Deja Vu definition Psychology

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The déjà vu experience is defined in one relatively authoritative source as “any subjectively inappropriate impression of familiarity of a present experience with an undefined past” (Neppe, cited in Brown 2004: 17). This sense effectively parallels the OED’s “illusory feeling of having experienced a present situation; a form of paramnesia.” As the French term indicates, the primary reference here may be to things seemingly already seen, but ‘déjà vu’ has come to acquire a more global meaning encompassing other aspects of experience as well. For example, subtypes pertaining specifically to taste, touch, smell and hearing have been described, though ‘déjà vu’ typically stands in as a catch-all for a more-or-less global reaction (Brown 2004: 15-16). The implications of its characterization as ‘illusion’ or ‘inappropriate impression, ’ coupled with the common contention that the experience is shared by a substantial number of people, underline the pervasive difficulty in pinning down the meaning, causes, or nature of the déjà vu phenomenon.

Psychological explanations of the phenomenon tend to centre on issues of individual perception and memory, though more mysterious (or metaphysical) aspects of a possible ‘sixth sense’ have at times been invoked to account for this disconcerting feeling. Early insights into the déjà vu experience, traced as far back as Pythagoras and Plato, connect it with sensation or recollection originating in a past life – a trace of prior incarnations or of the transmigration of souls. Later explanations of déjà vu sometimes include mention of hereditary memory or telepathy, and of precognition (the ability to predict events prior to their occurrence), highlighting the dissonance aroused by the notion of familiarity with both present and future events. Augustine, perhaps disapproving, dubbed it falsae memoriae (Brown 2004: 118; Sno and Linszen 1990: 1587; Royle 1999: 10).

The strange experience has occupied not only philosophers, psychologists and cognitive scientists, but many great Western literary figures as well. Works by authors ranging from Rosetti to Proust, Tolstoy to Thomas Hardy (not to mention the songwriters Crosby, Stills and Nash or the film Desperately Seeking Susan) have described some form of déjà vu (Sno, Linszen and de Jonge 1992); Sir Walter Scott in 1828 wrote in his journals of a “sense of pre-existence” experienced at a dinner party with friends and accompanying every detail, “a confused idea that nothing that passed was said for the first time, that the same topics had been discussed, and that the same persons had stated the same opinions on the same subjects” (cited in Sno, Linszen and de Jonge 1992: 511). Literary accounts offer a range of experiences and implied or explicit explanations. The experience is described perhaps most famously by Dickens in David Copperfield:

We all have some experience of a feeling which 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 – our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remembered it (cited in Sno Linszen and de Jonge 1992: 512).

Wigan (a physician) described the “sentiment of pre-existence” in 1844 as emerging from a perceptual lag between “one brain, ” having processed the present scene and “the other, ” which had been asleep or otherwise unawares – the combined impression of the two relatively autonomous but coordinated states of consciousness wondering at the vague but persistent impression which had not been fully grasped and retained in memory by the half in place of the whole. His interest was complemented by others, employing a host of terms including ‘double memory, ’ ‘double perceptions, ’ identifying fallacy, ’ ‘promnesia, ’ etc.. The term ‘paramnesia, ’ still included in the OED definition, covers a range of memory disorders discussed mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including both spontaneous images felt to be recollections and actual experiences identified as such (i.e. déjà vu), and about which not much was agreed. The term ‘paramnesia’ persists clinically, if marginally (having largely fell out of favour by WWI), mainly to describe apparent memories of events which have not occurred (Berrios 1995; Brown 2004).

Modern psychological explanations (some of the earliest making a point of their disavowal of reincarnation) emerged, along with the clinical term ‘déjà vu’ itself, in the pages of the Revue Philosophique. This discussion was sparked by an article by André Lalande (1893), and taken up by one L. Dugas who first used the term (which he attributed to the poet Verlaine) in roughly its current sense. It entered into debate at the Société Medico-Psychologique, and in 1896 was taken up by Arnaud, who identified two central features, “intensity, which often borders on conviction, and the feeling of an identity between the subjective experience and that assumed to be recollected.” Arnaud also questioned the association with memory disorders, and suggested an aetiology in terms of the projection of present experience onto the past. Alternative hypotheses of which he was skeptical included Wigan’s ‘double-brain’ model, telepathy, and delayed perception, Arnaud suggested that the incidence of ‘true’ déjà vu in ‘normal’ individuals was likely exaggerated (Berrios 1995).

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