Déjà vu is not as spooky as you might think, study finds

Darin Graham@DarinJGraham
Sunday 04 March 2018 09:00
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Experiencing déjà vu does not mean you can tell the future or predict what will happen next - it's just a feeling, according to scientists.

A team of psychologists from Colorado State University tried to unravel the mystery of that curious feeling most people get when you’re in a new situation, but you feel like you’ve been there before.

Is it a memory from a former version of yourself? A reincarnation? Evidence that you can predict the future

Cognitive psychologist Anne Cleary said the feeling is a trick of the brain similar to when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t remember it.

Running various virtual reality scenarios using the computer game The Sims, Ms Cleary and her team said people that took part were no more likely to be able to tell the future than if they were guessing.

They used different kinds of maze-like scenarios - some were scenes of a junkyard while others were of a garden, but using the same template triggered a sense of déjà vu with the participant.

Despite feeling like they’d been there before, those taking part were unable to use the sense of premonition to help them navigate around the virtual video.

Researchers showed that the strange encounters are similar to a real memory, but they fail to actually recall the memory. This is part of what scientists call ‘metamemory’ phenomena.

Ms Clearly said:

We cannot consciously remember the prior scene, but our brains recognize the similarity. That information comes through as the unsettling feeling that we've been there before, but we can't pin down when or why.

My working hypothesis is that déjà vu is a particular manifestation of familiarity

You have familiarity in a situation when you feel you shouldn't have it, and that's why it's so jarring, so striking.

In another study on the matter by the University of St Andrews, a research team developed a way to trigger déjà vu. They monitored brain activity while people had the experience to find out what was going on.

There was no movement in the memory, suggesting déjà vu isn’t created by false memories. Rather areas of the brain that involved making decisions and solving conflicts lit up, so it could mean that the brain is instead alerting us that there’s an error.

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