupies a realm of altered states and varied realities. The fascinating nature of déjà vu is precisely that it is inexplicable. Funkhouser's definitions are helpful in differentiating seemingly similar experiences of déjà vu, thus giving the opportunity to disseminate the varied forms past references. The references triggered by déjà vu may often feel increasingly familiar, prompting people to seek less scientific explanations for causality, such as dreams, familiar objects. This sort of commonsensical action is the epitome of a person's reaction to the equating of the brain to behavior. The possibility is unreal, too vast to comprehend. Déjà vu accurately symbolizes these qualities. A glimpse of a familiar object in the present is often too simple, too common of an occurrence to trace back to proper brain functioning. Déjà vu and similar everyday phenomena promote exploration of states of consciousness. People's nature is to seek explanations and reasons for every aspect of their lives. Mysterious phenomena thus serve as catalysts for educating people about reality and at times, the inexplicable. It would be greatly beneficial if déjà vu caused people to examine their existence and their emotional and psychological relationship with memory. The cause of déjà vu may be fully attributed to brain function, but in pondering metaphysical causes, people who experience déjà can come to channel and better understand their states of consciousness.


1)The Jornal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuro Sciences, on the Science Direct website, Déjà vu: possible parahippocampal mechanisms

2) BBC UK website, Déjà Vu

3)Skeptic's Dictionary, Definition of déjà vu

4)The experience of Déjà Vu in clinical and spiritual terms

5)Three types of Déjà Vu, Arthur Funkhouser's classifications

6)Pacific Neuropsychiatric Institue website, Neppe Déjà Vu Resrach and Theory

7) 'How Stuff Works' Question of the Day, What is Déjà Vu?

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